Hundreds of thousands of people, young and middle-aged, make their yearly trek to Los Angeles each June for the BET Experience and BET Awards. Now in their 15th year, the BET Awards are still one of the premier music award shows in the United States, with a viewership of 8 million. Located at the Staples Center, L.A. Live, and neighboring Los Angeles Convention Center, the BET Experience offers a glimpse into urban culture with full week of events that bring together a variety of musical artists and astounding access to sports and entertainment icons.

Part of the BET Experience’s appeal is that there is no other event of its kind that brings together so many black artists, celebrities and fans from so many different walks of life, from seasoned rappers and R&B singers to indie artists and pop culture superstars. One minute you’re bouncing around like a crazy person with Rae Sremmurd in the hype-focused Staples Center series of concerts, and the next you’re surrounded by hundreds of “Money” Mayweather fans, listening to him speak of his unparalleled love for his daughters.

R&B Singer LeToya Luckett on the BET Awards Red Carpet; Credit: Photo by James Milbry

R&B Singer LeToya Luckett on the BET Awards Red Carpet; Credit: Photo by James Milbry

The Setting

The current culture of award shows has proliferated an “A-list or No-list” mentality, but the BET Experience was impressive in its appeal to everyday music lovers. Genius Talks and a skills-bragging basketball game were included in the list of events, with generous gifting suites serving as a central networking hub for the entire week. The lavish Tiny's Tequila Brunch and Gifting Suite was a completely enclosed palace of glamorous, with a perfect selection of breakfast and lunch entries, massages, and original fashion and accessories. Similarly, the BET Official Gifting Suite was a unique, differentiated gifting area with vendors handing out everything from candied apples to silk scarves to teeth-whitening kits.

The Genius Talks and panels, which played host mainly to sports and business conversations throughout the weekend, were the most understated part of the experience. They were hugely informative and often pulled standing-room-only crowds, especially for Kobe Bryant and Floyd “Money” Mayweather. The fashions shows scattered around the experience were also a cut above and offered an excellent (and seated) relief from the madness of the branded areas.

Singer Omarion on the Red Carpet; Credit: Photo by James Milbry

Singer Omarion on the Red Carpet; Credit: Photo by James Milbry

The Music

Over the full BET Experience schedule, which began the previous weekend, there was an unprecedented amount of black music — everything from hip-hop veterans to pop culture mega-artists to more independent musicians. On Saturday, June 20, Chrisette Michele performed a baby-making, sultry set in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, featuring her top hits like “A Couple of Forevers” and the more recent “Blame It On Me.” At the same show, Jordin Sparks made her BET Experience debut with a grown and sexy set, sashaying through her hit “One Step at a Time” and inciting frenzied screams from the crowded atrium in front of the plaza parking structure. The most hotly anticipated act of the day, Deborah Cox, drew mixed reactions from fans. While she played a number of her hits, she failed to connect with the crowd like Jordin.

Wednesday evening brought a surprise listening session with Tyrese, who delivered steamy yet emotional set of music from his forthcoming album, Black Rose, along with some of his most popular ballads. Even in the sweltering heat of Samsung Studio LA, everyone in the crowd sang along to “Sweet Lady.” Newcomer V. Bozeman deserves a quick mention, as well: She followed up her impressive cameo on the popular show Empire with a breathtaking performance of ”Race Jones” at the second annual “Women in Entertainment” luncheon. She has star quality and a voice that touches your soul.

Friday night, Nicki Minaj also delivered an eclectic yet (by her standards) tame performance, with classic tracks like “Moment 4 Life.” The crowd took a little convincing to get into her all-black attire; from early in the show, fans were encouraging Nicki to take off some of her clothes.

The West Coast heavyweights of hip-hop ruled Saturday night at the Staples Center. Ice Cube’s set may have been a big promotional stunt for the Straight Outta Compton N.W.A biopic coming out later this year, but the crowd hardly cared. Snoop Dogg appeared to attract the largest number of fans in the crowd with his blend of head-banging hits and surprise guest appearances including Warren G, Too Short, Kurupt, Daz and the Lady of Rage, all of whom got a turn on the mic.

Though there were special appearances and celebrity sightings galore, it was the multiple Lauryn Hill sightings that had everybody talking. Emerging Thursday at the ASCAP Rhythm and Soul Awards with her full band and old Lauryn Hill ways was enough of an OMG moment, but when she joined Erykah Badu and The Roots onstage Saturday night at Club Nokia, it really became Lauryn Hill Week.

Hip Hop Legend E-40 on the BET Awards Red Carpet; Credit: Photo by James Milbry

Hip Hop Legend E-40 on the BET Awards Red Carpet; Credit: Photo by James Milbry

The Finale: BET Awards

The BET Awards are far more than just an amazing awards show. They're a black experience that you have to live for yourself to truly understand.

That said, it’s not for everyone. The BET Awards, recorded live at the Microsoft Theatre (formerly the Nokia Theater) in L.A. Live, are also about walking five to ten miles (at least that's what it feels like) through large crowds of black teenagers and fortysomethings remembering when they were teenagers to get into the venue. It’s about paying top dollar ($4,300 and up) for Diamond VIP Access above the crowd, only to abandon VIP and try to get downstairs when you find yourself enthralled by Chris Brown's dancing antics down on the floor during the Bad Boy reunion. It’s about remembering your musical roots listening to Smokey Robinson sing “Cruisin'” and experiencing something completely historical and utterly energizing when Ciara delivers a perfect live recreation of Janet’s “Rhythm Nation” video.

Most of all, it’s about honoring the musical experience on behalf of friends that couldn’t afford the tickets, and remembering when Patti LaBelle hit the stage to out-sing younger artists K. Michelle and Tamar Braxton … and re-living the quick tumble that P. Diddy painfully has to relive on Instagram over and over and over again.

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