As I watched the BET Music Awards on Sunday evening, I was brought to tears by three things.
One, the rousing and emotional tribute to world renowned singer Whitney Houston by her mother Cissy Houston whose emotional tribute of the gospel classic ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ grabbed me right in my chest. Two, Yolanda Adams gentle urging of her fellow artists to use their talent responsibly. “We need all of y’all,” she said. “I’m saying the world needs everyone in this room. Please make sure that you use your gift responsibly, ’cause we’re watching. Our babies are watching, and they want to be like us.” Unfortunately she also read directly from the teleprompter when they asked her to “wrap it up.”
And three, the fact that so much of the artistry in black music has been lost, as was evidenced by the same four beats repeating themselves over and over again, and the consistent bleeping of every other word in half the acts presented.
I’m no purist. I believe that artists have the right and responsibility to do and say what is in their heart. If the sentiment that “I am the best” is in fact the most pressing shared feeling, inspiring a whole generation of artists to create the same song, I’m all for it. For art is, in part, a reflection of reality.
But since, as 20th century poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” I suspect the uniformity of style isn’t the result of singular inspiration. Rather, the popularizing of the “same old song” seems more likely the result of decades of systemic corporate control over black music.
Don’t get me wrong. There were some unique voices in the midst. D’Angelo killed it and made me wonder if somehow, buried deep inside, I might be heterosexual. Nah.
Jamie Foxx proudly rocked a shirt bearing the name and image of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager savagely murdered by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman several months ago in Florida. In the past, artists like Kanye West have risked their career to oppose political decisions made by the most powerful players. Hip hop artists Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and a host of other lesser known artists consistently use their art in an explicit attempt to transform the human condition.
But the Black Entertainment Television Network is not the platform for those progressive voices. In fact, underneath the drone of heavy bass I heard the sound of corporate contracts and sharecropper power-relations humming. Besides the handful of temporarily rich artists and sports figures, the economic conditions of black people in America haven’t changed, yet the music we hear on platforms like BET continues to suggest that all it takes is a very small amount of talent, and one by one, the structural barriers of capitalism will erode. I wish it was that easy.
There are songs that helped build and mobilize a movement. Black music throughout history has brought the emotional complexity and impact of racism to the forefront of every movement Black people have participated in. But the BET Awards seemed more interested in the bling of a small group of nouveau capitalists than the economic security and human rights of a nation of people.
To be honest, watching the awards was painful. Not only because the music was so boring, and the message of individualism so clear, but also because the Left commentary on facebook and twitter all blamed the artists for the cultural conditions faced by black communities.
As progressive organizers and artists, we have the mandate to inspire audiences to overcome the obstacles and re-organize their vision toward a more humane and just society. But we also must speak of the present, and acknowledge that most artists are not explicitly radical, and emerge from their conditions, just as those we organize do.
We wouldn’t consider it part of our change model to blame students for the flaws in the educational system, despite actions that reflect those flaws. We don’t blame those in prison for the over-incarceration of black bodies, despite the very real presence of crime in our communities. We don’t blame the sick for the failures of a health care industry. Why would we blame artists for their projection of an internalized self-hatred and an explicit, almost contractual mandate to violence?
Before watching the awards, this phrase came to me in a daydream: “As the artist inspires the organizer by putting sound and color and motion to vision, so the organizer inspires the artist by bringing about new conditions and contexts in which to create. For we are both form and substance of change, each existing because of the other.”
I believe this with all my heart. And if this is true, then the Left has a responsibility to target the corporate centers of power that are responsible for the deliberate dumbing down of black music, not the artistic face of that power. We must apply the same structural analysis when watching the BET Awards that we apply when organizing for immigrant rights, or any other aspirational goal.
The mandate unintentionally provided to me by the BET Awards: organize, educate, and partner with artists to target the industries and companies that fail us all.
What about you?