The BET Awards Used To Lead; Now They're Falling Behind

Photo: Earl Gibson III/WireImage.
The BET Awards are one of the few platforms where Black entertainers receive their fair due. Hip-hop artists get to perform for a national audience normally denied to them by other awarding bodies like the Grammys, Emmys, and of course, the Oscars. They do all of this with the awareness that anti-Blackness runs deep around the world, and that having spaces that are "for us by us" isn’t just sentimental. It’s vital. But Sunday night’s awards left quite a bit to be desired. They went with a Wakanda theme that felt stale and way overcooked, given that Black Panther was released six months ago. Host Jamie Foxx, who can usually be counted on to bring the funny, crashed and burned at several moments in the show — including a bit where he mocked comedian Mo’Nique’s calling out Netflix for low-balling her on a comedy special offer. There weren’t even many big fashion or beauty moments for us to stan. But most bothersome were the moments in which BET revealed that it still hasn't committed to intersectionality as a framework for Black liberation.
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I was excited when the pre-show opened with a performance from queer bounce artist, Big Freedia. The awards always take place in June, which is National Pride Month, and Sunday night’s event fell on the same day as the official Pride celebration major in cities like New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago. I thought that this powerful opening from a twerking Freedia certainly meant that the show would incorporate some kind of nod to the Black LGBTQ+ community. It did not. Pre-show host Terrence J interviewed Freedia without a single mention of Pride, or even the experience of being queer in hip-hop. As the night progressed, it was clear that none of the showrunners put much thought into LGBTQ+ sensitivity at all.
For example, one of the hosts of BET's after show was Insta-comedia Jess Hilarious, who has unapologetically made transphobic jokes on her Instagram page. She has also outed men in the industry that she has suspected of being gay.
The shoutouts to the late XXXtentacion were also questionable. During his performance, Meek Mill wore a hoodie with the 20-year-old’s face on it. He was also featured prominently in the In Memoriam video montage. Foxx followed the moment up with a lecture to the younger generation about gun violence and better decision-making. But XXXtentacion was not an example of such positive thinking. He nearly beat his gay cellmate to death for looking at him funny while incarcerated. In 2015, he was arrested for beating up his pregnant girlfriend, holding her head under water, threatening to kill her, taking her phone, and holding her hostage. When Pitchfork broke a gripping testimony from the ex-girlfriend in question in September, he responded to critics by threatening to “fuck y'all little sisters in their throats … Anybody that called me a domestic abuser, I’m finna domestically abuse ya’ll little sisters’ pussy from the back.” In an interview with the Miami New Times, the young rapper said he was against feminism and thought that systemic racial oppression was over.
The decision to include this controversial figure at various moments in the show was just one of the things that betrayed the narrow lens through which the powers that be at BET view Black communities. The lack of women performers — there were seven total, three of whom were doing a tribute to Anita Baker, in comparison to 14 male performers — was another missed opportunity to really to be ahead of the curve. But the BET Awards have never been known for their radicalism. While the MTV Movie & TV Awards have introduced genderless categories and included LGBTQ+ nominees in their best kiss category, the BET Awards are stubbornly singing the same old predictable tunes. Every year, viewers tune in — last night many people called it a Black Twitter family reunion — hoping for a production that moves us forward, only to be disappointed.
The shallow progressiveness of the BET Awards — and honestly the entire network — is reflective of “old school” Black values. They seem to be satisfied with simply targeting a Black audience, but BET is not changing with the times, even though it needs to. They rely on a version of Black excellence that centres on straight Black men as leaders and pillars of the Black community. Heteronormative family structures are uplifted as a guiding light so that only gender roles and sexual expression that are in service of that model are celebrated. Respectability politics swaddle conversations about racial progress and liberation, allowing BET to pat itself on the back for being “woke,” without critiquing its own limited framework. It’s unfortunate that the BET Awards are one of the only award shows where Black artists get the shine and recognition that they deserve, because they have yet to deliver on a celebration of Blackness that truly validates all of us.
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