Sunday night saw this year’s BET Awards broadcast, and bless us all every one, they were exactly what you’d expect of them.
Beyoncé won video of the year, video director of the year, and R&B/pop vocalist for “7/11”, despite the fact that Beyoncé hasn’t shown up for the BET Awards since Mindless Behavior told jokes about Lauryn Hill in 2012. And in perfect BET Awards fashion, second only to Queen B in awards count was crown prince Chris Brown, because the BET Awards aren’t afraid to give you the worst right up alongside the very, very best.
The foibles of the BET Awards are many and well-documented, as every year, social media prepares for the mayhem sure to ensue. And this year was no exception. Diddy, out on bail after his felony assault charges, fell in a hole onstage. Domestic abuse survivor Rihanna put tape on the mouth of domestic abuser Floyd Mayweather, and in what was later revealed to be another scripted moment, Rihanna threw her money in the face of BET Awards planner Stephen Hill right before walking onstage. Tamar Braxton and her makeup launched a meme courtesy of Twitter user Goldie Taylor (@goldietaylor), and then launched a second online-only beef as Buzzfeed appropriated the meme before nailing down who to credit.Even before the BET Awards kicking off, Detroit rapper Dej Loaf—up for three BET Awards—got into a scuffle with her management team during her soundcheck that reportedly involved flying fists.
This kind of petty drama is so commonplace at the BET Awards, it was even dramatized last year in a feature film, as Gina Prince-Bythewood used the famously volatile BET Awards as the setting for a set piece meltdown scene in her film Beyond The Lights.
The BET Awards aren’t always fun and games—they’ve got just as many commercial breaks and tributes as the next award show. But somewhere in between the madness and sometimes because of the madness, the show never fails to give audiences reasons to tune in. Beyond the spectacle of it, there was something moving about watching a star like Ciara hoof it alongside goofball Jason Derulo and up-and-comer Tinashe for Janet Jackson, a superstar long deserving her own celebration. For longtime fans of R&B and hip-hop, this year’s BET Awards delivered not one, but two diva reconciliations, as hip-hop legends and Biggie Smalls acolytes Lil’ Kim (mistress) and Faith Evans (wife) buried the hatchet with a tribute to Smalls, and on a much sillier short-term notes, as Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta drama queens Tamar Braxton and K. Michelle performed alongside the ever-pristine Patti LaBelle.
That’s what makes the BET’s worth watching every year—even when big stars like Beyoncé decline the invite, even when things seem about an inch away from complete meltdown, it’s about the depth of what black entertainment has meant and what it continues to mean in our culture. When Smokey Robinson comes out to sing, he’s singing songs that still influence artists of the present and not just nominally, the way that a Tony Bennett tribute might feel honorable at the Grammys without actually feeling relevant. The artists onstage at the BET Awards have not just produced great music and made great TV. Through their work, through their very presence in the public eye, they’ve created the blueprint for how our culture can grow.
The BET Awards is better than the Grammys or the AMAs because focusing on black artists inherently gets rid of the obligatory nonsense, the stars who half-sing, half-dance, half-play guitar through songs they half-wrote at best.
Yes, the Grammys attracts more eyeballs (24.8 million) to the BETs (6.5 million), but the BETs aren’t broadcast on a primetime network, and we’re talking about quality here. It’s not that white artists aren’t as good as black artists, it’s that many of the white artists in popular music that are pushed by record labels aren’t artists at all. They’re brands in the making, Barbie dolls that sing when you push the TV button. No black artist has ever become a star by luck. When a black artist is pushed onto the public by their record label, it’s because they’ve had to work for the respect they’re shown. That’s why Sam Smith winning the BET Award for Best New Artist felt disappointing. It’s not that he’s white. It’s that he’s mediocre.
The BET Awards are a mess and here’s to hoping they never change. The course of art never did run smoothly.