Sunday’s 20th annual BET Awards went entirely virtual due to coronavirus concerns, but the awards’ slogan this year was “our culture can’t be canceled.” Fittingly then, the remote show kicked off with a fiery update of an ‘80s hip-hop classic, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” — featuring the reunited Chuck D and Flavor Flav plus Nas, Rapsody, JAHI, YG, and the Roots’ Black Thought and Questlove, plus an intro by Keedron Bryant and new verses about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. P.E.’s performance set the night’s tone, and it was hard to imagine that such an explosive set would be topped during the two-hour broadcast.
But then… DaBaby and Roddy Ricch performed “Rockstar,” during what was the most talked-about — and certainly the most controversial — moment of the night.
The pre-taped clip opened with DaBaby prone on asphalt, his left cheek pressed into the ground as he stared down the lens. As the camera pulled back, a white policeman could be seen pressing his knee into the rapper’s neck — a shocking image referencing Floyd’s May 25 murder.
The screen then went dark, and the scene cut to a performance of DaBaby and Ricch in front of burning police cars surrounded by masked Black Lives Matter protesters and cops in riot gear. The powerful number ended with a young girl holding up a “More Love” sign, while audio played of a teary viral speech by 9-year-old Zianna Oliphant at a 2016 Charlotte City Council meeting about police brutality. “We are Black people, and we shouldn’t have to feel like this,” echoed Oliphant’s voice. “We shouldn't have to protest because y'all are treating us wrong. We do this because we need to. It’s a shame our fathers and mothers are killed and we can’t even see them anymore.”
Many viewers found DaBaby’s performance moving, praising the rapper, who also hails from Charlotte, N.C., for using his platform to make such a bold statement.
However, others on Twitter were horrified that DaBaby would reenact Floyd’s gruesome death, especially since — according to detractors’ claims — he had been slow to speak out about the Black Lives Matter movement. The rapper was accused of being “tasteless,” “triggering,” and “tone-deaf,” and of “commodifying” the Floyd tragedy for his own gain.
For what it’s worth, DaBaby, who has been vocal about his personal experiences with police violence, had already explained last month why he was taking his time to speak out about Floyd. “I always sit back and let the hype blow over before I give my insight so my perspective don’t get confused with all the ppl who only speak for likes & comments, or to save face, or maybe because their PR department, label, or management told em they should make a statement in order to preserve their integrity & not lose fans, business, support from the black community, etc,” he tweeted.
While DaBaby’s Floyd tribute was polarizing, other homages were more uniting. Jennifer Hudson performed “Young, Gifted & Black” as a preview of her upcoming starring role in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, Wayne Brady channeled Little Richard during “Lucille” and “God Golly Miss Molly,” and Lil Wayne performed his 2009 track “Kobe Bryant” for the late basketball legend.
The 2020 BET Awards were hosted remotely by Amanda Seales and also featured standout performances from Alicia Keys, John Legend, Megan Thee Stallion, Chloe X Halle, and more. At the end of the evening, Ricch won the biggest prize, Album of the Year, for Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial.