I don’t get to watch the BET Awards much anymore. When I moved to go to college I left behind my family and their cable package, making the awards annually unattainable. My ability to watch this year’s was only a happy accident, coinciding with an impromptu trip home. As it turned out, this year’s BET Awards were an excellent year to stage a comeback. Like any show there were it’s pitfalls and bewildering moments (and I wasn’t entirely sure it was ever going to end), but it was overwhelmingly positive to watch black people gathered to celebrate each other.
As usual, another year of BET Awards means another year of claims of reverse racism everyone ignores. But this year’s awards proved more than ever why BET, and the awards, are still so necessary.
The awards, like BET, fills mainstream media’s racial gap by providing a space for black artists and innovators that they don’t have elsewhere. If there are few places interested in positive representations of blackness, there are fewer willing to engage with our grievances against the white supremacy, racism and brutality facing our community. But the BET awards, attended by black influencers from across the globe, doesn’t fear discussion of what’s facing black Americans because it’s all about black people anyway. Unlike other outlets, there’s no sense of anxiety at deviating from the norm or stoking controversy because this is the norm.
So BET provides programming, and advertising, skewed toward black viewers. Throughout the awards we were treated to promotions for various impending projects featuring black stars. Like Birth of A Nation and Queen of Katwe we saw Janelle Monae’s commercial for Covergirl Queen, a makeup line specifically focused at black women. In between tributes to the late and great Prince Rogers Nelson, musical performances, and distributing awards, were a spattering of reminders to vote and ensure Donald Trump’s loss in the November election.
And, as most things seem to these days, it all began with Beyonce.
Opening the show were Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, performing the negro spiritual-reminiscent “Freedom”. Her dancers marched (in formation) up the aisle and joined her onstage in a shallow pool of water where they danced, kicking up water and crying out in mingled triumph and rage. Bathed in a fiery glow and drenched with water, Beyonce and Kendrick reminded viewers of the power we hold as black people and the still very present challenges facing us. At what other award show could Beyonce open a show singing about breaking chains while she wades through water? Where else would the response not be discomfort/rage (like the Super Bowl and “Formation”), but “It’s lit” and a string of fire emojis? Though Beyonce flitted away after the performance (to start the European leg of her tour), the tone had been set.
[bctt tweet=”Where else would the response not be discomfort/rage, but ‘It’s lit’ and fire emojis?” username=”wearethetempest”]
It was only natural then that actor and activist Jesse Williams receive the 2016 Humanitarian Award and deliver an impassioned (and extremely woke) acceptance speech. The “thank yous” were brief before Williams launched into a poetic condemnation of white supremacy and racism. The inspiring nature of his remarks is exactly what makes them so controversial.
Encouraging further activism, he said, “We’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.” He reminded us of the lives lost to police brutality, thanked black women for numerous and often unacknowledged contributions, and called out America for “gentrifying our genius” and “trying us on like costumes”. If there were any uncomfortable white people watching, this did nothing to preserve their feelings.
[bctt tweet=”If there were any uncomfortable white people watching, this did nothing to preserve their feelings. ” username=”wearethetempest”]
Whether or not Williams knew that his words would be so well-received, I can’t imagine him being welcomed with a standing ovation on a mainstream program. He wouldn’t even have been given that kind of attention, when the focus of his activism is too current and too provocative for a mainstream stage. If he’d tried to make one for himself (let’s say at the Emmys) he’d probably be encouraged offstage with the “Get off the stage” music and would conclude to the nervous applause of a mostly white audience. But surrounded by black people, being honored for that very work, there’s no reason for such concern.
While this year’s awards were incredible in how black issues were discussed, how much good will it do if we’re just talking to each other? We aren’t the problem. We can celebrate each other over without our oppressors ever coming around. Differing from recent years, the awards also aired on Nickelodeon, Teen Nick, Logo, MTV, VH1, ComCentral and Spike. The focus on black-centric programming is what makes BET so attractive to black viewers, but that’s also what makes it unattractive to others. Despite BET moving into more programming, its reach has seemed doomed to be limited so it’s notable that BET extended itself to a larger audience for the night.
[bctt tweet=”And, as most things seem to these days, it all began with Beyonce.” username=”wearethetempest”]
That’s not to say it didn’t catch heat for it or that people didn’t just turn the channel when they realized what they were watching. But after being excluded from the mainstream so long, it’s about time BET finally forced its way in and did so on a night when they were most political. Some will say that politics has no place in the BET Awards, but it belongs there the same way black people belong there, and our existence is, and always has been, inherently political.