Pop & Hiss

BET Awards 2015: Politics and nostalgia make it worth watching again

If you missed the spectacle of the BET Awards, which aired live Sunday night from Microsoft Theater, it was one of the network’s best-produced telecasts -- and one that was powerful and electrifying enough to blow away its many peers.

The nearly four-hour event was packed with protest, nostalgia and forward-thinking performers that formed an apt celebration of the show's 15th anniversary. Here are five reasons that made it an essential watch (and why you should be sure the next showing gets picked up by your DVR).

Politics were a major touchstone. This was easily the most powerful BET Awards in some time, no surprise given recent events. Starting with Kendrick Lamar, who stood atop a police car covered in graffiti under a waving, partially shredded American flag (recently seen at MOCA as the centerpiece of William Pope L.'s show "Trinket"). He delivered the empowering, post-depression joint “Alright” as dancers moved triumphantly around him, appearing in protest of their surroundings.

Janelle Monae protégé Jidenna offered his uplifting anthem, “Classic Man,” as scores of black men of all shapes and shades marched down the aisles with signs hanging from their necks that read “I AM A CLASSIC MAN” in bold red lettering. It wasn’t just a reference to the song’s jubilant chorus but also recalled protest signs associated with the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 when men hoisted up signs that read “I AM A MAN.”

In a moment dedicated to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, actor Michael B. Jordan spoke of racially motivated killings at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C., as well as the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore, Md., and “everywhere else in this country where we have had to find the strength to fight through the sorrow of losing innocent lives, while simultaneously demanding the justice we so richly deserve.”

Last week's historic Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage was a touchstone as well.

Jussie Smollett, whose gay character on the breakout series “Empire” broke new ground, honored the moment in his performance during a medley built around the hit show.

“We live in a nation where freedom is what we represent, yet we are still fighting every day for the basic freedoms of all of our people,” said Smollett, who is also gay. “Let the Supreme Court ruling be proof of how far we have come. Let the deaths of sisters and brothers be proof of how far we have to go. No one is free until we are all free.”

Smollett didn’t alter the song’s “when a man loves a man” lyric before telling the crowd to “stand for love.”

Patti LaBelle also dedicated her performance to the ruling. “We celebrate the Supreme Court decision that all people can love who they want, and they can even get married,” she shouted. “Can I get a whoop whoop?”

It should also be noted that the network appeared to have made right by B. Scott. The genderqueer celebrity blogger filed a lawsuit against the network and parent company Viacom after the 2013 ceremony, alleging the network forced him to change clothes because his ensemble wasn’t "masculine."

After years of legal battles the workplace discrimination suit was settled earlier this year and Scott (who identifies as a transgender person but prefers to use male pronouns) could be seen seated next to actress and transgender rights activist Laverne Cox, the first presenter of the night.

New stars are born. Major award shows typically don’t make room for emerging talents --  unless they have a massive hit, of course. But not BET. Through its Music Matters initiative, new talents are showcased with short performances.

Funky soul singer Andra Day and former “The Voice” contestant Avery Wilson shined. Silento, the pint-sized rapper behind the viral hit “Watch Me,” also got his moment. But no new talent stood out the way Tori Kelly did. The former “American Idol” contestant had a starmaking moment with a searing take of the Jackson 5's “Who’s Lovin’ You” as part of the tribute to prolific singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson. Her performance earned a standing ovation and the hosts brought her back out for a proper introduction. Her strong debut, “Unbreakable Smile,” was released last week.

Bad Boy reunion. Recent troubles aside, Sean “Puffy” Combs (let’s forget his recent Diddy moniker for a moment) was given time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Bad Boy Records, the label he founded in the '90s that dominated pop radio at its peak.

For 10 minutes Puff ran through some of the label’s biggest hits alongside Faith Evans, Mase, Lil Kim, Jadakiss, 112 and French Montana. "Mo Money, Mo Problems," "All About the Benjamins," and "Peaches & Cream" were among the Bad Boy classics that got the live treatment. Fonzworth Bently even showed up to dance. The energy was so electrifying inside the theater it's unlikely anyone caught Puff’s nasty gaffe of falling through the trap door (though the moment quickly circulated online).

The return of Janet Jackson. Janet Jackson is making a return to music, having recently issued her first single in five years along with prepping a new album and tour. On Sunday, BET honored her with the Ultimate Icon: Music Dance Visual award, and Jackson was feted with a special dance tribute from Ciara, Jason Derulo and Tinashe -- artists who pull deeply from Jackson’s influence.

Tinashe kicked things off, slinking through “Pleasure Principal,” and Derulo tackled Jackson’s sexy “All For You.” Ciara, who has long been hailed as her generation’s answer to Jackson, closed the set with “If” before being joined by Tinashe and Derulo for a take on “Rhythm Nation.” It was a fierce showing, but they knew the crowd was waiting on Jackson, who emerged from backstage as her new tune “No Sleeep” played. She didn’t perform, but Jackson’s presence still sent the crowd into overdrive.

The hosts. Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross already won over prime-time audiences with their oft-satirical look at contemporary black family life on ABC’s “Black-ish,” one of a handful of minority-led shows that broke out this year.

These telecasts can become laborious, especially ones that insist on going past the three-hour mark, but Anderson and Ross proved themselves strong hosts. Their opening number alone – which smartly skewered navigating Hollywood while black – is worth catching. Nothing was off limits in their material, including the over-the-top camp of “Empire” and Rachel Dolezal.

For more music news follow me on Twitter: @gerrickkennedy

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