After a performance at the White House on 23 September, the performer appeared shocked to see the president announce that he would be awarded the National Humanities Medal.
A proclamation stated that the award recognised his career “moving our souls with his powerful voice in one of the defining song books of all time” and “as an enduring icon and advocate with absolute courage who found purpose to challenge convention, shatter stigma and advance the simple truth, that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect”.
“I think we surprised him,” the president joked.
The White House event – “A Night When Hope and History Rhyme” – included an audience of roughly 2,000 “everyday history-makers”, including teachers, nurses and representatives from LGBT+ advocacy groups, among others.
John performed several of his hits, including “Your Song”, followed by “Tiny Dancer”, “Rocket Man”, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Crocodile Rock”, before closing with a jubilant “I’m Still Standing”.
He dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” to Ryan White and his mother Jeanne White-Ginder, who attended the concert. Her son died from Aids-related complications in 1990, one month before he was set to graduate from high school.
The National Humanities Medal recognised his years-long efforts to end HIV and Aids through the Elton John Aids Foundation, which he launched in 1992.
The organisation has sinced raised more than $600m (£553m) to fund efforts to combat the Aids pandemic in four continents. He has aimed to help eradicate the virus by 2030.
“I’m never flabbergasted, but I’m flabbergasted, and humbled, and honoured,” John said. “It will make me double my efforts to make sure this disease goes away.”