Every year I watch the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards and I am shocked by the ceremony's bizarre combination of hip-hop performances, gospel music, scandalous fashion, and tributes to African American history. I used to think the awards show represented BET's larger problem-- the inability for a television channel to properly represent ALL of black entertainment and culture. I considered the tributes to black soul singers followed immediately by misogynist rap music as epic failures. But as a scholar of African American popular culture I've become less interested in identifying "good" or "bad" representations of African American in the media. Instead, it seems the conversation is much richer if we take representations of blackness at face value.
In the case of the BET Awards, perhaps these contradictions are not signs of bad taste, but can be productive sites of analysis. By mashing together so many parts of black entertainment, the BET Awards make it impossible for a viewer to get a clear reading of black culture. This advertisement for the ceremony illustrates the tension in defining black identity by showing everyone’s favorite black entertainment family struggling with the same concerns. Instead of resolving this tension, the BET Awards create a black space, where a considerably more fluid definition of blackness can exist. I cannot deny that the artists who perform and win awards at the ceremony typically represent the most mainstream tastes and utilize the most dominant aesthetic and narrative markers. However, this sealed-off black space (many of the artists who perform at the awards ceremony are not likely to perform at The Grammys) does present a reimagining of American culture and history with R&B, jazz, and hip-hop playing a prominent role.
In fact, if the BET Awards were to present a stable definition of black culture, it is through its tribute performances to “classic” black musicians. These performances suggest black identity is best defined through a set of shared experiences--specifically, black pleasure. For example, during last year’s tribute to Whitney Houston, the ceremony cut to audience members of different ages clapping and singing along to Houston’s many hits. Access to this black space is not dependent on biological markers of race; instead, all that is required is shared taste.