On Sunday night, hit by a force majeure of black thought, the 2016 BET Awards went on record as the most socially conscious, womanist and black positive trophy ceremony of its televised history.
Perhaps it was because of artists like J. Cole (2014 Forest Hills Drive), D’Angelo (Black Messiah), Kendrick Lamar (To Pimp a Butterfly) and Beyoncé (Lemonade) have released genre bending, critically acclaimed, civil rights infused studio album masterworks over the course of the last 18 months.
Kicking the night off was a surprise opening performance by Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar with the global superstar and award-winning hip-hop sensation performing the chart-topping “Freedom,” in the midst of pyrotechnics, back-up dancers in haute couture tribal attire, and pirouetting in a pool of water.
Shortly after the now-iconic performance, Beyoncé, a recent recipient of the CFDA’s Fashion Icon Award, left the ceremony to launch the European leg of the critically acclaimed Formation World Tour at the Stadium of Light in Sun Sunderland, England. Her mother, Tina Knowles, accepted the awards for Video of the Year and the fan-voted Coca-Cola Viewers’ Choice Award on her behalf. The singer also took home the Centric Award for the music video of “Formation” and Best Female R&B/Pop Artist, besting superstars Adele and Rihanna, as well as radio darlings Andra Day and K. Michelle.
Perhaps it was because many pop culture luminaries who infiltrated or cultivated black culture are gone: three-time heavyweight pugilist champion Muhammad Ali was honored with a tribute from actors and comedians. So was music icon and Minneapolis sound progenitor Prince, who was also honored with a tribute. Comedian Dave Chappelle offered kind words and memories. Erykah Badu, accompanied by The Roots, set it off with the abstruse “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” from his 1987 chef-d’oeuvre, Sign O’ the Times, to lukewarm applause. Then came jazz-soul artist Bilal, who channeled the orgiastic carnal sensuality of the late singer wearing kitten heels using near-flawless falsetto to cover the Purple Rain psychedelic rock synth ballad “The Beautiful Ones.”
Later in the evening, pop icon Stevie Wonder, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and starlet Tori Kelly sang “Purple Rain,” while a photo montage of Prince played in the background. As usual, Hudson, the high-octane dramatic soprano, brought the song and the audience to church. Wonder and Kelly also teamed up for the Prince/Apollonia duet “Take Me With U.” Maxwell, the duke of neo-soul, later honored Prince with a medley of his new single “Lake By The Ocean” and cover of the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Janelle Monáe, the Afrofuturistic glam goddess, who was mentored by Prince, performed “Kiss,” “Delirious” and “I Would Die 4 U.” Closing out the tribute was Prince’s former protégé Sheila E., who appropriately closed the show with performances of “Let’s Work,” “A Love Bizarre,” ”The Glamorous Life” and “America,” alongside Purple Rain actor Jerome Benton and Prince’s ex-wife, Mayte Garcia.
There was so much black excellence and political outcry from celebrities opting out of saving face to talk to the presidential election trail. Film actress Taraji P. Henson spoke out against Republican extremist billionaire Donald Trump. Film actor Samuel L. Jackson urged black youth to vote. But then, there was the highlight: Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams, being honored with BET’s Humanitarian Award, commanded the spotlight with an poignant and politically sapient speech calling for an end to police brutality, racial inequality and cultural appropriation.
The outspoken human rights activist—who executive produced the recent documentary, Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement— delivered what BET execs have not been able to air publicly for decades, one of agency and autonomy of black lives. In doing so, he single-handedly did what viewers could not voice ardently to the media company, and that was to twist the arms of BET and its sister company Centric to be more radical and forthright in its commercials and broadcasts about black lives in America. The speech received a standing ovation by the audience, who went on to praise Williams on Twitter, but will BET answer the call?
Here is the full speech [Transcribed]:
“Peace. Peace. Thank you Debra. Thank you, Nate Parker. Thank you, Harry and Debbie Allen, for participating in that. Before we get into it, I just want to say I brought my parents out tonight — I just want to thank them for being here and teaching me to focus on comprehension over career. They made sure I learned what the schools were afraid to teach us. And also, thank you to my amazing wife for changing my life.
Now, this award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics. The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.
Now, this is also in particular for the black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.
Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function in ours. Now, [standing ovation] I got more, y’all. Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday. So, I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich.
Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012, than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Darrien Hunt.“Now, the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money that alone isn’t going to stop this. All right? Now dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back. To put someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies and now we pray to get paid with brands for our bodies. There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There’s no tax they haven’t levied against us. And we pay all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. You’re free, they keep telling us, but she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so free.
Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter but, you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now. And let’s get a couple of things straight here, just a little sidenote. The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job. All right, stop with all that. 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 in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo. And we’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. The thing is, though, the thing is, that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real. Thank you.”
Thank you, Jesse Williams, for this historic moment of honesty: https://t.co/UzCEhVvX1s …
— Moses (@MosesSumney) June 27, 2016