A night to celebrate black entertainers was also a night of political and social activism at this year’s BET Awards.
The opening ceremony featured a surprise performance from Beyonce and her back-up dancers, who marched into the theater to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Beyonce then performed—alongside rapper Kendrick Lamar—a powerful rendition of “Freedom.”
Prior to the introduction of the night’s hosts—Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson—actor Terrence Jenkins made a plea for viewers to “vote smart.”
“From the U.K. separating from the European Union to the domestic terrorism that’s taking place in our own back yard, now more than ever it’s important to realize that your vote is your voice,” Jenkins said, according to Entertainment Week. “In the U.K., their vote ended in a Brexit, leaving people emotional on both sides of the fence. If we do not vote smart in this upcoming election, trust me guys, we will be feeling the same way. Make sure you’re registered. And stay woke.”
Ross publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton.
“This is such an important election,” Ross said, according to Entertainment Week. “You know what I heard? I heard that one of the largest most influential demographics is single women in this election. Oh, yeah. So basically, technically, what this means is I will be determining the next president. Welcome to the White House, Hillary Clinton.”
BET’s Chairman and CEO Debra L. Lee spoke on the hot button topic of gun control, hailing Rep. John Lewis and the Democrat sit-in in the House of Representatives last week. Lee also referenced the Orlando nightclub mass shooting and the Charleston church shooting.
“We are living in daily suspense,” Lee began her speech. “Not the kind of anxiety-induced horror films, but the reality of our world, too appalling to put into words. Our daily rituals, a carefree day at school, attending bible study, going to the movies or a fun-filled Saturday night dancing, all are under attack by gun violence.”
She added, “We all need to take a stand against gun violence. You can make a difference, This elect year at the city, state, and federal levels, know your politicians’ position on gun control. Use your voice and vote.”
Lee then presented the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award to actor Jesse Williams—a face on the frontline for social justice with organizations such as Black Lives Matter.
Williams, who dedicated the hardware to black women, delivered an inspiring speech calling for continued justice in the eye of tense racial America.
“This award, this is not for me, this is for the real organizers all over the country, the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do,” Williams said, after first thanking his parents and his wife.
“What we’ve been doing is looking at the data, and we know that the police somehow managed to de-escalate, disarm, and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have human rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”
Williams referenced Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice—whose 14th birthday was the day prior—Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner. The aforementioned share a commonality of death by law enforcement and no convictions.
“If you have a critique for the resistance, our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest—if you have no interest in equal rights for black people, don’t make suggestions to those who do. Sit down,” Williams said.
The former public school teacher also lambasted cultural appropriation.
“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though, just because where we’re magic doesn’t mean were not real,” concluded Williams.
Usher performed “No Limit” in a shirt with the words “Don’t Trump America” displayed on the back.
In between political stances, BET paid tribute to Prince throughout the June 26 live broadcast. Jennifer Hudson amazed with “Purple Rain;” soul singer Bilal channeled Prince with a performance of “The Beautiful Ones;” Maxwell melodically sang “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Stevie Wonder—who teamed up with Madonna at this year’s Billboard Awards Prince tribute—this time partnered with Tori Kelly for a duet of “Take Me with U.” Janelle Monet energetically performance a host of Prince’s songs, including “Kiss,” and Shelia E closed out the show a jam out session of Prince’s records, including “Erotic City” and “Let’s Go Crazy.”
Newcomer Bryson Tiller also performed his popular hit single “Don’t” from his platinum selling debut album, “Trapsoul.” The Kentucky native was also awarded Best New Artist and Best Male R&B/Pop Artist. Samuel L. Jackson received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his catalog of work, presented by good friend and director Spike Lee, and Brooklyn rapper Desiigner’s performed the summer’s hit “Panda.”
2016 BET Award Winners:
- Best Male R&B/Pop Artist — Bryson Tiller
- Best Female R&B/Pop Artist — Beyoncé
- Best Actor — Michael B. Jordan
- Best Actress — Taraji P. Henson
- Best Movie — “Straight Outta Compton”
- Best New Artist — Bryson Tiller
- Video of the Year — Beyoncé, “Formation”
- Best Male Hip-Hop Artist — Drake
- Best Female Hip-Hop Artist — Nicki Minaj
- Best Collaboration — Rihanna ft. Drake, “Work”
- Best Group — Drake and Future
- Best Gospel — Kirk Franklin
- Youngsters Award — Amandla Stenberg
- Centric Award — Beyoncé, “Formation”
- Video Director of the Year — Director X
- Dr. Bobby Jones Gospel Inspirational Award — Kirk Franklin
- Coca-Cola Viewers’ Choice Award — Beyoncé, “Formation”
- Sportsman of the Year — Stephen Curry
- Sportswoman of the Year — Serena Williams
- Best International Act Africa — Wizkid (Nigeria)
- Best International Act U.K. — Skepta
- Humanitarian Award — Jesse Williams
- Lifetime Achievement Award — Samuel L. Jackson
The Black Entertainment Television network established the BET Awards in 2001. The awards celebrate African Americans and other minorities in music, acting, sports, and other fields of entertainment over the past year.