If there was any doubt about the target audience or message of BET’s annual celebration of excellence in African-American culture and entertainment, the 2016 version may have erased that forever.
Black folks need to wake up, and that was the underlying theme of many of the speeches and performances that dotted the show’s three-and-a-half hour length on Sunday, June 26.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Any white folks that were either in attendance and/or watching had better listen up also, because there’s only so much oppression and repression one ethnic group can take before it turns and rewrites the script completely.
Even during the past few years in the wake of some very high profile black murders at the hands of white law enforcement officers, few black voices have resonated as much as some of those heard Sunday night at the 2016 BET Awards.
Yes, this year’s show was clearly by, about and, most importantly, for black people and filled with important messages that were delivered loud and clear.
And for the first time since I’ve watched it, I would give the show at least an A-minus for both its effort and its execution.
The performances were top-notch (with few exceptions), the speeches – including one in particular that I’ll get to later – were classic and timely, and the Prince tributes lived up to all the pre-show hype that BET could muster while capitalizing on the recent embarrassment that was the Billboard Music Awards’ version a month earlier (featuring a very uninspired performance by Madonna and – dare I say it – Stevie Wonder).
As with many awards shows these days, the awards themselves came across as an after-thought. Few people who watched will be able to recall in a week (without Googling it) which artists won what awards (I know that Beyoncé won two for “Formation,” while Drake also won a couple).
Oh yeah, and Taraji P. Henson won Best Actress.
But no, this show was about the performances, the tributes and the specialty recognition (Humanitarian and Lifetime Achievement awards that went to actors Jesse Williams and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively). The producers and organizers of this BET show clearly put a lot of effort and planning into it. And it showed from the very first performance to the last.
From the show’s start, when the reigning Queen of Entertainment, Beyoncé Knowles (with cornrows intact) and rap’s latest “it-man,” Kendrick Lamar, opened with a surprise – and literally very splashy – duet of “FREEDOM” off her Lemonade album, the night’s revolutionary, African-American-affirming theme was firmly established.
Both Beyoncé and Kendrick have been at the top of their respective games since each one hit the mainstream – Beyoncé in 1997 as leader of Destiny’s Child and later as a solo artist in 2003, and Kendrick in 2012 when his good kid, m.A.A.d city album dropped – but they’ve recently used their superstar platforms to elevate messages of black struggle and a much-needed uprising to whole new levels.
And their fiery, water-filled performance of “FREEDOM,” a song with themes of black female empowerment and self-affirmation infused within, was epic in its punctuation of both Beyoncé’s and Kendrick’s continuing shots across the bow.
But “FREEDOM,” while essential to the show’s theme, was just part of the story.
The tributes to Prince, the late legendary artist who, during the 1990s, famously fought for his own freedom from his alleged artistic oppressor, Warner Brothers Records, were just as key to the show’s unprecedented quality and were clearly meant to show the entertainment world that no one can celebrate its own fallen heroes quite like BET can.
To be fair, BET had essentially a whole month longer to prepare for its tribute to Prince than Billboard did in May – and the disparity in the results showed big time.
Yet while Billboard appropriately paid its respects to several other artists who’ve left us in the past year, the BET memorial was ALL about Prince (with the exception of an eloquent tribute to another legendary freedom fighter, Mohammed Ali, by his daughter Laila).
BET’s singular focus was perhaps the only knock on the artist tributes, because several other black legends who’ve died in the past six months – most notably Natalie Cole and Earth Wind & Fire’s Maurice White – certainly were deserving of at least some kind of tribute. BET lazily didn’t even bother to have an “in-memoriam” video montage tribute to the past year’s fallen stars (they did have still photo shots of some artists who went unnamed during Jamie Foxx’s scattered intro to Laila Ali).
For Prince, though, BET pulled out all the stops, starting with eccentrically dressed and Afro-centric artist Erykah Badu performing “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (from 1987’s Sign O’ The Times), followed by singer Bilal rendering an ultra-smooth rendition of “The Beautiful Ones.” His dead-on performance recalled that of Prince’s in the 1984 classic film Purple Rain. Both Badu and Bilal were expertly backed by The Roots and like many of the night’s other performances, Bilal received a standing O from the highly amped-up crowd.
Tributes by Stevie Wonder and Tori Kelly (duetting on “Take Me With U”), Jennifer Hudson (“Purple Rain” accompanied on keyboard by Stevie), Maxwell (“Nothing Compares 2U” with altered lyrics marking the passage of time – 66 days – since Prince’s death, along with other references to the artist) and Janelle Monae (medley of “Delirious,” “Kiss,” “Pop Life” and “I Would Die 4 U”) followed in separate performances throughout the show. Hudson’s breathtaking performance of Prince’s signature tune, “Purple Rain,” took everyone to church and back, and served notice that the Oscar-winning singer/actress/spokesperson may not be done with us musically yet!
Even the award show’s production quality seemed better than in year’s past, with lighting and graphics on par with or exceeding that of other awards shows. All of the artists’ performances were done justice by the graphics design department.
