It’s been a month since George Floyd’s killing sparked national protests. News outlets and social media timelines have started to show less coverage of police brutality and misconduct despite continuing protests. But on Sunday, the 2020 BET Awards, hosted by comedian Amanda Seales, made sure to flood viewers’ televisions with blatant reminders that Black lives matter. It shaped up to be one of the most powerful award shows in its 20-year history.
Despite COVID-19 forcing the network to transition to a virtual show, BET put on a hard-hitting event that didn’t shy away from one of the most pressing national emergencies in America right now: the killing of Black lives due to systemic racism. BET used all three hours of this year’s show to apply pressure to an issue that’s just as urgent today as it’s ever been.
The show, which aired on CBS as well as BET and BET Her, started with 12-year-old Keedron Bryant singing his gutting viral single “I Just Wanna Live” followed by an updated rendition of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” with Questlove, Nas, Black Thought, Rapsody and YG. The rest of the show kept the same energy, weaving in performances that evoked protest, tributes to both famous and everyday Black lives lost and reminders of the beauty Black culture exudes. Even many of the commercials were Black as hell.
The show included cerebral performances that uplifted the names of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others while musicians John Legend, Da Baby and Roddy Rich, D Smoke and Sir, Alicia Keys, Anderson .Paak and Jay Rock condemned state-sanctioned violence. Wayne Brady and Lil Wayne paid tribute to Little Richard and Kobe Bryant, respectively. Masego, Chloe x Halle, Megan Thee Stallion and Jennifer Hudson offered moments of levity with more celebratory performances.
The show set a precedent for virtual award shows to come. With social distancing measures in place, networks have had to find creative ways to deliver their award shows on time or postpone them, like the Tonys. With the ESPYs airing just a week prior to the BET Awards, the network had little reference to pull from for a marquee event at this scale during not only the show’s 20th anniversary, but also BET’s 40th anniversary.
People on social media, including Ava DuVernay, Yara Shahidi and plenty of others, sang the show’s praises for both the timely theme and creative production.
The show spoke to the pain of the moment while extending its arms for reflection and healing.
The 2020 BET Awards was also one of the heaviest events in the show’s history. Some folks on Black Twitter noted the show didn’t give the joyous reprieve that they hoped for. Twitter users said that BET’s audience faces the racist reality of being Black in America every day. Joy is vital, but it’s also important to note that this show serves as a homecoming for Black entertainers. For so many celebrities in Black Hollywood to take the stage and call for change at a time when mainstream discussions about the movement are beginning to slow down feels intentional. During the preshow, Connie Orlando, vice president and head of music programming at BET, said that it was important for the network to merge entertainment with activism.
This was also the first BET Awards under the merger of BET’s parent company, Viacom, with CBS, making a path for the show to have a wider reach for those without access to cable.
Sunday wasn’t just an award show, it was also a call to action on many levels, from Beyoncé and others urging viewers to vote to celebs and sponsors encouraging people to support Black businesses. It also offered a space for Black creatives, both established and up and coming, to shine, including photographer Mark Clennon, LipBar founder Melissa Butler, entrepreneur and fitness coach La Niecia’ Vicknair and streetwear maven Nya Weeks.
With few references, BET Awards pulled off one of the first virtual award shows with stellar production and just under a month to pivot the direction of the show to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. This year’s show being one of the first in the midst of a pandemic and a national uprising feels apropos. Journalist Aaron Randle said that execution felt like a metaphor for being Black in America. Often making a way out of no way, Black people historically show up and lay foundations and set trends that mainstream culture adopts.
Other virtual award shows to follow will surely take notes.