Whoever produced the 2016 BET Awards program needs a big, fat bonus. Somehow, the network, which has been marred with frivolity for years, stepped up its game and delivered a show that defined and reinforced today's movement for human and civil rights.
The program began with Beyonce (joined by Kendrick LeMar) for a live performance of "Freedom." Ebony-hued women, adorned in African-inspired body suits, marched in formation toward a water-soaked platform with dramatic bursts of fire. Heads up, shoulders steadied, eyes focused on the stage, the dancers strutted to the beat of palpitating drums synced to the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King:
“We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us, among demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
BET used its unique platform to take us back, and perhaps, move us forward. Producers seemed to have taken survey of our great musical losses, tragic tribulations and articulated a time-proven, collective pathway forward.
For me, the opening act was a reminder that African drums were once the slave’s unspoken language of sorrow, hope, escape and revolution. MLK’s voice incorporated with the drumbeat accentuated how far we have regressed in our quest to reach the mountaintop of equality.
Of course, the powerful tributes to Prince and Muhammad Ali set the tone for serious reflection. Those youngsters who believe they have achieved on their own had to reckon with the spirits of legends in the room who sacrificed for their musical, social and political freedoms.
In the terrifying times of Trump, the network detoured from its far too frolicsome homage to sex, misogyny, drugs and the pubescent glorification of money. With repeated calls to “get out and vote,” the program acknowledged hip-hop while reinforcing the legacy of musical, social and political activism.
Jennifer Hudson’s gospel-tinged rendition of Prince’s Purple Rain: “Honey, I know, I know times are changing…” brought new relevance in an America gone askew.
The exoneration of real and widely suspected police in the killings of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and so, so many more has re-lit the fire of righteous indignation in the hearts of many, especially young people. The legacy of musical protest in the songs of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield have been rekindled by artists like Beyonce, Kendrick LaMar, D’Angelo, Killer Mike and Janelle Monae.
But sorrow without solutions; frustration without articulation can be dances in futility. Mainstream media, Donald Trump and far right loons have used the music of singers and rappers and images of protest groups like Black Lives Matter to convince whites that police are the true “victims” and a violent revolution is afoot that will somehow rob them of their “freedoms.”
At a time when civil rights actions and young angst are summarily manipulated, stereotyped and undermined, context is desperately needed. When speaking to the urban uprisings of the 1960s, Dr. King provided valuable perspective when he defined riots as “the language of the unheard.”
BET gave us a 21st Century advocate of context in "Grey's Anatomy" star, Jesse Williams, who was awarded its Humanitarian Award:
“This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do,” Williams said in his exceptional acceptance speech.
The actor spoke a rarely heard truth that gave balance to a show primarily dedicated to music. In less than 700 words he honored black women for nurturing “everyone before themselves”; spoke to the foolish pursuit of “getting money just to give it right back, for someone’s brand…”; chastised police who manage to “deescalate, disarm and not kill white people…” while checking critics of “our resistance” with no record of "critiquing our oppression.”
The audience had been primed, the historical backdrop had been provided; the environment for modern-day activism had already been set up before Williams laid down the preeminent ultimatum:
“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, like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing 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 struggle for human and civil rights in America is full with drastically divergent strategies. It was a culmination of different approaches from Nat Turner to Frederick Douglas, DuBois to Garvey, Malcolm to Martin, the Black Panthers to the NAACP and presidential candidates, Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama.
It's possible I saw something others didn't. But as far as I'm concerned, BET communicated a modern-day template based on our unique past and present potential. Producers reminded us that the struggle is a continuum and the forces of real change must be as committed, diverse, multi-generational and absolutely creative as it has been since the dawn of slavery.
And for this, I say “Thank You.”