The BET Awards: 15 years later

The BET Awards Show, presented by Black Entertainment Television, has been a major influence in the music industry, as well as, in black culture. First premiering on June 19, 2001, the awards show honored the achievements and accomplishments in black entertainment.

It was fresh and new and fulfilled the black community’s need for acknowledgement in its respective arts. While the BET Awards Show has been extremely fundamental in the recognition of black music, there has also been a fair amount of criticism, particularly in the way African Americans are portrayed.

BET Awards trophy

Every year and for most awards shows, I would post a report card on Facebook, grading the highs and lows of the night.

Yesterday’s show was solid – I gave it a score of B.

There were a few exceptional moments, courtesy of the tributes, but aside from that, it teetered just above mediocrity.

Let’s take a look back at 15 years of the BET Awards: how the show has improved, where it lacks, and its future in black entertainment.

The BET Awards Pre-Show has always been a little wild. It’s the partayyy before the party. Throughout the years, we have been fortunate to see breakout musicians make their mark on the pre-show, which results in the catapulting of their careers. The pre-show works in conjunction with the red carpet. We see a few celebs in their outfits, a couple of questions are asked, and then a performance. Celeb. Question. Performance. Repeat.

DJ Khaled and French Montana
DJ Khaled and French Montana

The standard of behavior for the pre-show is much lower than that of the awards ceremony. Artists are allowed to be a little “freer” with their lyrics and performances, if you know what I mean. All to hype up the red carpet crowd that do not have the “privilege” of a production assistant telling them when to clap or scream. Compared to the earlier pre-shows, nothing has changed much. Though a little unruly, you can still expect to see some young talent emerge.
Back then: B
Today: B-

In absence of the awards show itself, the fashion is the most anticipated feature of the evening. We want to know who is wearing what! Naturally, fashion has evolved, so it is only to be expected that the red carpet looks will change with time.

I personally, never cared for the styles of the late 90s/early 2000s.

Rapper Lil' Kim
Back in the days: Rapper Lil’ Kim

Men wore oversized t-shirts and extremely baggy jeans and the women, well – clothes seemed more like an afterthought. Everything was hanging out!

Today's fashion: Singer Letoya Luckett
Today’s fashion: Singer Letoya Luckett

More men opt for fitted and bespoke suits. Women tend to go with outfits that hug their curves – even if they do show a little décolletage. Today’s looks are a definite improvement.
Back then: D-
Today: B

Some may hold this notion as a myth, but I believe that the opening act predicts the climate of the show. The opening sets the bar – the pace – the standard.

Have you ever seen an artist open an awards ceremony with a spectacular performance and the rest of the show tanks? Possible, but unlikely! A strong opener puts the other musicians in beast mode. Gears will shift from the artists just wanting the audience to doo-wop to their songs to now trying to outperform the musician they followed.

As of late, the BET Awards have struggled to recruit musicians who can deliver an MJ/Beyoncé/Gaga-esque performance. That may be the fault of producers who are unable to properly anticipate a musician’s energy level and command of an audience. Back in 2001, girl group, Destiny’s Child opened the first ever BET Awards. They sang “Bootylicious”, THE hottest song that year and lit up the Paris Hotel in Sin City. The song was uptempo, easy to sing along to, and (no pun intended) bootylicious.

Destiny's Child opening the 1st Annual BET Awards
Destiny’s Child opening the 1st Annual BET Awards

Last night, rapper Kendrick Lamar opened the show with his hip hop gospel. Albeit, a powerful song, it lacked the kind of unleashed energy that Destiny’s Child’s ‘booty’ had. First of all, it is extremely difficult to sing along to one of Kendrick’s raps, considering his amazing gift of being able to throw out a gazillion words per minute.

Rapper Kendrick Lamar opened BET Awards 2015
Rapper Kendrick Lamar opened BET Awards 2015

But let me very clear: Kendrick Lamar is a genius. He is a pure, unadulterated, never watered down genius. But he lacks the kind of stage presence that is needed to deliver an opening. His set included a background depicting the American flag and two dozen dancers dressed in a type of urban warfare-like gear.

There is no doubt that this rapper from Compton may be small in stature, but big in talent. This has been an amazing year for him. He has performed with pop and rock artists, but still remains true to self.

In the past, the BET Awards did a better job at sussing out who could secure an exceptional opening. That is something they should focus on again!
Back then: A
Now: B-

The music duo Outkast won the first ever BET Award in 2001. Members Big Boi and Andre 3000 were the hottest artists around. Their music was somewhere between funk and jazzy hip hop. They were a breath of fresh air – their “sound” was original and impactful.

Outkast won Best Male Hip Hop Duo/Group
Outkast won Best Male Hip Hop Duo/Group

Today’s music is a little questionable. Okay, very questionable!

Last night, I could not help but be disappointed in Janelle Monae’s song and performance. When she first started out as an artist, Janelle had a super jazzy and soulful musical style. Her classical dressing complimented her funkiness, but she has since, moved away from her unique sound and fashion to a more sexualized look and feel. It’s disappointing.

Janelle Monae's change in artistry
Janelle Monae’s change in artistry

And then we have the death of R&B. It is non-existent. Over the years, R&B and hip hop have experienced “blurred lines”. Every rapper sings and every singer raps. Many music critics look to young artists like, The Weeknd, Jhené Aiko, and Miguel to revive the lost genre.
Back then: A+
Now: C

The BET’s have been largely consistent when it pertains to hosts. The first two award shows were hosted by Steve Harvey (when he still sported the high-top) and Cedric, the Entertainer. These two were very complimentary to the show.

