Unlike most award shows that praise celebrities and validate vanity, this weekend’s Black Girls Rock! Awards tugged at the heartstrings of everyone in the room. The true essence of strength, progression and grace the annual Black women celebration always represents lit up the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Saturday night. Cries against brutality and injustice for Blacks paired with strength and survival rang throughout the show.

Hosted by Tracee Ellis Ross and Regina King, and curated by the founding philanthropist DJ Beverly Bond, Black Girls Rock! celebrates trailblazers in the fields of entertainment, politics, medicine and education. This year’s honorees included living legend Cicely Tyson, Star Power Award recipient Jada Pinkett Smith, Sundance Award-winning director Ava DuVernay, Erykah Badu, Brooklyn principal Nadia Lopez and humanitarian Dr. Helene D. Gayle.

Badu, who received this year’s Rock Star Award said, “This business gives me an opportunity to do everything I imagine and dream, and being of service helps me to balance and maintain. I’m still evolving.”

“No one is going to bother to put you down if you are not a threat to them,” said actress Cicely Tyson, adding, “Black girls who rock do not allow anyone to call them a guy. That’s a habit you should work on trying to eliminate.”

Eventually Beverly Bond welcomed a woman who is “definitely a Black girl who rocks,” whose “career has been guided by a supreme ethical compass” fit for inspiring a generation of young people to move and to “Reach Higher” (per her education initiative). Soon, First Lady Michelle Obama gracefully received a standing ovation.

The FLOTUS humbly gushed about how excited she was to be there. “No matter who you are, no matter where you’ve come from, you are beautiful, you are powerful, you are brilliant, you are funny! I am so proud of you. My husband, your president, is proud of you. And we have such big hopes and dreams for every single one of you… I know that’s not always the message you get from the world. I know there are voices that tell you you have to look a certain way, act a certain way, that if you speak up, you’re too loud, if you step up to lead, you’re being bossy.”

Mrs. Obama concluded by sharing her personal struggles as young as girl. Citing parents who loved and believed in her, she called onstage the three young women chosen as this year’s M.A.D. (Making a Difference) girls. Additionally, several young women who sat in the audience were honored throughout the show for their accomplishments in school, work and in their communities.

One of the most heartfelt and very sexy moments of the evening came when Will Smith paid homage to his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who received the Star Power Award. He spoke candidly about their 20-year partnership and Jada’s beauty and brilliance while taking a few moments to dismiss tabloid divorce rumors.

“In that brief moment, my heart jumped for a second and I started to imagine what my life would have been like without that woman… I’m happy that TMZ had it wrong,” he joked. Their daughter Willow cheered from the audience as her parents shared a steamy kiss and Will slowly reached behind to grab a handful. Jada reminded us the award she received is “ours.” Quoting her “afro-futurist” daughter Willow, “I am you, you are me, we are one.”

Fantasia stole the show with smoke effects and church choir-like accouterments in a floor length white gown, performing a riveting rendition of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” arguably the best performance of the night.

Change Agent Award recipient Nadia Lopez charged the audience to create change within our homes and communities before marching and rallying for change in the world. She reminded her students at Brooklyn Mott Hall Bridges Academy to believe in their brilliance and not to be afraid or embarrassed to rise to their potential. “We wear purple and black because we are decedents of royalty,” she said. We all stand on the shoulders of girls who rock, breaking glass ceilings and blazing trails not for approbation but to build and sustain communities of the world.—Eeshé White

Tune in to watch Black Girls Rock on BET Sunday April 5 (EDT) 7pm.