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A Word (or Several Hundred) on the BET Awards

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A Word (or Several Hundred) on the BET Awards

It’s taken about a week for my feelings about the BET Awards to be articulated as something beyond, “I hate Debra Lee,” or “If Harriet Tubman got frequent flyer miles, she’s now really upset there weren’t more blackout dates,” or “Where’s Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey when you need them?”** or “How long before they just start calling it the Al Jolson Awards?” But I’m less irritable—and hopefully more constructive—now. Besides, Al Jolson doesn’t deserve that dis; he never did anything to me.

BET didn’t even bother to meet my already very, very, very, very low expectations. I watched the entire show, and waited for the Michael Jackson tribute that the network seemed to forget it publicized in a press release following the singer’s death. But lots of other things filled up my tv screen. By show’s end, there was plenty of confusion—how, in a room full of black folks, was there not at least dance tribute to Michael Jackson?—more charges of coonery and buffoonery, and expletive-flavored things to say. But there was also some clarity.

With some help and discussion, I think I’ve realized what happens in a BET programming meeting: They get together and try to “out-ignorant” each other. It’s sort of like playing the dozens, except instead of, “Your mama…,” the cracks sound something like, “[Insert BET show] will be so ignorant, it’ll make Birth of a Nation look like Do the Right Thing!”

Someone suggests, for instance, reuniting the cast of Baby Boy on stage, just to remind Taraji P. Henson, maybe, that she was Jody’s baby’s mama before she was Benjamin’s surrogate mama. Then someone else chimes in, saying that Tyrese should come on stage, because he’s going to be at the show anyway. Another mentions that maybe Ving Rhames is available, and if so he could give that monologue about guns and butter because the audience would really guffaw at that shit. And then someone asks, “What if we made sure Ving Rhames was drunk, or at least seemed like it, before he got on stage?” And then somebody who’s been updating her Facebook page the whole time adds, “If he’s drunk, he should act like he’s about to whoop Jody. I mean, Tyrese. It could be like, you know, a subtle tribute to Joe Jackson maybe?” And so on and so on. I’m just guessing here. But how else can one explain Janet Jackson being followed by the Young Money crew? Sometimes you got to coon to keep from crying? Maybe.

In case you missed it, didn’t Tivo the original broadcast, or just caught the re-aired version, the awards show ended with the now infamous—and edited out—performance by Lil Wayne, Birdman, hip-hop it boy, Wheelchair Jimmy Drake, and some other rappers I don’t know. The seven minutes thirty seconds went something like this: Drake, having duped us into believing he’s going introspective with his performance by sitting on a stool (turns out it was a torn ACL), shouts out Michael Jackson, and then proceeds to rap about a girl or several. Then Weezy ‘n’em rush the stage, rapping about wanting to have sex with every woman in the world—objectify women much? (But BET countered the song’s “message” by showing women in the audience rapping along.) What’s more, at some point during the song, in a move seemingly inspired by the self-proclaimed pied pier of r&b, R. Kelly, several young girls—and yes, by young I mean under the age of 18—including Wayne’s daughter hop on stage and start dancing to the song. Nice touch.

I know, I know. I should’ve stopped sipping the snake oil after Janet left the stage, for I knew that there was no way BET could follow her appearance properly. (Note to self: see above assessment of the BET decision-making process.) My bad. But perhaps in my sorrow I forgot that I was watching the same channel that saw no problem in airing a video that featured a man swiping a credit card down a woman’s butt. (I know it was years ago. I’m still mad.) Perhaps in my sorrow I got sloppy in my thinking, concluding that a black woman heads this company and such things could never happen. (Oh! The pitfalls and limits of identity politics!) Perhaps in my sorrow I thought, of course no one would think it a good idea to allow a performance that not so subtly intimated sexual abuse when the theme of the entire show was a tribute to a man whose later life was plagued by allegations of such abuse. Perhaps I duped myself into believing that someone would have stopped the thought process and said that’s not a good idea. (Again. Note to self: see above assessment of BET.)

Then, shockingly (no irony), BET (and Drake) later issued an apology, saying that the performance was in bad taste. What’s this? BET has standards? Since when?
Apparently, they were grateful for the uproar, because it helps make them a better network. An annoying blip on the “coonery is entertaining” screen, I’m sure. Of course, BET has never let on that such performances were ok, have they? But I guess their apology is good. They slapped themselves on the wrist, and no one had to bother BHO. (Do you think they watched the show at the White House?)

The other day my dad picked up my sister and me from the airport. On the way to the hotel, we listened to some random station playing 90’s black music. Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” was followed by Black Box’ “Everybody, Everybody.” I was 12 again, but this time, I didn’t take for granted that examples of two somewhat distinct genres of black music could follow each other. I sat and wondered what happened. My local radio station used to sound like that. BET used to look and sound like that.

I’m not even interested in respectability. I’m interested in respect. I’m interested in diversity. I’d be less frustrated by the idea of Weezy et. al. wanting to sleep with every girl in the world, if it wasn’t always “countered” by “Supermanning h**s.” Can you imagine Speech [of Arrested Development] on today’s version of BET?

Can you imagine Michael Jackson—if he were being honest and not gracious—even wanting to be on BET?

No. So I guess I shouldn’t have imagined a semi-decent tribute. My bad.

**To be clear, the Tubman/Vesey lines aren’t jokes dissing enslaved blacks, or making assessments about their mentality. (In fact, I probably have a different, prouder view of slavery than many. The joke/point is about risking one’s life for folks only to see, a couple hundred years later, some of the descendants of some of those folks acting a fool on cable.