They’re only the fourth music group overall to be honored. The award generally goes to individuals.
Earth, Wind & Fire made a little history Thursday (July 18), becoming the first R&B group to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. They'll be just the fourth music group overall to receive this acknowledgement, following three rock groups: The Who (2008), Led Zeppelin (2012) and Eagles (2016).
The Kennedy Center Honors tend to go to individuals. As a result, they have generally chosen to honor lead singers and/or principal songwriters from groups, rather than the groups themselves.
Among the many alumni of famous R&B (or pop/R&B crossover) groups or duos who have been honored individually with Kennedy Center Honors are Smokey Robinson, lead singer and songwriter for The Miracles; Diana Ross, lead singer of The Supremes; Lionel Richie, who fronted Commodores; Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers; and Tina Turner of Ike & Tina Turner.
This phenomenon of the Kennedy Center Honors going to individuals rather than groups is also true in the pop and rock worlds. Alumni of famous pop or rock groups or duos who have been honored individually are Pete Seeger, founding member of The Weavers; Paul McCartney, founding member of The Beatles; Brian Wilson, the mastermind of The Beach Boys; Paul Simon, one-half of Simon & Garfunkel; Sting, lead singer and songwriter for The Police; Cher, one-half of Sonny & Cher; Gloria Estefan, lead singer of the Miami Sound Machine — as well as Bruce Springsteen and Carlos Santana, frontmen for groups that bear their names.
Maurice White, the lead songwriter for EWF, died in 2016. The Kennedy Center Honors program doesn't give posthumous awards, which led to them recognizing the group.
That also helps explain why they honored McCartney individually rather than The Beatles. By 2002, when McCartney was initially selected, both John Lennon and George Harrison had died. (McCartney couldn't attend the 2002 proceedings because it conflicted with a family wedding. He finally received the award in 2010.)
The Kennedy Center Honors made one exception to their rule about no posthumous awards. Eagles were selected for the award in 2015, when Glenn Frey was ill with intestinal problems. He died in January 2016. The group, including Frey, received the award the following December.
As previously reported, this year's other honorees are Linda Ronstadt, classical conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, actress Sally Field and Sesame Street, the first TV show to be honored. Last year, the Kennedy Center Honors acknowledged the creative team behind the theatrical phenomenon Hamilton: An American Musical, another example of them broadening from their original mission of acknowledging people in the twilight of their careers.