Five highlights from the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors Stevie Wonder, Meryl Streep and ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’: You won’t want to miss these moments when the Honors are broadcast

Sometimes you need a bit of black tie glam to remember there’s beauty in the world, and that it’s worth celebrating.

Thank goodness for the Kennedy Center Honors.

On Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., held its 40th Honors ceremony to fete contributions to American culture. This year’s Honors were a celebration of Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear (at 95, the oldest person to be honored), LL Cool J (at 49, the youngest), Carmen de Lavallade and Lionel Richie. LL Cool J was also the first rapper to be recognized.

Certainly there’s plenty of darkness these days. Have you read a newspaper? Sunday, as journalists and spectators huddled around velvet ropes for a word with the night’s VIPs, CBS chairman Les Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen, quickly swooshed by and managed to avoid being harangued about the firing of CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose over allegations of sexual misconduct. Rapper Darryl McDaniels, better known as D.M.C. of Run-D.M.C., and LL Cool J were confronted about multiple allegations of sexual assault leveled against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. LL Cool J declined to discuss the allegations, while D.M.C. condemned Simmons’ actions. Both rappers were key players in the success of Def Jam, the record label Simmons founded.

But the Honors reminded us that the performing arts aren’t just a distraction from the serious, gloomy issues of the day but rather the thing that makes us able to persist through them.

Here are five magical highlights from the evening that you can see Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. EST on CBS.

Meryl Streep’s salute to Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Meryl Streep is always fun to watch during awards shows. There’s a reason that her reactions turn into viral GIFs. She was on the list of expected guests for Sunday evening, as a former honoree, but it was a pleasant surprise to see her take the stage.

Streep was a student of de Lavallade’s at Yale School of Drama, and she lovingly described her dance teacher’s soft-spoken methods and teaching philosophies. Streep affected de Lavallade’s famous hand motions, which she’s executed for decades with an enviable and flawless seeming grace and natural ease, as she spoke about her admiration for de Lavallade as a role model and dance pioneer.

Replicating de Lavallade’s soft-spoken manner, she cooed, “No one is late on the second day of class.”

The musical tribute to LL Cool J

In person, the Honors can be a bit of a staid Washington event. Its attendees are not known for taking chances with fashion, and it’s the one night of the year there’s probably enough brocade in the building to make curtains for the center’s many windows. But this was the first time in the history of the event that a rapper was being honored.

The tribute to LL Cool J was loud, boisterous and funky, and some of the younger audience members, namely Becky G, a young singer who performed earlier in the evening for Estefan, could be seen bobbing their heads and rapping along to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” This wasn’t polite hip-hop, toned down for the opera house. This was the real deal, and the audience was treated to footage of an oiled-up, shirtless LL Cool J as Queen Latifah extolled his position as “rap’s first sex symbol.”

The elephant not in the room

Norman Lear, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Months ago, the president and first lady announced they would not be attending the ceremony. Richie, Lear and de Lavallade said they would boycott the annual White House reception that’s part of the weekend’s celebrations.

But the president’s absence was noticeable, especially during the tribute to Lear. You can argue that all art is political, but few make it as obvious as the storied television producer. In expressing gratitude for Lear’s cultural contributions, the video short about him focused on his decision in 2001 to buy one of the last remaining original copies of the Declaration of Independence, which he sent on tour around the country so Americans could see it up close.

Dave Chappelle was on hand for Lear’s tribute, and after expressing surprise that a copy of the country’s founding document could simply be purchased with enough money, he dropped the hammer: “I’m sure we’ll fetch a lot of rubles for that.”

Then, the U.S. Air Force band performed “America the Beautiful” while Lear’s copy of the Declaration sat center stage.

A surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder

The honorees have no idea who will be performing their work until they see them on stage, but those who keep an eye on the red carpet can guess. Leona Lewis, D.M.C., MC Lyte, Questlove, Kenya Barris, Anthony Anderson and Rachel Bloom were among the glitterati spotted in the center’s Hall of States early in the evening.

But the real magic takes place when the Kennedy Center sneaks in some unexpected cultural royalty, and Sunday it was Stevie Wonder. There was an audible gasp in the audience when he turned up on stage to honor Richie by singing “Hello,” one of Richie’s many solo hits.

Paquito D’Rivera’s national anthem

Gloria Estefan, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

With Estefan in the mix, this year’s class of honorees included a Cuban immigrant who made Latin pop part of the fabric of the country. The Kennedy Center quietly thumbed its nose at nativism with the inclusion of Paquito D’Rivera, who got the evening started with a jazz saxophone rendition of the national anthem. He even worked in a couple of bars of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the middle of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Daily Dose: 7/5/17 On July Fourth America, we were reminded of who we really are

Hope everyone’s holiday went well. I spent it listening to Luther Vandross records with a buddy of mine, which was an extremely fulfilling experience. It might be a Quiet Storm kind of summer until the weather gets colder.

If you want to know why being black in this country is tough, let me explain. It’s not only that when we are killed by police officers for no reason, those officers often don’t get fired, and walk free. But afterward, the government will spit on our graves, too. Take for example the case of Philando Castile, in which a man was shot and killed in front of his girlfriend and her daughter, ostensibly because the officer was just plain afraid of black people. He went free. Now, the judge has written a letter of support to the jurors who let him off. What a country.

Speaking of the United States, Tuesday was July Fourth. So, as a result, NPR decided to tweet out, over the course of the day, the words of the Declaration of Independence, the document that everyone is actually celebrating when it comes to busting off fireworks and shoveling hot dogs down their gullets. Well, as it turns out, some people have no idea what that document actually says, because people don’t pay attention to history. Shocker. The way this played out over the day would have been funny, if not so painful to watch.

Sticking with our theme, let’s go to Florida. All across the South, and plenty of other places for that matter, there are all sorts of places and streets with names of Confederate officials. We won’t get into an argument about heritage versus hate, because there isn’t one. But in one town, city administrators have now decided that they aren’t going to take a poll from the public on the matter before they vote to remove street names from the Old South. We’ll see how it goes.

There are few things more American than eating contests. Only in this country do people line up to watch other humans shovel as much food into their mouths as quickly as possible — and they put it on television. This year was no different on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Personally, I can’t watch. They make me barf just thinking about it. But Joey Chestnut is the master of his domain and has now won 10 titles. They’re going to have to start thinking about renaming the contest after him. Here’s a recap of the day.

Free Food

Coffee Break: When you shut down a public beach, then show up there with your family, you can expect people to mock you. That’s exactly what went down in New Jersey with Gov. Chris Christie. The pictures of him sitting on an abandoned beach are hilarious. Then, someone made a sand sculpture of it. God bless America.

Snack Time: What happens when you try to kill wasps and you have no idea what you’re doing? Well, of course, you accidentally blow up your garage … with fireworks.

Dessert: Behold one of our greatest national treasures. Chance the Rapper.