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  • 01Jul

    On the synonymous acts of having abject fear and watching the BET Awards


    As an African-American hip-hop cultural commentator, there should be absolutely no reason why I fear the BET Awards, but I do. The network has existed for nearly 35 years, and as a youth growing up in the network’s shadow in its hometown of Washington, DC – it often provided me a sense of the limitless potential of black people in the professional world. From Donnie Simpson on Video Soul to Chris Thomas on Rap City, groundbreaking shows like Teen Summit and inspiring house and global sounds and images on Video Vibrations, the channel always provided a standout example of what it was to be black, gifted and independent of a largely white mainstream. However, last night was the occasion of the 2013 BET Awards, and for the third straight year, I watched the event in its entirety after its first airing and stared at the television in shock and humiliation. There’s something that stinks at BET, and while I can’t exactly pinpoint what it is, I do feel that the channel is now insipid, irrelevant and if being actively watched by black people, emblematic of the myriad of problems still plaguing black people in the 21st century.

    Foremost, I watched Ray-J, a barely talented R & B vocalist whose most significant claim to fame is defiling the mother of Kanye West’s child (then having the temerity to sing a pop song about the act) on my screen. I’m no expert on award shows, but I thought that once MTV (and yes, I know, both MTV and BET are Viacom brands) had Prince’s naked ass and Howard Stern as Fartman onstage in 1991 and 1992 respectively, that they had the market cornered on tastelessness. Well, apparently I was wrong. Yes, I know, the Essence and Soul Train Awards exist for the satiation of my desires to see self-respecting black people respect themselves, but hell, it’s 2013. In this year, the President of the United States is black, Jay-Z is a media mogul, The Rock is Hollywood’s biggest banking movie star, and in general, the life and times of black folk is pretty great. Asking for some common sense and decorum on an award show on a network that is as much for us and by us as any sweatshirt we’ve ever worn shouldn’t be too much to ask.

    Yes, there are those who will say that the BET Awards celebrate the entirety of the black experience. On the positive side, this includes stellar moments like the honoring of R & B legend Charlie Wilson, the importance of reggae and dancehall music to black musical culture and a phenomenal performance from Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu. Conversely, numerous artists using foul language when accepting awards, clearly inebriated and/or otherwise chemically-altered artists getting on stage and abuse of the term “turn up” just take the proceedings down a notch and approaching an uncomfortable level of near coonery that black folks should be better than in the 21st century.

    Yes, I know. Up is down, left is right, the world is post-racial and I really should not care about much of this at all. Awards shows are ultimately harmless fun, artists seeing the events as a way to over-indulge themselves and act in an ostentatious manner to match their out-sized public personas. But I’m also the same person that ascribes to the notion that, much like Dr. King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

    The ability for black people to be comfortable in our own skin enough to be absurd on global television is a right that was earned through struggle. The second that behavior occurs that disrespects that struggle, the door opens for those hard-earned rights to exist in fact, but not in principle. The second that we as black people allow other cultures and races to see us behaving poorly – then ultimately mirror that poor behavior – it creates the space for the delicate counterbalance of rights earned in the past four decades to be called into question.

    I am afraid of the BET Awards because I respect myself, and as much as I respect my blackness, what I respect more is the fact that my ability to be black and proud means infinitely more than the reality of watching people ultimately be black and stupid. Of course, it goes without saying that the old adage says “pride goeth before the fall.”

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