Comedians Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer were the BET Awards first hosts
Comedians Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer were the BET Awards first hosts

First, they were on a television sitcom that was geared to a younger viewing audience, making them likable among youth and young adults. Second, they were still able to engage the older generation because they grew up in that time.

Third, they were stand-up comedians.

Sometimes, this is where BET misses the mark. Back in 2005 and 2012 respectively, they had Jada & Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson host.

The shows fell flat comedically.

These were classic cases of actors who have been in sitcoms, but never really stoop up in front of people and delivered jokes.

Last night, Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson hosted. They were funny! But that was mainly because they created situational comedy on the stage. They dressed up as different characters, they were harnessed from the ceiling, and there was no shortage of costume changes.

Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson leotards!
Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson host…… leotards!

For the most part, it worked because it was the kind of thing you would see on a TV comedy. So they put on a show, on a show!!! Comedian Dave Chappelle is slated to host next year. He is super edgy and sometimes offensive. He will need a good balance of both to be successful.
Back then: A
Now: A-

There has been a definite presence of white artists in black entertainment. The BET Awards have nominated and awarded several white musicians, particularly in the genre of hip hop. Eminem has been one of the biggest names in black music.

Eminem performing at BET Awards 2010
Eminem performing at BET Awards 2010

He has, however, always showed appreciation for the inclusion of his artistry in the black community.

At last night’s show, I was very surprised at rapper Iggy Azalea’s nomination for Best Hip Hop Female Artist. There is no doubt that Iggy’s relationship with the black community has been tumultuous.

Iggy Azalea
Iggy Azalea

She has been accused by many, specifically rapper Azealia Banks, of cultural appropriation. In other words, making lots of money off of black culture, without truly immersing herself in all that comes with being black, i.e. the struggle.

In the past, the BET Awards did a better job at holding white musicians responsible for how they represented black music.

If Iggy has been an “issue” for the hip hop community, why reward her with a nomination? The goal is not necessarily for hip hop to remain exclusive to the black community, but there must be accountability for any untruthful portrayals.
Back then: A
Now: C

Religion had always been entwined in the black community, so it is reasonable that even in the midst of the heavy rap lyrics and occasional swear words, we take the time out to honor God and gospel music greats.

I must commend the BET Awards for that – you probably would not see that at other award shows.

Last night, the late and great gospel legend Andraé Crouch was honored by music great Donnie McClurkin. Crouch was a permanent fixture on the gospel music scene. He had an old school flair, but was still able to connect to younger generations.

Christian music singer Andraé Crouch
Christian music singer Andraé Crouch

His music was an extension of the sermons you would hear on a Sunday morning, as opposed to, today’s more trendy and contemporary Christian music, swollen with overpowering beats and no biblical references.

Nonetheless, the BET Awards have always showcased and will continue to keep gospel music close to the helm of black entertainment.
Back Then: A
Now: B+

The tributes have been a highlight of the BET’s. They do a fine job connecting generations. Typically, younger artists will perform songs for the older musician they are paying homage to.

Whitney Houston received the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by singer Babyface
Whitney Houston received the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by singer Babyface

In 2001, Whitney Houston was the honoree and only 38 years old at the time. She had achieved so much already and received tremendous support from the music industry.

Last night’s show presented Smokey Robinson as an honoree. He is one of the greatest songwriters in history with a career that spans five decades.

Smokey Robinson presented honor by P. Diddy at BET Awards 2015
Smokey Robinson presented honor by P. Diddy at BET Awards 2015

Trivia: Smokey Robinson wrote “My Girl” for the Temptations.

Back then: A+
Now: A+

An awards show sometimes serves as an opportunity for music couples to debut their budding romances. The comparison of power couples comes down to talent. Since 2003, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have remained the industry’s power couple.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z perform "Déjà Vu" at the 2006 BET Awards
Beyoncé and Jay-Z perform “Déjà Vu” at the 2006 BET Awards

Becoming a power couple requires more than just “dating” and kissing on a beach in the Maldives. It is about creating an empire and a legacy – and maybe a lot of money too.

Yesterday, rappers Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill appeared on stage and to say it was awkward would be an understatement!

Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill at the 2015 BET Awards
Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill at the 2015 BET Awards

Neither of them are at the height of their careers, yet come across like the King and Queen of BET. Not even close!
Back then: A
Now: C-

Debra Lee is Chairman and CEO of BET.
BET and its awards shows, while entertaining, can be a little “ratchet”. At times, Ms. Lee appears to not be in total control of her office.

Debra Lee is the Chairman and CEO for BET
Debra Lee is the Chairman and CEO for BET

She is an educated black woman who seems like she would be President of an uppish sorority or social club. However, there have been situations that speak to the contrary.

I suppose, I hold Ms. Lee to a standard that she has not yet lived up to.

I sometimes wonder if she is just a figure head that has less qualified people with ulterior agendas running the show?

The bad behavior and denigrating language of some artists have been condoned, which only helps to justify the stereotypes of young blacks for the viewing public. To be fair, Debra Lee has made several advancements and positive changes to BET, but some of those negative issues remain.
Back Then: A-
Now: B-

Everyone loves a comeback and the BET Awards Show specializes in the comeback. They get artists who we haven’t seen in years: DeBarge, Janet Jackson, the Bad Boy Entertainment crew, Bell Biv Devoe, you name it.

She's baaaaaaaaaack!!!
She’s baaaaaaaaaack!!!

Watch the crowd go crazy!
Back then: A
Now: A

Back then: A-
Now: B+
The BET Awards have been hugely impactful for the black entertainment industry.

There is a bright future for BET, but improvements must be made, specifically to music and its authenticity.

Most of the black community appreciates BET and its awards show for the recognition of talent that may otherwise, go unnoticed.

What kind of impact do you think the BET Awards have had on black entertainment and the music industry as a whole?


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