BET Awards 2020: Public Enemy Leads Thoughtful Celebration of Black Lives

Each year, the BET Awards are billed as a celebration of Black culture in music, acting and sports. This year, the show was more than just the sum of its parts. Airing as a virtual broadcast in the midst of a global pandemic, the show rose to the challenge of balancing artistry with social commentary.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the BET Awards, and it hit the airwaves with a newfound sense of purpose.

The show opened with a lone voice singing a capella. “I’m a young Black man doing all that I can to stay alive,” sang Keedron Bryant, the 12-year-old vocalist who went viral with a gospel tune penned by his mom.

That opening segued into a stirring performance of Public Enemy’s 1989 anthem “Fight the Power,” with Chuck D and Flavor Flav putting aside their differences in an updated version that also featured Nas, Rapsody, YG, Jahi, Questlove and Black Thought from The Roots.

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That first performance foreshadowed the theme of the three-hour program. Musical presentations were pre-produced, highly stylized and on-message. DaBaby’s performance of “Rockstar” (Black Lives Matter remix) opened with a close-up on the rapper’s face lying on the ground. As the song played out, the camera widened to reveal a policeman’s knee on his neck in an eerie reenactment of George Floyd’s death. The video ended with Roddy Ricch joining DaBaby on top of a vandalized police car, and a plea for “More Love” from a tearful child.

Gone in 2020 were empty references to party culture and material excess. This year’s crop of performances were substantive and purposeful, often evoking current events.

Megan Thee Stallion paired a new song, “Girls in the Hood” with her chart-topping single, “Savage.” The accompanying video featured a Mad Max concept, with her backup dancers twerking exactly six feet apart while sporting black COVID-19 masks as part of their costumes.

Alicia Keys’ “Perfect Way to Die” was a moving tribute to Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and others who have died at the hands of police, while Lil Wayne paid homage to Kobe Bryant with a new rendition of a track he wrote memorializing the late Lakers star.

A much-needed lighthearted moment came during Wayne Brady’s shout-out  to rock and roll pioneer Little Richard, who succumbed to bone cancer in May. Brady danced his way through various rooms in his house while belting out a medley of Little Richard hits, including “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Tutti Frutti.” The number ended when the entertainer entered the back of a wardrobe truck parked in his driveway and shut the doors.

A graceful Jennifer Hudson turned heads as she performed “Young, Gifted and Black” from a white grand piano. Initially made famous by Nina Simone, the song was re-recorded in 1972 by Aretha Franklin, whom Hudson portrays in the highly-anticipated biopic, Respect. Although the movie isn’t scheduled for release until Christmas Day, the BET Awards tagged JHud’s segment with the surprise release of a new trailer for the film.

Host Amanda Seales was provocative, warning African-Americans not to allow other races to co-opt Juneteenth as a Black Cinco de Mayo, and challenging newly-woke allies to go the distance with Black Lives Matter.

There was also a reminder for folks to do their civic duty on Nov. 3. After former First Lady Michelle Obama presented Beyoncé with the BET Humanitarian Award, the music icon made sure to leave viewers with a call to action.

“There will be people banking on us staying home in local elections and primaries happening in states across the country,” she said. “We have to vote like our life depends upon it, because it does.”