At BET Awards, racial upheaval and COVID-19 add potency and portent to Black music honors
In a normal year, Sunday night’s BET Awards would surely have made much of the fact that the show — an annual celebration of Black excellence in music and culture put on by the cable network founded in 1980 — was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
As it was, that milestone barely registered in a busy production that had more news to address than any awards telecast in recent memory.
Let’s begin with COVID-19, which is the reason you can’t actually remember a recent awards telecast to compare this one to: Unlike the numerous shows that have been postponed or called off over the last few months because of the pandemic, BET’s flagship event elected to go the virtual route, with actor and comedian Amanda Seales hosting from in front of a green screen at her house and throwing to pre-taped performances and acceptance speeches by stars including Beyoncé, Roddy Ricch, John Legend, Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, Jennifer Hudson, Lizzo, Lil Wayne and Alicia Keys.
Beyoncé, Drake, Lil Baby and Megan Thee Stallion are among the artists with tunes contending to be 2020’s song of summer.
“I must admit — this BET Awards is a little different,” Seales said in her welcoming monologue. “We’re getting real in touch with being real inside, because outside is on one — it’s got COVID and cops and Karens gone wild.”
Indeed, even more than the coronavirus, Sunday’s show — simulcast for the first time on BET’s ViacomCBS-owned sister network CBS — was defined by the protests against racism and police violence that have roiled the world in the five weeks since George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis cops.
Ricch wore a Black Lives Matter shirt as he performed a medley of his songs “High Fashion” and “The Box.” Keys sang “Perfect Way to Die” on a deserted city street chalked with the names of Black people killed by police.
And DaBaby rapped the “BLM” remix of his No. 1 hit “Rockstar” while reenacting Floyd’s gruesome death under the knee of former Officer Derek Chauvin — a risky aesthetic choice that nonetheless indicated how intensely Americans have been outraged, not merely by Floyd’s death but by a system that has made it hard, as Seales not exactly joked, to enjoy pleasures as simple as candy (because Trayvon Martin was killed while carrying a bag of Skittles) and napping (because Breonna Taylor was killed after police entered her home using a “no-knock” warrant while she slept).
Public Enemy opened the telecast with a new version of its classic “Fight the Power” with fresh verses by Nas, Black Thought, YG and Rapsody, the last of whom served up some indelible words — “You love ‘Black Panther’ but not Fred Hampton” — about the troubled commodification of Black culture.
Near the end, Beyoncé accepted an award naming her humanitarian of the year by urging viewers to vote in November to help “dismantle a racist and unequal system” — gratifyingly plain-spoken advice from one of the most famous women in the world. (Other winners included Megan Thee Stallion, who took the prize for best female hip-hop artist; DJ Khaled, whose clip for “Higher” was named video of the year; and Compton’s Ricch, who won album of the year for “Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial.”)
The BET Awards made room for remembrances of Kobe Bryant, paid tribute in a performance by Lil Wayne, and Little Richard, who inspired Wayne Brady to go appropriately over the top in an elaborate musical-comedy sequence that had him sliding across a piano and dancing inside a container truck. Jennifer Hudson, set to play Aretha Franklin in an upcoming biopic, also turned up to do her take on Franklin’s take on “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone.
Not everything was tied so closely to today’s headlines. Usher and Summer Walker portrayed hesitant lovers in a sensual joint performance of his “You Make Me Wanna…” and her “Come Thru,” which samples the decades-old Usher hit.
And Megan Thee Stallion took advantage of the remote-filming circumstances by doing a medley of her “Girls in the Hood” and “Savage” in a “Mad Max”-style desert setting complete with futuristic motorbikes.
Then again, all that dust couldn’t account for the face masks Megan’s dancers wore as they twerked.
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