Stars in New York honor Mandela with birthday bash


June 18, 2010 Updated Jul 18, 2009 at 9:10 PM EDT

A major charity concert honoring Nelson Mandela, who turned 91 today, kicked off in New York, where dozens of famous artists will pay tribute to the iconic anti-apartheid leader.

The gala is taking place in the majestic Radio City Hall, in the heart of Manhattan, with performances expected from musicians Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and the first lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Ahead of the 8:00 pm local start time (0000 GMT), the red carpet was to be filled with celebrities including American and African stars such as Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, Lil' Kim, Gloria Gaynor, the Soweto Gospel Choir and African artists Angelique Kidjo, Baaba Maal and Sipho Mabuse.

Numerous Hollywood stars who support the Mandela Foundation were also set to attend the evening's celebration, including actors Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon and Matt Damon.

The "Mandela Day" gala crowns a week of celebrations honoring the legendary rights activist, who battled apartheid in South Africa before becoming the country's first black president.

But the Nobel Peace Prize winner, whose health is increasingly fragile, is not attending.

The organizers hope that a "Mandela Day" will become a globally observed day for paying tribute to the South African leader's accomplishments.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon paid homage to Mandela on Friday night, saluting him as "a living embodiment of the highest values of the United Nations."

"Mandela Day" is a campaign organized by a number of charitable organizations under the collective name 46664 -- the prison identification number assigned to Mandela during his 27 years in South African prisons.

Upon his release, Mandela went on to lead his country, holding the office of president from 1994 to 1999.

The model-turned-singer Bruni-Sarkozy, who said she would stop performing publicly after marrying French President Nicolas Sarkozy, agreed to perform Saturday only because the charitable groups organizing the gala do work to support the fight against AIDS.

The first lady's brother died of the illness, and she is an ambassador for international funds fighting AIDS.

Bruni-Sarkozy arrived in New York Thursday night, along with the French president, who held a working lunch with Ban at the French consulate on Friday -- the only work-related meeting on the French first couple's brief US visit.

The pair will return to Paris immediately after the concert.

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