From the onset the 2008 Black Entertainment Television (BET) Hip Hop Awards appeared to be crass and commercial, a stereotypical extravaganza, but something unexpected was percolating.
I had tickets to awards because of my participation in a town hall sponsored by BET earlier in the day, Fly Girls Vote, where the panelists turned out but BET didn't turn out the audience for us. The consolation was tickets to the 2008 Hip Hop Awards.
The awards opened with the MC, T-Pain, decked out in copious amounts of gold and glitz from his top hat to his grill. He began by spending more time promoting his upcoming album than introducing the show. As the DJ spun hip beats and the stage lights flashed, moved, and sparkled, T-Pain reminded us why we were there -- it is all about the money. It was a Bamboozled movie moment.
There were glimmers of hope though. Video displays of young up and coming rappers from around the world, accompanied by a DJ and spurred on by each other, gave a nod to the roots and highlighted breadth of talented rappers. Stripped down to basics they infused the show with fresh energy.
The live musical performances that night exhibited an array of styles from the new hot rappers to N.E.R.D. and Nas. Different factions of the audience would stand up and dance to the artists that spoke to them. Only once that night did the whole place erupt and that was during the tribute to the ladies of Hip Hop featuring -- MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, The Lady of Rage, Salt-n-Pepa and Spinderella. The whole diverse array of black folks and hip hop heads in the audience from suits to "old schoolers," nerds, and gangster rappers stood up. Salt-n-Pepa particularly turned it out when they performed "Whatta Man" with gigantic and beautiful images of Barack and Michelle Obama on the video screens above. The whole audience had to give it up for such a powerful image of black love so rarely seen publicly.
Obama's image actually showed up quite a bit. In fact, his visual presence gave the space for showing the community activist side of hip hop. Who knew that so many artists had non-profit foundations that are giving back to their communities? Russell Simmons, who received the "I Am Hip Hop" legacy award, was surprised to discover from the video presentations through out the awards the range of philanthropic giving from various hip hop stars. As one of the father's of the hip hop with a foundation for giving he seemed touched.
This is the change we are looking for -- and that Obama represents, the breaking of the stereotypical mode so that black folks are not just seen in a narrow light by the media and ourselves. BET should take a cue from its own awards and diversify its musical promotion and programming so that Voting Fly Girls and philanthropic rappers and are not such anomalies because we exist. It purports to reach more than 87 million households in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. With such a diverse audience why is the programming cater to such narrow tastes? T-Pain reminds us -- the money. The substantial change will come though when these diverse images are lucrative too.