Last night’s 15th annual BET Awards, held at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, gave black folks just what they wanted and needed: one another and a good time.
The past fortnight has existed as a surreal melodrama for people of color. We persevered through terrorism in Charleston, S.C.—a tragedy that offered yet another shock to the national conversation on race and brought about the seeming destruction of one of America’s most oppressive symbols. Our collective psyche morphed from shock and anger into resilience and triumph.
It was after this roller coaster of emotions, barely 48 hours after President Barack Obama culminated a legacy-defining week in the blackest way possible, that black America needed a reason to come together in a spirit of celebration and catharsis. We needed a family reunion of sorts. We needed the BET Awards.
What is the purpose of an awards show in 2015? Recognition of milestones and accomplishments by our entertainment leaders, sure. But isn’t there more?
Years ago, awards were a chance to see celebrities co-existing and emoting, enjoying or hating one another’s company. The Grammys, Source Awards, MTV’s Video Music Awards—they were fascinating, in part, because they were the public’s best chance to see larger-than-life figures in an “everyday” setting. But that’s changed now. We learn more about Rihanna on Instagram and Michael B. Jordan on Twitter then we ever will in a three-hour soiree.
If anything, awards shows—specifically the BET Awards—have evolved into being more about the consumers and fans. BET understands this and has, over 15 years, worked to create one of the most satisfying and successful cable awards shows.
Festivities kicked off with the night’s best and most palpable performance as Best Male Hip Hop Artist winner Kendrick Lamar performed “Alright” off his latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly. The visual of Lamar atop a vandalized police car, with a giant American flag in tow, as he rapped, “I’m f—ked up, you f—-k up, but if God got us, then we gone be all right,” was transcendent.
There were other nods to civil rights as Jidenna—Janelle Monáe’s new artist from her Wonderland label—performed his stylish hit “Classic Man,” complete with nods to the “I Am a Man” Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers strike of 1968. BET’s roundly successful rebranding slogan of recent years is “We got you.” While presidential nominees may still be hesitant to admit Black Lives Matter, BET, it seems, would shout “Black!” from the rafters.
Stumbles occurred at times. In what was supposed to be comical and perhaps an ode to Rihanna’s latest single, “BBHMM,” someone thought it a clever idea to have her duct-tape Floyd Mayweather in his seat. Yet the visual, of one of the most documented faces of domestic violence hog-tying a known misogynistic abuser of women rang as crass and off-putting.
The trend of bestowing titles on Sam Smith that do not befit him continued: “Sam Smith couldn’t be here tonight because he’s white,” co-host Anthony Anderson joked as he accepted Smith’s Best New Artist Award on his behalf. (Anthony co-hosted along with his Black-ish co-star Tracee Ellis Ross.)
Despite the fact that Smith only became a national name nearly two years ago, BET continued a industrywide tendency to give white faces airtime in peculiar spaces. Enter: Tori Kelly and Robin Thicke as two of the three legs of a Smokey Robinson tribute. Each was more than decent on his or her own, yet one couldn’t help wondering why BET felt it necessary to pay tribute to the Motown titan with a relatively unknown white starlet and a man fresh off a much-publicized lawsuit for stealing from Marvin Gaye.
Yet performances shone through. Chris Brown continued to show he is as talented as he is troubled, owning the stage for a performance medley with an out-of-vogue Tyga (“Ayo”) and an out-of-shape Omarion (“Post Ta Be”). Brown also performed his new single, “Liquor.”
Donnie McClurkin, Anthony Hamilton and Gary Clark Jr. played tribute to fallen stars like Ben E. King, B.B. King, Andraé Crouch and Percy Sledge, while up-and-coming artists Avery Wilson and Andra Day were given brief spotlights through BET’s “Music Matters” platform.
Bad Boy Records made a nostalgic, rousing return. Diddy and company bopped (and bumbled) through classics (such as “Hypnotize,” “Peaches and Cream,” “Love Like This Before” and “All About the Benjamins”) to celebrate the record label’s 20 years in the industry. Lil’ Kim, Ma$e, Faith Evans (looking flawless), 112 and Jadakiss joined along, as did an ill-placed Pharrell Williams, to perform a new Diddy single (“Finna Get Loose”), and French Montana, because, well, I’m not quite sure.
Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray of Empire were present in equally head-scratching fashion as we all continue to pretend the music from that show is any good. The set, featuring a performance of “You’re So Beautiful,” did provide a meaningful moment for what may be the award show’s first blatantly pro-gay moment as Smollett took time to celebrate the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality as well as the Black Lives Matter movement: “Let the Supreme Court ruling be proof of how far we have come,” he said in the middle of the performance. “Let the deaths of our sisters and brothers be proof of how far we have to go. No one is free until we are all free.”
The final hour of the show belonged, thankfully, to divas. Nicki Minaj, never uninteresting, took a maybe-shot at her ex Safaree Samuels as she accepted her Viewers’ Choice Award (her second award of the night), while K. Michelle and Tamar Braxton made public amends during a duet with Patti LaBelle as the three sang “If Only You Knew.” It was the reported three-millionth recorded instance of LaBelle reducing a stage to ashes.
The night’s most anticipated moment belonged to Janet Jackson as she received the first-ever Ultimate Icon: Music Dance Visual Award. After a satisfactory, but not stellar, dance tribute from Jason Derulo, Ciara and Tinashe, the 49-year-old Jackson took the stage in an all-white jumpsuit, with trademarked curled tresses propped to one side, to thank fans and family and reflect on her career: “Twenty-five years ago, we created ‘Rhythm Nation’ hoping the world would be a better place,” Jackson said. “But there’s even more to be done.” Fans hoping for a performance were left dismayed. Janet is free. Miss Jackson, and her comeback, you’ll have to pay for.
Aaron Randle is a Howard-bred writer living in Kansas City, Mo.