Why this show still mat­ters

Rea­son 1: Recog­ni­tion of an of­ten- marginal­ized peo­ple

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY GER­RICK D. KENNEDY

When BET launched its awards show in 2001, it was one of many mu­sic- cen­tric tele­casts that doled out awards and ir­rev­er­ence equally. There was MTV’s Video Mu­sic Awards, Amer­i­can Mu­sic Awards and Bill­board, to name a few. BET also wasn’t alone in cel­e­brat­ing black ex­cel­lence in en­ter­tain­ment, given the NAACP’s Im­age Awards and the Soul Train Mu­sic Awards. None of those shows, how­ever, quite cap­tured the black pop cul­ture zeit­geist like the BET Awards. I vividly re­mem­ber that inau­gu­ral tele­cast. It hap­pened in the same year that Janet Jack­son was rid­ing a cre­ative and com­mer­cial high, and Mariah Carey had inked an un­prece­dented $ 80- mil­lion record deal. Mu­sic lis­ten­ers were grap­pling with an ap­pli­ca­tion called iTunes, and Des­tiny’s Child was teach­ing us how to be “Booty­li­cious.”

Des­tiny’s Child opened the BET Awards wear­ing pink fringe skirts and match­ing cow­boy hats, out­fits that told me they were in­deed su­per­stars. Bey­oncé’s kid sis­ter, Solange, was their backup dancer then. OutKast was the night’s big­gest win­ner. A young Christina Aguil­era

paid homage to her idol Whit­ney Hous­ton for the net­work’s first life­time achieve­ment award. It was a come­back mo­ment for Hous­ton, who had be­gun to un­ravel in pre­vi­ous years and ap­peared grate­ful to be em­braced. The pop star’s pre­co­cious 8- year- old, Bobbi Kristina, helped present the honor.

Given the thrill of see­ing peo­ple who looked like me be­ing hon­ored for the mu­sic and films that I iden­ti­fied with, the R& B, hip- hop and gospel per­for­mances and the juicy wa­ter- cooler mo­ments, I was hooked.

The BET Awards in­stantly etched it­self as es­sen­tial pro­gram­ming in my mind. The bulk of the awards were handed out to mu­si­cians I fol­lowed, but there were also hon­ors for film, sport and hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts. I built my night around it ever year, and next to the Gram­mys, it was the only awards show I could get my par­ents to watch with me. Dur­ing the broad­cast I’d sit by my cell­phone ready to share re­ac­tions ( call­ing and tex­ting was how you live tweeted then).

In the years since its de­but, the awards show has de­liv­ered count­less iconic mo­ments.

On the BET Awards stage I watched Bey­oncé trans­form into the pre­em­i­nent star of her gen­er­a­tion — her first ever solo per­for­mance was on this stage ( she now holds the record for most per­for­mances, nom­i­na­tions and wins).

The BET Awards is the only place where Michael Jack­son and James Brown could have a dance- off. Or where a fiery duet be­tween Rick James and Teena Marie could move an en­tire crowd ( it’s since taken more weight con­sid­er­ing it was the R& B singers’ last time per­form­ing to­gether be­fore their deaths).

This is the place where the Fugees or Jodeci would re­unite. And it’s the only show that would give Alicia Keys the op­por­tu­nity to call on SWV, En Vogue and TLC as sur­prise guests.

When Chris Brown looked to seek public re­demp­tion for the first time, he choose the BET Awards stage.

And af­ter Jack­son and Hous­ton met their un­timely ends — in Jack­son’s case, just three days be­fore the 2009 awards — black mu­sic fans es­pe­cially leaned on the BET Awards to pay proper homage to the fallen he­roes.

At its sim­plest, the BET Awards was about show­cas­ing the mu­si­cians, ac­tors, ath­letes, per­son­al­i­ties and phi­lan­thropists who don’t get the same op­por­tu­ni­ties for ex­po­sure af­forded to those who have gained main­stream recog­ni­tion.

Be­fore Mo’Nique, Kevin Hart and Taraji P. Hen­son made it big, they were stars on this stage. Acts such as the Is­ley Broth­ers, Gla­dys Knight, Chaka Khan, Al Green, the O’Jays and Patti La­Belle — all beloved and cru­cial play­ers in help­ing de­fine black mu­sic — didn’t re­ceive much recog­ni­tion for their con­tri­bu­tions at other award shows, but at BET they’re all re­cip­i­ents of life­time achieve­ment hon­ors. And no other award show would dare put re­sources into stag­ing re­unions for “Love Jones,” “Set It Off,” “Baby Boy” or “The Five Heart­beats.” But BET did.

The suc­cess of the BET Awards has also paved the way for the net­work to launch a hand­ful of other pro­grams that celebrate black achieve­ment.

For nearly a decade, the BET Hip Hop Awards has of­fered an al­ter­na­tive for a genre that, de­spite be­ing one of the more pop­u­lar gen­res on ra­dio ( hip- hop/ rap was the most im­por­tant inf lu­ence on Amer­i­can pop mu­sic over the last half- cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study), rou­tinely takes a back seat on the Gram­mys. The BET Hon­ors pays trib­ute to con- tri­b­u­tions not just to those in the per­form­ing arts, but to lu­mi­nar­ies in ed­u­ca­tion, busi­ness, ser­vice and civic en­gage­ment. And the an­nual “Black Girls Rock!” spe­cial is the only pro­gram I’ve seen that’s ded­i­cated to em­pow­er­ing and honor­ing women of color.

The ex­is­tence of a net­work that caters spe­cially to the tastes of black Amer­ica hasn’t come with­out crit­i­cism. Just ear­lier this week one reader said this about a BET- re­lated story I wrote: “Race- fo­cused TV is a thing of the past in 5 years, easy.”

A bet­ter ques­tion would have been why does there still need to be race- fo­cused TV in 2015? Why are crit­ics sur­prised when mi­nor­ity- led shows such as “Em­pire,” “How to Get Away With Mur­der” or “Fresh Off the Boat” at­tract au­di­ences be­yond the col­ors of those main char­ac­ters? Why are block­buster films with mi­nor­ity casts such an ano­maly? Why is ra­dio and pop mu­sic still so cleanly di­vided be­tween black and white? Bet­ter yet, why don’t the ma­jor­ity of pop stars look even re­motely as di­verse as my own neigh­bor­hood?

All of this is why BET and their awards are so cru­cial.

For a com­mu­nity that has long felt like its cre­ative forces are marginal­ized when it comes to main­stream recog­ni­tion and be be­ing con­sid­ered for ma­jor awards, this show is a heaven.

En­ter­tain­ers of color know it’s un­likely that the Os­cars or the Gram­mys or the Em­mys or the Golden Globes will save a seat at the VIP ta­ble for you.

But not BET. Its mere ex­is­tence of­fers a theater full of seats and screen time for us. Maybe one day it won’t be nec­es­sary. Un­til then, I’ll be tun­ing in.

Michael Caulfield Archive / WireImage

AT THE FIRST BET Awards in 2001, Des­tiny’s Child ( the show’s opener) is awarded as fe­male group.

Kevin Win­ter Getty I mages

MICHAEL JACK­SON died just three days be­fore the 2009 BET Awards. Sis­ter Janet spoke that year. View­ers knew they could count on the show to pay homage.

Michael Caulfield Archive WireImage

WHIT­NEY HOUS­TON: ’ 01 life­time achieve­ment.

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