And the two co-stars of TV’s “Black-ish,” Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson, did an admirable job hosting the show – particularly during a creative opening skit where they performed some of the past year’s biggest hits, including #1 Hot 100 singles “Panda” by Desiigner and The Weekend’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” in the style of the Tony-winning musical “Hamilton,” with each host dressed in 18th-Century garb and surrounded by similarly dressed dancers. (They could have passed on R&B singer Anthony Hamilton brandishing his “musket” rifle in the phallic way that he did during this opener.)
The two hosts get B-pluses for the various comedic moments throughout the night, including Anderson himself hilariously paying homage to Prince when he appeared onstage in white tight pants and turned to reveal his bare ass cheeks through cut-out pockets, similar to what Prince had done at the 1991 MTV Video Awards during a performance of “Gett Off.” Ross was prompted to say she almost felt like jumping into Lake Minnetonka (Minnesota) in reference to Prince Purple Rain co-star Appolonia’s character being tricked by Prince’s “Kid” character to jump into that lake to “purify” herself, as the two co-hosts took time to explain to all the “millennials” out there who weren’t old enough to remember it themselves.
Despite these highs, the show did have its low moments. There were the several segments spotlighting today’s emerging young talent which, while well intentioned, didn’t really stand out much. German songwriter Bibi Bourelly (who wrote Rihanna’s 2015 hit “Bitch Better Have My Money”) gave a flat vocal performance that suggested her truest talents may be in the writer’s booth (assuming you consider “BBHMM” to be an example of talented songwriting).
Young teenage rapper Desiigner arguably had the night’s lowest lowlight, at least from a quality standpoint. During his performance of the recent #1 hit, “Panda,” the now-19-year-old Brooklyn rapper simply ran and jumped around on stage and in the audience while his big début hit played in the background. He and his hype man barely even mouthed a lyric in the overly energetic “performance,” almost as if they were happy just to have been invited to this party. They occasionally shouted a line or two while the studio vocal was heard throughout, but their performance was clearly more about being “turnt-up” than actually rapping or even lip-syncing.
Other R&B and hip-hop performances by emerging artists like Bryson Tiller (whose “Don’t” also garnered the young singer his first-ever industry award), and Future weren’t great, but they did make the all too easy-to-please crowd happy and they helped rescue the newer generation’s performances from being completely in the cellar.
Older, more established musicians, including multi-instrumentalist Alicia Keys and Usher featuring Young Thug, stepped up their games with performances befitting their superstar statures.
A more pleasantly surprising performance was delivered by newcomers Chloë and Halle Bailey, two young sisters signed to Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment label. The emerging teenagers gave a haunting rendition of their single “Drop,” with an eerie yet superb instrumental opening befitting artists twice their ages (one’s 16, the other 17).
But it was another star who is twice their age that completely stole the show and whose acceptance speech has been the talk of social media ever since. Activist/actor/model Jesse Williams – of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame – gave one for the ages as he spoke of racism and the need for black equality and freedom in 21st-Century America while accepting the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award.
The most powerful (to me anyway) of his many often-poetic statements? “If you have a critique for (our) resistance, then you’d better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”
The enthralled crowd, already on its feet, refused to do that, instead giving the man a standing ovation for delivering what was an instant classic and a speech that BET will be proudly recalling many years from now.
Even the more established actor, Samuel L. Jackson, seemed to be at a loss for words afterwards when he accepted the Lifetime Achievement award moments later. After thanking the many people who were instrumental in his career, he did find it in himself to remind people of the need to vote in this year’s presidential election (“Don’t get tricked like London did”), a recurring political statement from many of the night’s speakers, and a not-so-veiled reminder of the political leanings of most in attendance.
For the show’s closing and the final Prince tribute of the night, former collaborator Sheila E. brought the house down with a rousing medley of The Purple One’s “Housequake,” “Erotic City,” “Let’s Work,” “U Got The Look,” “A Love Bizarre,” “The Glamorous Life,” “America” and “Baby, I’m a Star.” Even ’80s dinosaur, the Prince and Morris Day sidekick Jerome Benton of The Time fame, came to the party and at one point broke into his signature dance moves with Sheila E., moves which suggested that neither artist had lost a step in the 30 years since their glory days ended.
It was another fantastic performance and one which should’ve been at the BBMAs a month earlier. Sheila E. may have lacked the star power of Madonna, but she clearly had the better Prince connection. And her performance – and the sustained standing O that followed – served as reminders that one should not overlook talent and heart when planning such events.
BET certainly didn’t make that mistake.
And with that, the show was over. Sheila E.’s Prince medley was the capper on a BET Awards show that was easily one of the best. For a show that is perennially chastised for its slapstick minstrels and its overly youth-dominated performances, the 2016 version overcame its own history with one for the ages!
BET should be commended for this coming-of-age party, in which the show’s messages about racism and equality shared time with tributes to unsung black heroes in both military and humanitarianism. Those folks were celebrated with an aplomb equal to the many celebrities who graced the stage that night.
As Taraji P. Henson noted during her acceptance speech for Best Actress, it was black people “being beautiful (and) doing incredible things.”
It was a long overdue statement from BET to African-Americans nationwide about what can be accomplished when given the right access and opportunity, and when taking advantage of those opportunities.
And hopefully black folks nationwide (and our white counterparts) took notice.
For my review of last year’s BET Awards, click here.
And for a ranking of Prince’s greatest songs, click here.