2001 was a great year for the BET Awards to arrive. Around the late ’90s and early ’00s, black entertainment figures began their crossover to the mainstream with huge basketball stars such as Magic Johnson and the late Kobe Bryant inspiring generations of young ballers. Cultural icons were reaching the peak of their careers (a random but enduring example: the late Aaliyah reached Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 with 2000’s Timbaland-produced ‘Try Again’). It seemed to be the perfect time to celebrate black stars and 20 years later, that brilliant, lively culture is still celebrated by BET, the home of black entertainment.
This year’s award ceremony was virtual: all performances were pre-recorded with a live link hosted by Insecure’s funny woman Amanda Seales. Showcasing amazing black talent without the luxury of an inside stage, BET exceeded the limitations – and women ruled. The Beyoncé-endorsed Chloe X Halle battled their alter-egos whilst performing the ethereal hymn-like ‘Forgive Me’ and sultry ‘Do It’.
Meanwhile, the Houston Hottie herself Megan Thee Stallion immersed us in her own Mad Max-inspired desert fantasy while performing her Number One hit ‘Savage’ with a shockingly great dance routine and her newest, ’90s-inspired single ‘Girls In The Hood’ – no wonder she was crowned Best Female Hip Hop Artist. There was another great nostalgic performance from Atlanta’s Summer Walker and R&B star Usher. Floating in swirling blue and pink light, the duo give a subdued performance of ‘Come Thru’; it was intimate and eye-catching.
But everyone knows that the BET awards is one of the biggest platforms in the world, and in its 20th year, the show is still as political as ever. The BET channel was created to give unheard black communities a voice – and that was deemed political. And now, with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the assurance that black voices cannot be silent any longer, the channel has leant its platform once again. This was evident in the decision to give the Humanitarian Award to Beyoncé, who urged viewers to “dismantle a racist and unequal system”.
Take, also, the performance from rappers DaBaby and Roddy Ricch. Two black men topping the Billboard charts in the height of a movement, and then doing a politically charged rendition of said Number One song ‘Rockstar’, is powerful.
DaBaby opened the song with an observational verse about police brutality and a knee on his neck, mimicking the way Houston’s George Floyd died – an atrocity that inspired the world to attend BLM protests. Although some on social media saw this as insensitive since it’s a ‘reenactment’ of a gruesome death, it is an effective visual for people to connect the dots. If people who love DaBaby are devastated to see their idol in that position, why is it different for a regular person like Floyd? Surrounded by protesters with placards explicitly asking for justice, the performers did a great job of calling for equality.
True, this performance wasn’t the first of its kind. Back in 2016, Kendrick Lamar’s performance of ‘Alright’ took on a similar form with a couple of vandalised cop cars, and protesting dancers behind him. Also, in the same year, T.I. took on a Black Panther stance performing ‘We Will Not’ at the Hip Hop awards. Nevertheless, the BET Awards continue to reflect the change needed for the community, instead of masking black pain with some frivolous booty-shaking performances.
Who would think that, 20 years on from the first BET Awards, black people would be fighting the same battles previous generations have died for? This question was brilliantly reflected by Public Enemy’s performance of ‘Fight The Power’. Joined by modern conscious rappers such as Nas, YG, and Rapsody, the group spoke out again about police brutality and systemic racism – 31 years since they first released the song. Although it’s fun to see the group back together for almost the 20th anniversary of the biggest awards in black culture, it’s – yet again – unfortunately because of inequality around the world.
Keeping up with the times and always knowing the right things to do, the BET awards are a true representation of a year for the black entertainment world. Managing to fit in all the success black folks have achieved in a year, as well as documenting the huge fight against racism currently, makes it a staple in many black households. Although they may be US-centric, BET always somehow strikes true with the diaspora across the world. Two decades on, this year’s award ceremony was one for the books.