The BET Awards are all about honoring Black excellence, but the annual event that has many times been reserved for celebrating the salacious instead, at times this year, veered from the expected and touched on topics that went well beyond entertainment, including and especially the perilous political climate in America.
But even with the negative national implications – including the inhumane migrant crisis at the border and alarming go-to move for white people calling police on Black people for not breaking any laws – the continent of Africa remained a consistent theme throughout the live telecast Sunday night.
The combination of all of the above produced a welcome handful of political sound bytes sandwiched between performances that were mostly void of them.
Here the most noteworthy ones, in the order they happened.
Meek Mill’s shirt: The embattled rapper who has been caught up in the justice system for the better part of 20 years took the opportunity at the awards ceremony to further lobby for his “freedom.” Meek Mill has become an unlikely political cause célèbre, and as such, he’s making sure people don’t forget about his plight.
Michael B. Jordan’s quote from “Black Panther”: – Even though Sunday was less than a week removed from Jordan all but telling the world to end its obsession with all things Wakanda, BET Awards host Jamie Foxx asked invited him on stage to say his most iconic line from “Black Panther.” The line not only remains relevant to Black folks as a whole on a very realistic and metaphoric level, but also to the current migrant crisis, including immigrants who have chosen death over the caged bondage that families and children separated at the border have experienced.
“Nah, just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.”
J Cole’s performance: of “Meditate” from his hit album “KOD” spoke directly to the prescription pill-popping generation that, without some serious intervention, is on its way to self-inflicted extinction. Cole used a message of upliftment and understanding instead of patronization:
One thing about your demons they bound to catch up one day
I’d rather see you stand up and face them than run away
I understand this message is not the coolest to say
But if you down to try it I know of a better way
DJ Khaled’s acceptance speech: Mr. “We Da Best” won the Best Collaboration award for his hit song “Wild Thoughts,” but he was deliberate when he took a moment to recognize and offer a few words of encouragement for the younger generation (perhaps the same group Cole rhymes about) and said the children were our future.
Jamie Foxx’s tribute to Donald Glover: The show’s host invited Glover on stage and all but forced him to perform an a capella rendition of his hit song, “This Is America.” Though Foxx had been recklessly mocking any and everything during his monologues, he admitted the song’s politically contentious subject matter was rightfully exempt from the ridicule.
“That song should not be joked about,” he said to Glover on stage. “You’re not gonna see me joking about it.”
Jason Mitchell calling out the BBQ Beckys of the world: The actor took a moment to deliver a much needed reminder to white America: “911 is for emergencies, not your insecurities.”
Davido’s acceptance speech: The Nigerian artist took home the Best International Act award, but not before shouting out the motherland. “My continent’s been so blessed to influence so many cultures,” he said before making a very necessary appeal to the audience and viewers. “Come to Africa! Eat the food! Wear the clothes!”
Ryan Coogler’s acceptance speech: The filmmaker responsible for “Black Panther” won the award for best film and made sure to encourage everybody to travel to Africa if they can. Being of African descent is not “something that you should be ashamed of,” he said to the crowd. “Be proud of who you are, be proud of where you come from.”
John Legend presenting the Humanitarian Awards: – The singer-turned social activist condemned the country’s immigration policies and school shootings before honoring five heroes who haven’t always gotten the proper recognition they deserve: Anthony Borges, a survivor of the Parkland school shooting who took bullets while shielding his classmates; James Shaw, Jr., who confronted a gunman at a Waffle House in Alabama, preventing more deaths; Justin Blackmon, the one person at his North Carolina school who participated in the National Student Walk-Out Day observation to stop school shootings; Mamoudou Gassama, who was recorded on video scaling a building to rescue a baby dangling from a balcony in Paris; Naomi Wilder, who delivered a stirring speech at the March for Our Lives; and journalist Shaun King, whose social media feeds have seemingly single-handedly informed Black America on important social justice issues.
Meek Mill’s performance: A Philadelphia delegation consisting of Kevin Hart, Questlove, Black Thought, Lil Uzi Vert and Markelle Fultz introduced Meek Mill’s performance by referencing the aforementioned prison reform that the rapper has been working for since being paroled earlier this year.
That paved the way for an elaborate performance by Meek Mill of his new song, “Stay Woke,” which included a reenactment of an unarmed Black child being shot.
Debra Lee’s lifetime achievement award: The now-former BET chief who recently stepped down directly addressed Black girls: “I hope you look at my career as proof that you can do anything you want to do. Because you rock. And don’t let anybody ever tell you any different.” Before she left the stage, she paid homage to “our president, Barack Obama” by mimicking his iconic mic-drop moment: “It’s Debra Lee, out.”
Jamie Foxx recognizing the people we lost this year: After BET showed a brief montage of recent notable deaths, Jamie Foxx mentioned the shooting death of rapper XXXTentacion, who was killed last week in south Florida. “No matter where you start, you have the opportunity to change,” he said in an offhand reference to the rapper’s legal problems stemming from allegations he beat his pregnant girlfriend.
The comedian, being serious, continued: “When you’re to used to young people being killed, it’s like you don’t even care. We all have to figure out a way to become not used to what’s going on right now. We gotta figure something out,” he said to light applause.