Sunday night viewers tuned in to BET‘s annual award show only to be met with much more than the usual pyrotechnic-backed performances and slapstick attempts at humor many have come to expect from such celebrity-driven gatherings. An appreciation for artistry, a deep sense of social awareness and repeated calls to action prevailed over the course of the politically-charged evening.
Between the many tribute performances to legendary artist Prince and a lengthy discourse on the politics of racism by Grey’s Anatomy actor and former teacher, Jesse Williams, the evening went beyond merely celebrating the accomplishments of minorities in music.
Here’s what went down…
Beyoncé Finds ‘Freedom’
Queen B has been markedly absent from the last few BET award shows, but this time she stuck around just long enough to open the show with an invigorating rendition of ‘Freedom’ from her Lemonade album. Clad in a sheer black bodysuit, Yonce was backed by a troupe of dancers, accessorized in custom Zana Bayne harnesses, who splashed through ankle-deep water, sending sprays towards the audience. She was also joined by an impassioned Kendrick Lamar whose raw verses helped set the tone for the evening.
Beyonce later won the “Video of the Year” award for ‘Formation.’ Her mother, Tina Lawson, accepted on her behalf as the chanteuse had promptly boarded a flight to be at her next engagement.
Prince Was Remembered Fondly…
Comedian Dave Chapelle opened the heartfelt tributes to Prince with a bit of humor, regaling the audience with his first memories of the artist’s music. Shortly after, iconic neo-soul band The Roots joined Erykah Badu and Bilal on stage for a soulful celebration of Prince’s life.
Stevie Wonder, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Hudson and Maxwell followed with their own rousing renditions of some of Prince’s greatest hits. Yet it was Prince’s young mentee, Janelle Monáe, who donned pants complete with butt cutouts and performed an energetic medley that included “Delirious,” “Kiss,” “Pop Life,” and more, to honor of the singer.
Lastly, Prince’s longtime collaborator and one-time lover, Sheila E, closed the show alongside a slew of performers and dancers including the singer’s ex-wife, Mayte Garcia.
Jesse Williams Broke the #StayWoke Hashtag
Former teacher turned actor and activist, Jesse Williams, set a more sober tone when he accepted the award for “Humanitarian of the Year,” making it clear the honor was about much more than him. “This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers of students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do,” Williams stated.
He went on to address the controversy surrounding the disproportionate death of black people taken into police custody, demanding accountability and widespread changes in the justice system. He ended his speech by taking aim at the practice of appropriating black culture while devaluing the lives of black people, stating,
““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… ghetto-lyzing 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 — just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Williams left the stage to a thunderous applause and as the cameras panned across the audience, more than a few of its members had been moved to tears.
The Performances Were Lit
Despite the reoccurring political messages, the evening still had its share of lighthearted performances from a slew of rising and established names. Future took to the stage with DJ Esco to treat the crowd to a sizzurp-y rendition of “Wicked” from his Purple Reign project.
Desiigner lost his mind to his hit song, “Panda.”
But it was Marsai Martin, who plays Diane Johnson on ABC’s Black-ish, who won the evening (and possibly life) with her enthusiastic dance moves during Bryson Tiller’s performance.
Lastly, all of the madness, Anthony Anderson still found time to put his cakes on display.
If you liked Desiigner’s BET performance take a listen to his surprisingly coherent ‘New English‘ mixtape.