It’s been a difficult year for us: the #BlackLivesMatter movement set to the background of the Charleston 9 shooting, protests over Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and not to mention… Rachel Dolezal. In a time when it’s been difficult to find the strength to carry on as Black human beings fighting for equality and justice, the BET Awards provided an inspiring evening celebrating some of the biggest names in entertainment to show us that, yes, Black is beautiful.
Kendrick Lamar opened the show with a performance quite reflective of our sentiment right now: “Alright” subtly (or not so subtly) called out police for their brutality on the African-American community, while the MC stood atop a vandalized police car covered in graffiti, while the American flag stood in the background.
Equality and civil rights protest was a continued theme of the night, which included Jidenna, who sang his hit song “Classic Man” while men walked through the crowd with signs hanging from their heck reading “I AM A CLASSIC MAN” (referencing the “I AM A MAN” protest signs during the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968).
One monkey don’t stop no show. At least not if you’re Sean “Puffy” Combs. Perhaps the most Vine-worthy moment of the evening was when the entertainer fell during the most electrifying performance of the evening, which celebrated Bad Boy Entertainment’s 20th year anniversary. Mase, Faith Evans, 112, Lil’ Kim, the LOX and, um, French Montana joined Diddy as they performed a medley of Bad Boy era hits. A video montage of rap king Notorious B.I.G. played in the background during his verse from “Mo Money Mo Problems.”
Smokey Robinson was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, which featured a tribute by the amazingly talented Tori Kelly (who received a standing ovation), Robin Thicke and Ne-Yo performing some of Smokey’s greatest hits. But it was when Smokey himself took the stage to perform that really showed the crowd why that Motown sound still resonates today.
The Empire cast (Yazz, Jussie Smollet and Serayah) hit the stage to perform hits from their smash FOX drama: “Drip Drop,” “No Apologies,” and the catchy “You’re So Beautiful.” In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, as well as the #BlackLivesMatter, Smollett also used the moment to speak about progress and freedom in America.
“We live in a nation where freedom is what we represent, yet we are still fighting every day for the basic freedoms of all of our people,” said Jussie Smollett. “Let the Supreme Court ruling be proof of how far we have come. Let the deaths of sisters and brothers be proof of how far we have to go. No one is free until we are all free.” He ended the performance with three simple words: “Stand for love.”
Following a riveting performance by Anthony Hamilton and Gary Clark Jr., which honored those we lost this year (including B. B. King, Percy Sledge and Ben E. King), the performance ended with a screenshot of the faces of the Charleston 9. The #BlackLivesMatter message further resonated by words from Michael B. Jordan, who portrayed Oscar Grant (also a victim of a police shooting) in the 2013 film Fruitvale Station.
And then the moment everyone was waiting for: Janet Jackson received the award for Ultimate Icon: Music Dance Visual. An impressive Jason Derulo, Tinashe and Ciara (who killed her performance) paid tribute to the 49-year-old veteran by mimicking her signature dance moves from the Rhythm Nation 1814 era.
“It’s been a very long moment to this journey .. my heart is so full,” Jackson told the audience, which included her parents. “To my beautiful mother, to my beautiful father, and to my entire family, your love is unbreakable. Twenty five years ago we created Rhythm Nation, hoping the world would be a better place. But today there’s even more to be done,” she concluded.
Other big BET Award winners included Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Terrence Howard, Sam Smith and Tom Joyner. For a full list of winners, see below.
Ultimate Icon, Music Dance Visual Award: Janet Jackson
Humanitarian Award: Tom Joyner
Best New Artist: Sam Smith
Best Female Hip-Hop Artist: Nicki Minaj
Best Male Hip-Hop Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Best Female R&B/Pop Artist: Beyoncé
Best Male R&B/Pop Artist: Chris Brown
Best International Act UK: Stormzy
Best International Act Africa: Stonebwoy
Best Group: Rae Sremmurd
Best Collaboration: Common and John Legend, “Glory”
Best Actress: Taraji P. Henson
Best Actor: Terrence Howard
Youngstars Award: Mo’ne Davis
Best Movie: Selma
Best Gospel Artist: Lecrae
Video of the Year: Beyoncé, “7/11”
Video Director of the Year: Beyoncé, Ed Burke & Todd Tourso
Sportswoman of the Year: Serena Williams
Sportsman of the Year: Stephen Curry
Coca-Cola Viewers’ Choice Award: Nicki Minaj f/ Drake, Lil’ Wayne & Chris Brown, “Only”
Centric Award: The Weeknd, “Earned It”
Fandemonium Award: Chris Brown
Lifetime Achievement Award: Smokey Robinson