Commentary: Yes, BET got its groove back. Now it’s time for the show to tell a different story

Mary J. Blige performs onstage Sunday at the 2019 BET Awards in Los Angeles.
Mary J. Blige performs onstage Sunday at the 2019 BET Awards in Los Angeles.
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

The BET Awards and its branded festival, BETX, have often told contrasting stories.

Yes, both share BET’s mission to celebrate the present and future of contemporary R&B and hip-hop. However, the network’s weekend of festival offerings connected to its awards spectacle hasn’t always translated seamlessly.

That’s not to call either a failure. BETX attracts upwards of 160,000 fans to L.A. Live each year and the BET Awards has been the top-rated cable award show for the past four years and continues to be the network’s biggest draw.

But at a time when there are too many music festivals asking for our dollars and awards shows are seemingly asking for even more of our attention with bloated run times, three nights of headlining performances and events leading up to a 3 1/2-hour telecast already feels like overkill.


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Having something to say is critical when we’re all exhausted from consumption, and ready to move on to the next thing and there have been years where BETX offered little connection to the awards show it promotes outside of proximity or presented any clear idea of how the network sees the genres it caters to.

It’s a rather tough needle to thread given the spike in prominence hip-hop/R&B has enjoyed across mainstream awards shows and music festivals in recent years. Hip-hop continues to set the pace on pop charts, and R&B and rap are thriving across festival stages both big and small, so BETX needed to succeed in its mission to create hype for its awards show or it ran the risk of being just another entry in a crowded field of events gunning for these fans.

Cardi B performs onstage at Staples Center during the final night of the BET Experience on Saturday.
(Ser Baffo / Getty Images for BET)

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This year, it was pretty clear BET got the message when it came to connecting its festival to the awards show it was built around.

Less than 24 hours after closing the festival with a delightfully bawdy set, Cardi B opened the awards ceremony with a scene-stealing performance before scoring the night’s biggest honor, album of the year.

Mary J. Blige breathlessly traced a quarter-century of hits that have made her one of the most influential R&B singers of her time after being feted with a lifetime achievement award – this just days after she topped BETX’s opening night that featured a female-centered bill buoyed by acts that can all be traced to Blige’s imprint, including H.E.R. (who co-headlined the night and also performed on Sunday’s show) and rising talents Summer Walker, Queen Naija and Bri Steves.

Meek Mill and YG made for a potent co-headlining billing of muscular rap, and both shined on Sunday’s show. YG represented for his late friend Nipsey Hussle during a passionate tribute performance that pulled from the slain rapper’s breakout album “Victory Lap.” Hussle was posthumously honored with the Humanitarian Award, accepted by his family and was named best male rapper — one of a dozen awards not given out on-air.

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H.E.R. performs during opening night of the BET Experience at Staples Center. She was one of a handful of headliners that also performed on the network's awards show on Sunday.
(Randy Shropshire / Getty Images for BET)

Where the network still has room to improve, though, is with its namesake awards show.

Since its inception in 2001, the BET Awards have played to the network’s commitment to celebrating black entertainment.

Once born out of BET’s position as the leading destination for black music, it’s worth revisiting the scope of the awards now that we’re in a golden age of black creatives making inroads on the big and small screens.

The awards still lean too heavily toward music, confounding given BET moved away from primarily filling its airwaves with music videos years ago. Those trophies are still quite necessary, though, given it’s one of the few awards shows that still makes space for venerable R&B — where else could Blige literally perform a halftime spectacle of her indelible hits? — but what’s the point of having an entertainment awards show if it’s not speaking to what’s happening outside of music at a time when so much progress has been made?

As a network, BET has been on an upswing of producing original programming and spent the night teasing its premium streaming service, BET+ (it’ll feature a wealth of fresh content and classics) and upcoming series, but its awards show still hasn’t made room for more representation of black talent beyond music.

It’s great to hand out a trophy to “BlacKkKlansman” for film and acting honors, but what about widening the breadth of categories to better reflect the black excellence happening not just on screen, but behind the scenes.

What’s for certain is BET got its groove back with this year’s festival.

Anyone that went to any of the headlining shows or took in any of the events connected to the festival felt like they had a front-row seat to Sunday’s awards ceremony (unless they shelled out for VIP packages which actually gave them a seat at the show). With lineups crafted around female-forward R&B and the hottest voices in rap, it was clear there was a vision to stick out in a crowded field of events catering to the same audience.

But now it’s time for the awards show to tell a different story.

For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy