Racial upheaval and COVID-19 add power to the BET Awards

In a normal year, Sunday night’s BET Awards would surely have made a big deal out of the fact that the show — an annual celebration of black excellence in music and culture hosted by the cable network founded in 1980 — was celebrating its 20th anniversary.

As it stands, this milestone barely registered in a jam-packed production that had more news to tackle than any TV awards show in recent memory.

Let’s start with COVID-19, which is why you can’t remember a recent awards show to compare this one: unlike the many shows that have been postponed or canceled over the past few months due to the pandemic, the flagship BET event chosen to go the virtual route, with actress and comedian Amanda Seales hosting in front of a green screen at her home and launching pre-recorded performances and acceptance speeches by stars such as Beyoncé, Roddy Ricch , John Legend, Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, Jennifer Hudson, Lizzo, Lil Wayne and Alicia Keys.

“I have to admit, these BET Awards are a little different,” Seales said in her welcoming monologue. “We’re really getting in touch with being real on the inside, because the outside is on a — there’s COVID and the cops and Karens have gone crazy.”

Indeed, even more than the coronavirus, Sunday’s show – first simulcast on BET’s sister network ViacomCBS, CBS – has been defined by the protests against racism and police brutality that have rocked the world. in the five weeks since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops.

Ricch wore a Black Lives Matter shirt as he performed a medley of his songs “High Fashion” and “The Box.” Keys sang “Perfect Way to Die” on a deserted city street chalked with the names of black people killed by police.

And DaBaby rapped the “BLM” remix of his No. 1 hit “Rockstar” while re-enacting Floyd’s horrific death under the knee of former officer Derek Chauvin – a risky aesthetic choice that nevertheless indicated how Americans were outraged, not just by Floyd’s death but by a system that made it difficult, as Seales wasn’t exactly kidding, to enjoy such simple pleasures as candy (because Trayvon Martin was killed while wearing a bag of Skittles) and napping (because Breonna Taylor was killed after police entered her home using a “no knock” warrant while she slept).

Public Enemy opened the telecast with a new version of their classic “Fight the Power” featuring new verses from Nas, Black Thought, YG and Rapsody, the last of which served up indelible words – “You like ‘Black Panther’ but don’t Fred Hampton” – on the troubled commodification of black culture.

Towards the end, Beyoncé accepted an award naming her Humanitarian of the Year by urging viewers to vote in November to help ‘dismantle a racist and unequal system’ – clear and gratifying advice from one of the most famous women in the world. (Other winners include Megan Thee Stallion, who won Best Female Hip-Hop Artist; DJ Khaled, whose music video for “Higher” was named Video of the Year; and Compton’s Ricch, who won Album of the Year for “Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial.”)

The BET Awards gave way to memories of Kobe Bryant, paid tribute in a performance by Lil Wayne and Little Richard, which inspired Wayne Brady to step forward appropriately in an elaborate musical comedy sequence that slid on a piano and dance. inside a container truck. Jennifer Hudson, set to play Aretha Franklin in an upcoming biopic, also showed up to do her portrayal of Franklin on Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

Not everything was so closely tied to today’s headlines. Usher and Summer Walker portrayed hesitant lovers in a sultry joint performance of his “You Make Me Wanna…” and his “Come Thru,” which samples Usher’s decades-old hit.

And Megan Thee Stallion took advantage of the remote filming circumstances by doing a mash-up of her “Girls in the Hood” and “Savage” in a “Mad Max”-style desert setting complete with futuristic motorcycles.

Then again, all that dust couldn’t explain the face masks Megan’s dancers wore while they twerked.