How the BET Awards became the greatest award show on Earth

In the summer of 2001, BET decided to embark on something new. Prior to that time, the network had built a substantial reputation for highlighting Black music videos on shows such as “Rap City” and “Video Soul”; giving comedians a platform on the stand-up comedy show, “ComicView”; and providing a weekly town hall for teens and young adults on the show, “Teen Summit.” But the cable station rarely featured live content that truly highlighted Black entertainment.

At the time, MTV’s VMAs; Billboard Music Awards; American Music Awards; and the Grammy Awards were all viewed as the gold standards for award ceremonies. The Soul Train Awards and NAACP Awards both gave a voice to Black culture, but there was still room to present all aspects of Black entertainment on a larger platform. Enter the BET Awards.

In 2001, the inaugural BET Awards took place at the Paris resort in Las Vegas. Hosted by Steve Harvey and Cedric The Entertainer, the show featured performances by Jay-Z, Usher and Bow Wow. Award winners included OutKast, Destiny’s Child, Sanaa Lathan, Nelly, and Allen Iverson.

But the 2001 show only served as a prelude of what was to come. Stephen Hill who served as president of programming for 18 years, was able to take the show to new levels during his tenure.

Hill hired Mo’Nique to host the ceremony from 2002-04. Mo’Nique’s hilarious rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” dance routine opened the door for what would become a signature of the BET Awards. It was a show that could highlight the biggest and best stars in Black America while creating unforgettable moments.

Who could forget when Rick James hollered into the microphone “I’m Rick James, b—-” during the 2004 show, Terrence Howard’s grateful reactions as Beyoncé gave him a lap dance at the 2005 show, or Michael Jackson and James Brown sharing the same stage and dancing at the 2003 BET Awards?

The BET Awards soon outpaced every other award show because it had a monopoly on presenting Black culture in its truest form. Where mainstream shows only gave a platform to a few Black artists, the BET Awards welcomed Black talent from different generations, music genres, and social backgrounds.

The show had the feel of a summertime cookout or a family reunion. It was a place where your hilarious uncles and church-going aunts could sit in the same room with your cool cousin, your cousin who wanted to be the next top model, your Afro-centric cousin, and your unruly cousin from the ‘hood. It’s a show that can honor the likes of Beyoncé, Gladys Knight, Al Green, Denzel Washington, Kevin Hart, Jay-Z, Yolanda Adams and Migos in one setting.

The 2017 BET Awards continued its reign. Hosted by Leslie Jones, the show provided a glimpse of every aspect of Black culture over the past year in a span of nearly four hours.

The show opened with a funk-inspired performance by Bruno Mars who sang his hit “Perm,” and later took home the award for Best Male R&B/Pop Artist. Dressed in all white and flanked by several men dressed like Black Panthers, Mary J. Blige spilled her pain and gained redemption with a powerful performance of “Set Me Free” and “Love Yourself” with A$AP Rocky. Migos and Future both provided segments of trap music with separate performances. Migos performed their hits “T-Shirt” and “Bad & Boujee”; while Future teamed up with Kendrick Lamar for the first televised performance of the “Mask Off” remix. Kendrick Lama’s soulful label mate, SZA, overcame initial technical difficulties for a sultry performance of “Love Galore” and “The Weekend.”

There was also a representation of classic R&B with Xscape and New Edition. Xscape reunited for the first time in 18 years to take the audience down memory lane with songs such as “Understanding,” “Who Can I Run To” and “Just Kickin’ It.”

However, as expected, New Edition gave the most awe-inspiring performance of the evening. The group received the Lifetime Achievement Award months after recapturing the nation’s attention with the highly rated BET biopic, “The New Edition Story.”

Actors from the film performed classic New Edition, BBD, and solo hits such “Candy Girl,” “My Prerogative” and “Poison” with perfection. After accepting their award, the original members of New Edition hit the stage to perform “Mr. Telephone Man” and “Can You Stand the Rain.” The group closed their set with an astonishing performance of “If It Isn’t Love” along with the actors from “The New Edition Story.”

Beyond the music, former first lady Michelle Obama presented Chance The Rapper with the Humanitarian Award and “Black-ish” star Yara Shahidi paid homage to Tamir Rice after winning the Young Stars Award.

The show also had a few controversial moments that impacted social media. Migos nearly got into an altercation with Joe Budden and DJ Akademiks following an interview that took place before the ceremony. And the Atlanta-based group got into a brief skirmish with Chris Brown’s entourage. Quavo of the Migos is reportedly dating Brown’s ex-girlfriend, Karrueche Tran.

But the controversial moments only added to the allure of the BET Awards. For the third consecutive year, it was the No. 1 cable TV award show among 18-49 and it garnered more than 10.5 million interactions across social media platforms.

And that’s a part of the secret to the show’s success. Because even when that unruly cousin shows up at the cookout, he will still get a seat at the table. Presenting Black culture in its totality has allowed the BET Awards to be the best award show on Earth.

A.R. Shaw
A.R. Shaw

A.R. Shaw is an author and journalist who documents culture, politics, and entertainment. He has covered The Obama White House, the summer Olympics in London, and currently serves as Lifestyle Editor for Rolling Out magazine. Follow his journey on Twitter @arshaw and Instagram @arshaw23.