Boundary-pushing comedian Dave Chappelle, the latest recipient of the Mark Twain prize for lifetime achievement in comedy, met young black artists while growing up "who taught me it was OK to be different."
He credited those formative years in the Washington area with helping hone his comedic spirit and artistic bravery.
The honor was given to him Sunday night at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
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The event is a homecoming for Chappelle. He was raised in suburban Silver Spring, Maryland and attended Washington's prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
"Going there was one of the great privileges of my life," he said on the red carpet as he headed in to accept his Mark Twain prize for lifetime achievement in American comedy. "D.C. in the '80s was turbulent and I met a bunch of young black artists who taught me it was OK to be different. It was OK to be weird."
Chappelle was already a well-established comedian and comedic actor when he was given his own sketch comedy show in 2003.
The show on Comedy Central, "Chappelle's Show," was an immediate hit. It combined clever parodies that often tweaked racial conventions with uniquely staged musical productions featuring hip-hop and soul artists. He filmed his first HBO special in the capital city.
At the height of his popularity, Chappelle shocked the entertainment industry by walking away from a lucrative contract extension and abandoning the show while it was preparing for its third season. He disappeared from public view and took an extended trip to Africa. He later explained that the pressures of the show's success and the influence applied by the network made him feel "like some kind of a prostitute."
Chappelle gradually returned to performing, more powerful than ever, and now releases regular stand-up specials under a multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix. The departure from his own hit show made him an inspirational symbol for artists and comedians, particularly minorities, for his willingness to sacrifice profit to retain his independence.
Musician John Legend paid tribute to Chappelle's passion for music and determination to use his influence to spotlight different artists. Chappelle's show, during its short 2 season run, featured unique performances by a host of hip hop and soul artists. At the height of his fame, Chappelle organized "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" — a movie built around an all-star concert featuring Legend, the Roots and a reunion of The Fugees.
"He's a gifted curator who blends different worlds seamlessly," Legend said. "That's why you see so many musicians coming to this stage to pay tribute."
Rapper and actor Common praised Dave Chappelle's bravery and sociological influence.
"He's a beacon for a lot of different progressive thought," he said as he entered the Kennedy Center Sunday night.
"He's always been a leader in thought and culture. He says provocative things and I respect that. He brings uncomfortable things up and now we have to discuss it," he said. "I think he's one of the greatest, not just entertainers, but the greatest minds we have in this day and age."
Twain recipients are typically honored by a series of testimonials, musical performances and often a surprise guest or two. This year, the announced guest list includes comedians Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart and Tiffany Haddish, musicians John Legend and Q-Tip and actors Bradley Cooper and Morgan Freeman.
The ceremony will be broadcast Jan. 7 on PBS.