In Good Taste?: The BET Awards and the Burden of Representation

Curator's Note

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.

Comments

Sarah Martindale's picture

MOBO awards

Thanks for your post Lauren, I found it very interesting. I was wondering if you’re aware of the perennial media debates around the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) awards in the UK, in which biological markers of race become a source of tension; and how this might relate to your final point?

Lauren Cramer's picture

Thanks for the reference!

Thanks Sarah— I’m not familiar with the MOBO awards but I am not surprised they are surrounded by similar concerns, especially because our notions of “black music” will always be based on public/national memory. I find the name of the MOBO awards particularly striking because it directly engages with historical narratives of black music when that history will always be richer and more complicated than we think.

Furthermore, as hip-hop/R&B/jazz/soul music continue to play a prominent role in mainstream popular music, BET and MOBO have to consider what productive political discourses these labels make available. What are the benefits/problems with segregating black music into these “special” ceremonies?

Eva Hageman's picture

Great post and great

Great post and great week Lauren!

I share your interest in looking at signs of “bad taste” as productive sites of analysis. I like how you work not to relieve the tension of defining blackness but instead point to a “black space” that presents a fluid and unfixed definition of blackness. The idea of defining identity as a space in motion is an intriguing one and I think it opens up a dynamic way to think about race collectively. Or as you say through shared pleasures and tastes.

The BET Awards also made me think of all of the controversies around The Source Awards and the way in which hip-hop and rap are defined in relation to “good” or “bad” blackness.

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