Each year, the BET Awards feature a celebration of what it means to be Black in America. The 2018 ceremony, hosted by Academy and Grammy-award winner Jamie Foxx, aired live from the Microsoft Theater at the L.A. Live entertainment complex on Sunday.
The awards show recognized an exceptional lineup of artists, entertainers, cultural provocateurs and inspiring humanitarians across over 19 categories.
This year’s awards show was no different, and, in some cases, was even much more pro-Black in a definitive way than in recent years. In fact, there were nods to a Black superhero film, the recognition of at least five real life superheroes, and a hero’s send-off for retiring BET chairwoman Debra Lee.
There was even a moment that honored a Black super villain. During Foxx’s opening monologue, the veteran actor invited rising star Michael B. Jordan to deliver one of his iconic lines as Erik Killmonger from “Black Panther” — the third highest-grossing film in history — to start the show: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
In so many different and authentic ways, the show touched on so many varying aspects of blackness in America. For the first time, BET honored six “Humanitarian Heroes”, individuals who have done extraordinary things in some of the most disheartening and trying situations.
Presented by John Legend, those honored included:
- James Shaw Jr., who disarmed a shooter who killed six in a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee
- Naomi Wadler, the 11-year-old speaker from the March For Our Lives this spring
- Mamoudou Gassama, who scaled the outside of a high-rise building to save a dangling 4-year-old in Paris
- Justin Blackman, the only student to walk out of his high school on National Student Walk-Out Day
- Shaun King, a journalist who has been instrumental in covering untold stories in the Black community
- Anthony Borges, the young man who was shot five times while shielding classmates during the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida
The show’s first performance, by J. Cole, took a moment to shine a light on mental health and the self-medication that many young people have turned to.
In the subtlest of ways, the performance began with fellow rapper Wale staring blankly into a television screen at a scene of strewn alcohol bottles and a table full of illicit drugs. His eyes are transfixed on a snowy, static screen before crooner Daniel Caesar breaks into song.
Either intentionally or not, Cole’s performance of “Friends” enforced the importance of mental wellness in our communities. He rapped, “There’s all sorts of trauma from drama that children see / Type of sh*t that normally would call for therapy / But you know just how it go in our community / Keep that sh*t inside, it don’t matter how hard it be / Fast forward, them kids is grown and they blowing trees / And popping pills due to chronic anxiety.”
And if you listened closely, he highlighted a truth that communities have in common: “drug addiction and depression don’t blend.” Words have meaning, right? Hip-hop has become a therapy journal — tales of drug use, getting high and mental illness while self-medicating with pills.
The message Sunday night was far from ambiguous as BET further tapped the consciousness of all by highlighting the disparities in our communities, including the fact that Black people are incarcerated at a higher rate in the US’s criminal justice system.
Even BET’s support of Meek Mill was explicit. He performed his song “Stay Woke”, delivering the line, “How can I pledge allegiance to the flag when they’re killing all our sons and our dads?!”
Mill also wore a sweatshirt with the faces of slain rappers XXXTentacion and Jimmy Wopo, who were both shot and killed on the same day, June 18. While leaving a motorcycle dealership in Deerfield, Florida, 20-year-old XXXTentacion (nee Jahseh Onfroy) was gunned down in an apparent robbery.
In Pittsburgh, a gunman opened fire on a vehicle driven by Wopo (nee Travon Smart), hitting the rapper and a male passenger. Wopo later succumbed to his injuries from the drive-by shooting at a local hospital.
Lyrics at times can be overwhelming — hearing about pill popping, cocaine lines, clouds of marijuana smoke — but those same lyrics can also be cries for social agendas and change. Music is expression, so music is therapy. But, as the show’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Anita Baker said during her tribute, “All I would ask is that the music be allowed to play. …That singers be allowed to sing (and) rappers be allowed to rap.” Expression. Feelings.
Another timeless moment from Foxx’s Wakanda-themed monologue reminds us all, “I’m not here to host. I’m here to celebrate.”
Similarly, let’s continue to celebrate, love, educate, and uplift one another. And most importantly, let’s have brain love for ourselves and others, and focus on our mental wellness.
Dr. Delvena Thomas was the chief psychiatrist for the federal prisons in the southern region of the US and is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve. She owns a private practice and wellness spa in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Follow her on Instagram & Twitter at @DrDelvena and on Facebook at @Dr. Delvena.