Expecting life-changing experiences from the BET Awards in 2018 is like expecting Kanye West to make sense. It’s just not that kind of party. Unlike other recent award shows that signaled solidarity between performers and attendees — such as the Golden Globe Awards and the British Academy Film & Television Awards, where attendees chose to wear all black to make a statement of support for the #TimesUp movement — this year's Black Entertainment Network Awards and its three-day festival, BETX, displayed the unabashed culture of celebrity and wealth obsession. That said, black royalty in Hollywood is worth celebrating, and this was its big night.
This year's show, broadcast live Sunday night on BET from the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, kicked off with a Black Panther/Wakanda–themed monologue by host Jamie Foxx that fell flat. Foxx made no political commentary or riveting declarations; instead he pointed to onscreen successes, took jabs at popular music videos, resurrected his '90s hit TV show In Living Color characters and at one point brought Donald Glover, who had been rumored to be a no-show, onstage to sing one line from his most recent heralded release, “This Is America.” (Foxx also made no mention of why security interrupted the live preshow, as reported by Billboard.)
“You think about what Black Panther did, what Get Out did, what Jumanji did,” Foxx said, giving credit to award-winning films featuring black actors and creatives. “What Cardi B did, and all of this is coming from black folks.”
Highlights of the night included a sneak peek at R&B king Bobby Brown’s new feature film, The Bobby Brown Story, and a performance by Meek Mill, who debuted his single “Stay Woke” while wearing a XXXTenatacion tee, paying homage to the 20-year-old rapper murdered in Florida last week.
The crowd (and social media) reacted in surprise to the Best Actress award being given to Girls Trip's Tiffany Haddish for her standout performance, instead of to one of her co-nominess, including Angela Bassett, Taraji P. Henson, Lupita Nyong'o, Issa Rae and Letitia Wright. Haddish accepted the award remotely, from her on-set trailer in Cleveland, where she's shooting a film. Boasting of her recognition, she told her ex-boyfriends to “Take this!”
One of the most anticipated performances was given by Nicki Minaj, who returned to the BET Awards stage to sing two of her hit new songs, “Chun-Li” and “Rich Sex” (joined by YG, Big Sean and 2 Chainz), during which she spent most of the time flat on the floor or sprawled on top of a pink, glittery horse. Beyoncé at Coachella, it wasn't. Janelle Monáe's performance was a tribute to royalty, but devoid of her usually powerful messaging.
The Lifetime Achievement tribute to Detroit songstress Anita Baker was the most significant moment, with renditions of her classics sung by Marsha Ambrosious, Ledisi and Yolanda Adams, who belted out “Caught Up in the Rapture,” one of the standards from Baker's breakout 1986 LP, Rapture.
Over the last 17 years, the BET Awards — and later BETX — has always boasted two exclusive things: One was that TV fans could get up-close and personal with their favorite stars at a slew of events and performances. The weekend festival pairs headlining concerts with late-night shows, health and wellness seminars, celebrity Genius Talk panels, new-artist showcases, a film screening and free expo along with a number of other events, which revolve around the awards show telecast. The second thing is an elaborate, high-quality awards red carpet and ceremony that recognizes the black American brilliance of entertainment. This was the first show not run by Debra Lee, former CEO of BET, and the second year without Stephen G. Hill, former president of programming at BET. “The BET Awards is still us celebrating us,” Hill said. “It’s still the center of our culture. We talk about other award shows and what they do and don’t do, but what everyone needs to do is come to the BET Awards, where we will never stop celebrating ourselves.”
Much of the BET Awards experience is felt at outside events that take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of music professionals who convene in L.A. every summer for the event. Joi Brown, senior VP of brand partnerships at Atlantic Records, produced the third annual Culture Creators brunch, aimed at mentoring the next generation of industry professionals. “It’s important for me in the work that I do to honor those professionals that work so hard behind the scenes doing the work,” Brown said. “And to show young people all of the many opportunities in this industry that’s outside being an artist or producer or A&R. This platform celebrates what we’ve been able to accomplish in black music.” The brunch recognized influencers in categories of fashion, film and music, but Brown's important cultural message was lost on ego-driven presenters overshadowing the work of the honorees. ASCAP paid tribute to the work of Jermaine Dupri and R&B group Xscape during the Rhythm & Soul Music Awards.
Thursday night's BETX events were held at Staples Center and got off to a sluggish start as the night’s kickoff concert — an assortment of veteran hip-hop legends (LL Cool J, Ludacris and Nas) — played to a unenthusiastic crowd that was slow to get hyped until Snoop Dogg hit the stage for two songs with Cool J.
The second night of concerts was largely about female artistry, with performances by Ella Mai and SZA plus Teyana Taylor closing the show — three soul-singing women who continue to push R&B to new boundaries. Emerging singer Ella Mai made her way to the stage, bringing out Ty Dolla $ign for their collaboration “She Don’t” and performing the hit single that skyrocketed her career, “Boo’d Up.” She was just as starstruck as the fans singing along to her songs at the concert, revealing, “I grew up watching BET my whole life, so it’s crazy to be here.”
However, the screaming ladies in the audience were there to see Chris Brown, who's headed out on tour next month. Teyana Taylor graced the stage for a sexy, short set. She introduced herself by saying, “I’m wondering where my album is, too.” Ironically, her latest effort, K.T.S.E., appeared on streaming services Saturday morning, the last of a set of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D releases.
Saturday night's concerts ended with Rae Sremmurd, Meek Mill, Ferg, Nipsey Hussle (who was caught on tape by TMZ slapping someone outside Staples Center), Playboi Carti, Kamaiyah, Wondagurl and Lil Pump.
Back in the day, the BET Awards was a massive, one-night affair whose goal was to send the message of black brilliance to the world. This year's happenings reinforced the divide of the haves and the have-nots, rather than attempting to lessen that ever-growing gap, even as community initiatives such as the Youth and Music Matters program feverishly try to engage millennials in a culture of Antwon Rose, Stephan Clark, #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.
In the end, the BET Awards was, and some say will always be, a place where black American royalty come to shine.
Winners of the BET Awards 2018
Best Female R&B Pop Artist
“Wild Thoughts,” DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller
Best Male Hip-Hop Artist
Best Female Hip-Hop Artist
Video of the Year
“God's Plan,” Drake
Video Director of the Year
Ava DuVernay, Jay Z.'s “Family Feud”
Best New Artist
Dr. Bobby Jones Best Gospel/Inspirational Award
“I'll Find You,” Lecrae feat. Tori Kelly
Best International Act
Young Stars Award
Sportswoman of the Year
Sportsman of the Year
Album of the Year
DAMN., Kendrick Lamar
BET Her Award
Mary J. Blige, Strength of a Woman
Coca-Cola Viewers’ Choice Award
Cardi B, Bodak Yellow
Darralynn Hutson was first introduced to the BET Awards in 2004, working as a red carpet volunteer coordinator with the press team under the leadership of Tosha Whitten Griggs, then VP of corporate communications; the experience paved the way for her career sharing stories of black culture for publications including The Source, Vibe and Upscale Magazine and more.