With other networks offering the likes of Basketball Wives, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Best Funeral Ever and the upcoming and already boycotted All My Babies' Mamas, BET's programming is not currently at the center of criticism for negative portrayals of the black community.
And for at least one night a year since 2008, the network has focused entirely on celebrating excellence with its annual BET Honors Awards. The 2013 awards program honored Halle Berry for her humanitarian work, Clarence Avant for his business savvy, Bishop T.D. Jakes for his educational reach, Chaka Khan for her musical imprint and Lisa Leslie for her athletic leadership. Set to air Feb. 11, it was taped in Washington, D.C., in the week leading up to President Barack Obama's historic second inauguration and the Martin Luther King holiday.
So, on the red carpet, we asked honorees, presenters and high-profile guests what the late civil rights leader would have to say about the way black culture is reflected on our screens and airwaves today.
Kem, who performed in honor of Bishop T.D. Jakes' award, told The Root he was on his way to Japan before returning to the States for the requisite R&B Valentine's Day appearances and work on a new album. What does the artist, whose own musical career is a well-known story of drug addiction, homelessness and redemption through music, think Martin Luther King would have to say about the oft-criticized contemporary black music industry? "I think he would be able to see, as all of us can see, that there's room for improvement in every area of life," the singer said. "We've all got some room to grow. But overall, he'd be very pleased with the progress that we've made. "
If fellow religious leader Martin Luther King could see black culture and entertainment in 2013, "I think as it relates to how far he we've come, that he would be blessed and affirmed by it," said the bishop, who added, "But he'd also see the lack of unity and connectivity, and the fact that we have not effectively grappled with the opportunities that he fought for … more of us going to school, more of us becoming more entrepreneurial, building strong economic bases … and we need to get our families back on course when it comes to communities and pride. He'd see that we've got a lot of work to do but we've come a long way, too."
The Grammy winner and international music legend, who told The Root she'll celebrate her "60-40" (60 years old and 40 years in the business) in 2013, as well as launching a candle and fragrance line cleverly dubbed "Khana Sutra," imagined that Martin Luther King would be most upset by "some of the rap music" popular in the black community in 2013. "The way they talk about women in a derogatory way … that would be a big issue with him," she said, adding, "But he'd be proud how far his people have come in entrepreneurial skills and education, and all of the things we've overcome. I think he'd be disappointed, too, because there's still a major machine going here, and such a high percentage of our men are in jail, so it would be bittersweet."
Shields was just 17 years old when she became the first woman to win a gold medal in boxing, during 2012's Summer Olympics. Her goals for 2013? "My goal for this year is to graduate from high school, first things first. And then, to go to college … I'm thinking about the next Olympics. Until then, I'll just be in training." The young athlete, who told The Root she was excited to meet and take pictures with honorees Lisa Leslie and Chaka Khan, said she's up to the challenge of being a role model for African-American girls who look up to her. "I feel like it's very important, like I have a huge role," she said. " So I carry myself the best I can."
Producing and songwriting duo Jam and Lewis, known for their work with Janet Jackson, Prince and the SOS Band, didn't want to tell us too much about their plans for 2013. ("We're going to have a lot of fun," is all Jam would offer.) But Lewis was more than willing to imagine today's music industry through the eyes of a civil rights leader. "I think Dr. King always pushed us toward enlightenment, and I think people have started to turn the switches off. We need to go back toward the light, and I think that can happen. We have a lot of really talented people in the world. We need to exhibit that, teach each other, show each other the way," he said. The good news? "We have a foothold and we're recognized in the world as entertainers and creators, and we set the tone for the rest of the world in terms of music. I think he would really like that."
Host Union, who told us her 2013 work will include BET's Being Mary Jane, and the Think Like a Man sequel, told us MLK would love the Shonda Rhimes' hit series Scandal, and what "K-Dubb" (Kerry Washington) brings to the leading role. Anything that would make him roll over in his grave? "Are you kidding?" Union said. "There's too much to choose from."
"My goal every year is to produce the best programming possible for the African-American community and those people who love black culture," BET Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Debra Lee told The Root.
Asked what in black entertainment would make the late civil rights leader proud, it was no surprise that she pointed to the event of the evening. "The BET Honors would make him really proud, the fact that we have this show every year — we pay tribute to five or six African Americans who are doing wonderful things … I think he would love this show," she said. Anything he'd be less pleased with? "I don't know, he seemed like a man of the times," Lee said. "I think he would understand some of the things that were going on, and if he wasn't happy he would tell people."
If Martin Luther King were here today, "he would expect black entertainment to be far more involved in social causes that are impacting our community," journalist and columnist Martin told The Root. "He went to Los Angeles, and he challenged those folks who were doing well. Attorney Clarence B. Jones was in the audience. Out of that he pretty much left the law firm he was working with to become a lawyer for Dr. King, be part of the movement … He would telling us that making money is one thing — doing music, movies and albums — but the question is, what is your social commitment to justice? We should be asking, who's the modern-day Harry Belafonte? Who's the modern-day Ossie Davis? Ruby Dee? Not simply showing up at a dinner."