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Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar open the BET Awards with a rebellious performance

Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar open the BET Awards with a rebellious performance
Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar launch the BET Awards with a fiery performance of "Freedom." (Matt Sayles / Invision / Associated Press)

If Beyoncé's "Formation" video was all about the proverbial water rising, then she turned the faucets on again for her introduction to the BET Awards on Sunday.

In a powerful, politically and aesthetically charged opening number at the awards, Beyoncé joined Kendrick Lamar for a performance of "Freedom" that touched on all the foundations of her "Lemonade" tour and visuals – floods, imagery of the African diaspora, and the relationships between personal and national traumas.

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In a year when black pride, xenophobia and racial justice have dominated recent news and culture, her BET performance felt precisely aimed to charge up audiences in Beyoncé's world -- and served as a challenge to those beyond it.

Opening with a clip from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech  – the famous "blank check" segment – would be an ambitious, maybe perilous gesture for any artist who didn't carry her current stature in pop culture. But the gravity of the current moment in U.S. political life made it feel earned.

"Freedom" came in strong – a dozen dancers stomping in ankle deep water, evoking the Hurricane Katrina undertones of "Lemonade" while lending a visceral and resonant visual to her set.

"Freedom" wasn't the crowd favorite when "Lemonade" hit, but in the weeks since it's become more of a rallying cry for Beyoncé on tour – one with parallels to Lamar's "Alright," a song he performed on the Grammys. Flames, jail, police, Africa, liberation – Lamar's Grammy performance earlier this year ignited this conversation on television, and Beyoncé's set continued it.

To watch pop music's two most influential artists – one a singer finally using her immaculate talent to overtly rebellious ends, another an MC born into trouble but with lyrical and observational gifts that took him far past it – was a consummation of everything good and right in pop music today.

The BET Awards are just that – an awards racket for a mainstream cable network. But this opening performance proved that something is simmering deeper in pop culture, a sentiment of assertion and rebelliousness that will not be ignored.

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