I gathered my things as quickly as I could. I left school in a rush and ran to my bus.
I had things I needed to do.
I needed to eat dinner—Pizza Hut’s deep dish with pepperoni and hamburger; I had to do my homework because my mom was a teacher and anal about me having good grades, and, most importantly, I had to be finished with it all in time for me to sit down and watch Video Soul on BET.
I had money riding on it.
My mom refused to pay for cable, but she made sure that we got it. I now know that means we got it illegally, but at the time I was oblivious of that fact. I just knew that one day men visited the house on a hot summer day and next thing I knew we had all that cable had to offer. I thought it was legit, but I must say that I was surprised that the cable people let their men work while smoking Black & Mild’s.
I was in heaven. We got HBO, so I was able to get in on Def Comedy Jam—a show I was not allowed to watch, but every Friday night I would sneak away and watch it alone in my room with the volume on the TV way down. There was also the USA Channel, which showed all the horror movies I enjoyed on the weekends.
But the real reason I wanted cable was channel 50 in Oklahoma City: Black Entertainment Television.
I was raised in a very conservative household. My dad was not in the picture and my mom was dead set on making sure I did not end up in prison like he did. She outlawed everything she considered to be ‘carnal influences.’ (Yeah, she actually talked like that.) For her, R&B and hip hop were not allowed in the house. I once found a tape of Michael Jackson’s Thriller on the top shelf of the closet in her room, and she told me that it was “devil music.”
She was a trip. She has since calmed down, but at that time in my life she was successful in convincing me that I should only be listening to James Cleveland’s greatest hits. That was until my cousin Dionte changed my life.
Every summer I went to Idabel, Okla., to spend the summer at my grandmother’s house and give my mom a break from motherhood. That time away with my older relatives gave me an opportunity to spend time with people my age and catch up on the latest trends. Those summers are how I learned to match my do-rag with my FUBU jersey and the proper way to wear laces in my Nike Air Force Ones. I was also not comfortable as a Black kid in Oklahoma City, so that time with them helped me to begin to be more comfortable in my skin. One thing I resisted, however, was their attempts to introduce me to hip hop and R&B. Because of the way I was raised, that music made me feel dirty, apostatic.
My cousin Dionte brought a tape “down home”—the name we affectionately called my grandmother’s house at the time—and he gave me a tape and said, “You’ll like this. Listen to it when you get home.” Intrigued, I sneaked the tape back by hiding it in the pocket of the Trapper Keeper I carried in my book bag.
When I got home and listened to the tape, I discovered an album that was revolutionary for a Black kid growing up in Oklahoma. It was Jodeci’s Forever My Lady, and it inspired me to seek out all the Black music I could find.
That’s why I wanted to get Black Entertainment Television. It was not for the old sitcoms they would rerun; nor was it for Teen Summit that aired on Saturday; and it was not for Bobby Jones Gospel that came on every Sunday morning. The reason I wanted BET so badly could be summed up in two words: Video Soul.
My cousins had told me about the show. My friends raved about it. They both said that if I wanted to be up on what was happening in music, I had to tune in.
They weren’t wrong—but the show taught me so much more.
When I was finally able to watch the show, it was like the world went from black and white to color. I no longer had to rely on my cousins to tell me what was fresh, I was able to see it myself.
I watched the show religiously. Every time it was on, if I was home, I would tune in. If I was not home, I would set my VCR to record it. I poured over the artists that were featured on the show. I learned how to dance by memorizing the dance moves in the videos and repeating them in front of the mirror in my bedroom. I swore I could sing when I sang along to the TV. (It was when I did this in front of my family that I discovered that I was a passible dancer, but I was absolutely not a singer.)
Weekly, I sat at the feet of Dr. Green Eyes, Donnie Simpson, and the incomparable Sherry Carter (on whom I had the biggest crush) and learned about black music, black culture and, most importantly, black beauty.
Video Soul did for me what radio could not. I was a Black boy coming of age in white, conservative Oklahoma. I knew I was Black, but I was unsure of what that meant. I was not confident in embodying that Blackness. This show did for me what I imaged it did for many others around the country: it humanized the artists it featured while showcasing the best in Black music. But, what’s more, it showed me Black people who were hip, confident, beautiful, and, most of all, different. I learned that there was no one way to be Black. That Blackness was not one thing, but, rather, many things.
Video Soul was more than a show to me. It was my way into the wider world of Blackness. It showed me who I was and who I could be.
That’s why I rushed home that day. It was a Friday, and my cousins and I would bet $1 every week on what song would be in the #1 spot. At that time, every Friday, Video Soul would do a countdown of the 20 hottest songs in the country. It was the winter of 1992, so that meant that Boyz II Men’s “End of The Road” would probably win, but I held out hope that Bobby Brown’s “Humpin’ Around” would beat them. I felt that the group from Philly was a little too sappy for my taste, and since Jodeci was my way into Black music, I have always preferred music that had an edge, so the dude from Boston was right up my alley.
I lost. I knew I would, but I continued to bet my cousins every week. From 1992 until the show came to an end, we had a running bet on what video would be in that #1 spot.
The show ended in 1997, my sophomore year of high school, so when the show went away, I was able to continue my music education by way of my own collection of tapes and CDs. But I never forgot Video Soul, and I will forever be in its debt.
It was more than just a TV show to me. It was the beginning of me learning how beautiful it was to be Black, and that was a lesson I never forgot.