Yesterday's BET Awards were drastically different from anything that we've ever seen from the network in its years of executing the show. Not only was the production filmed virtually due to the global pandemic, the mood of the show was jarringly somber — no doubt a reflection of the current times we're living in. Many of the musical acts embodied that somber mood, with artists referencing the pro-Black sociopolitical uprisings in their performances. But one performance in particular took the imagery a step further, unfortunately reenacting the very killing that started the current wave of political unrest to begin with.
Charlotte rapper DaBaby performed his hit song "Rockstar" for the first time at the BET Awards. The performance opened with a shot of DaBaby on the ground rapping while an officer pinned him down, digging a knee in the neck — a direct callback to the death of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the hands of three local police officers. After more than eight minutes of his airway being blocked, Floyd died of mechanical asphyxia. All over a $20 bill.
DaBaby went on to depict his own protest against police brutality; he and featured artist Roddy Rich participated in a standoff against the police, an interaction that ultimately ended with some of the officers deciding to turn on the system that allowed for violence against the Black community. The rapper's message was clear — Black lives matter — but did it get undermined by the performance's controversial imagery? If you ask many viewers, they'd probably answer in the affirmative.
We were made aware of the circumstances surrounding Floyd's tragic death because it was recorded and circulated around the internet. We know what happened to him because we saw it happen, heard him say over and over that he couldn't breathe and even beg for his mother. Like Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, Natasha McKenna, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and so many others before him, we watched Floyd die on camera.
So why do we have to relive that just for a performance?
On top of the daily trauma that Black people are subjected to as a consequence of systemic racism and the intergenerational trauma many of us carry, we now have to careful traverse a digital space where we can stumble across Black death at any given moment. Videos are popping up everywhere of police officers across the world aiming their guns at civilians, shooting tear gas at protestors, or wrestling people to the ground. Every time that we get online, we're bombarded with images of violence against people who look just like us — and the harm that it does to our individual and collective psyche can't be understated.
While this imagery can be an effective tool in getting people to lean into the movement, it is undeniably damaging to the mental state of many who come across it. It reminds us that we are always in danger in this world, that we could be the next Breonna Taylor or Tony McDade at some point.
Racial trauma, says a recent US News & World report, can often manifest as health issues such as anxiety and depression as well as symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder. The toll of perpetual race-related stress can lead to a decline in physical health: heart problems, high blood pressure, and a variety of other chronic diseases can also result. So yeah, though it seems dramatic, it's not a stretch to say that we can literally die from seeing other Black people lose their lives at the hands of the police.
Black lives matter, and that means Black mental health matters, too. We have to be alive and well — physically, emotionally, and mentally — to be able to fight this fight. That in mind, artists should think carefully about the way they use their platforms to speak to the current sociopolitical landscape. We're traumatized enough already.