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Jesse Williams talks racism, equality and why black lives matter in powerful BET Awards speech

Jesse Williams
Jesse Williams accepts the humanitarian award at the BET Awards.
(Matt Sayles / Invision)

Jesse Williams made explicit what so much of this year’s BET Awards has been trying to imply: Things are different now, and so much of black America is fed up.

The “Grey’s Anatomy” actor, teacher and producer/star of BET’s “Stay Woke” documentary delivered arguably one of the most searing speeches in the history of televised awards shows, touching on the moral urgency of the Black Lives Matters movement and the “conditional” freedom of African Americans even in today’s America.


FOR THE RECORD

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9:05 a.m.: An earlier version of this article identified Jesse Williams as director of the BET documentary “Stay Woke.” He starred in and was executive producer of the feature.


A few hours after Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar’s performance made those points implicit, Williams’ speech made them definite, connecting the visceral narrative threads that ran through her set.

Recognizing the connectivity among Ferguson protesters, the unique contributions of black women to civil rights struggles and domestic stability, as well as police violence as a failure of government, Williams proved an equal to the night’s music with his speech.

“Freedom is always conditional here,” he said. “Freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.”

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He also saved some barbed words for members of the media are almost reflexively criticized Black Lives Matter activists for their perceived overreach or disorganized tactics. 

“The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander,” he said. “If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Highlights from the BET Awards 2016 »

The BET Awards have never shied away from the fact that, despite the wide appeal of many of its stars and performances, the show is meant as a celebration of and conversation for black American audiences. Williams’ speech used the reach of pop culture to deliver incendiary civil rights activism — mincing no words about how even the cultural output on display had been mined for exploitation.

“[W]e’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil — black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit,” he said, referencing the song made famous by Billie Holiday for its devastating imagery of lynching. 

In a show that, at its best moments, drew lines in the sand about the vitality and essence of black culture to the American story, Williams’ speech was perhaps its most immediate and passionate example.

“Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real,” he said with a wry wit about stereotypes and full-throated embrace of the potential of reclaiming it.

Bookending the speech, performances by Beyonce’s protégés Chloe X Halle, Maxwell and Janelle Monae made the same point with virtuosic self-expression.

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The young Chloe X Halle’s performance of “Drop”  — a rock-infused slow burner — was startling and arresting in its precision, and heralded a world of promise for this sister act.  

Maxwell veered from his potent comeback single “Lake By the Ocean” into Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” with the precision and passion of a lifelong Prince student. 

Monae, meanwhile, did the same with “Kiss” and “I Would Die 4 U.”  

Few performers could make a gospel choir seem superfluous, but when Monae took to writhing on the floor, ripping through Prince’s high-end vocal runs, the scale of her talent and depth of her affection for the material made it clear: as trite as awards shows can be, this year must be different. 

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Justin Timberlake forgets golden rule of celebrity: Be careful what you tweet

Prince given a worthy tribute by the BET Awards

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UPDATES:

9:05 a.m.: This story was updated with more information on Jesse Williams’ speech.

This story was originally published at 8:28 p.m.


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