For Black people, watching televised awards shows can be a torturous experience. We spend most of the time trying to figure out who’s who among the nominees, while waiting on a familiar face, song, or show to be mentioned in the nominees. We yell at our devices when the artists who mean so much to us are snubbed in favour of more
white palatable artists. (Yes Grammys, I’m looking at you.) Sometimes, to avoid the inevitable disappointment, we’ll just sit the whole thing out unless we’re made aware in advance that Beyoncé or Rihanna will be there, in which case we will check Twitter for updates before tuning in. The BET Awards is one of the few exceptions to the rule.
Black popular culture is vast. It is not monolithic. We have carved out our own unique space in every aspect of pop culture while the rest of America watched and sometimes imitated. We know that the five or six nominees that make it to the Grammys' Best Rap category aren’t always reflective of the music that is soundtracking the culture. The winners certainly aren’t (still can’t quote a Macklemore song). During the BET Awards, we can sing along to nearly every song and identify nearly every entertainer on their red carpet. It’s a refreshing submergence into the best of Black pop culture.
Not to mention the fact that BET Awards are a rite of passage for Black musical artists. While the biggest names in Black Hollywood are known for skipping the event, attending and performing there has been vital to their career at one point or another. Rihanna, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé have all graced the stage during the early parts of their career. BET offers a massive platform to Black entertainers who would normally be overlooked by the other outlets promoting the music industry. This is why artists like Nicki Minaj are shaded by fans when they decide to bail on the ceremony. To borrow a familiar proverb, they’ve “forgotten where they came from.”
On the flip side, Black entertainers who haven’t targeted the Black market can utilise the event as a way to stake their claim to a seat at Black culture’s table. This year’s presenters include Trevor Noah and Leslie Jones, two figures who have recently blossomed in popularity, but haven’t necessarily connected to Black audiences exclusively. For them, showing up at the BET Awards is the entertainment industry equivalent of affirming their “street cred” and authenticity.
Despite the network’s shortcomings — like giving misogynists a platform to be horrible, trying to stiff actors out of money, and policing the gender of hired talent — BET is one of the strongest pillars of Black entertainment. Their annual awards show honors the Black people making waves in not only music, but sports, television, and film as well, even when they don’t show up.