Beyoncé. Prince. A riveting speech by Grey’s Anatomy actor/social activist Jesse Williams. BET rolled out all that and more at its 16th annual awards show last night (June 26) at the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live.
Beyoncé surprised a stunned audience with an electrifying performance of Lemonade track “Freedom.” Prefaced by an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as a formation of dancers paraded down the theater aisles to the stage, Beyoncé opened the show by emerging from a cloud of smoke alongside her dancers in a wading pool of water. Upping the surprise ante: Kendrick Lamar, who stepped into the pool with the singer to splash, kick and stomp home the song’s powerful message.
Beyoncé was also the evening’s big winner with four awards out of five nominations (including best female R&B/pop artist, video of the year for “Formation” and Coca-Cola Viewers’ Choice). Her mother Tina Knowles accepted the awards on Beyoncé’s behalf as the singer hopped a plane to London for the start of her international tour.
Promising viewers over the last several weeks that “We Got You” in regards to celebrating the legacy of Prince, BET staged a series of tributes to the late icon that ran throughout the show. Among those paying their respects: Erykah Badu, Bilal in a head-turning performance, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Hudson, Maxwell, Janelle Monae and an emotional Sheila E.
Political and social activism were also prevalent themes during the course of the show. Presenter Taraji P. Henson, lifetime achievement award honoree Samuel L. Jackson and others emphatically stressed how crucial it was to register and vote in this year’s presidential election.
Usher ended his performance (featuring new song “No Limit” with Young Thug) by standing with his back to audience. Emblazoned across his jacket was the phrase “Don’t Trump America,” greeted by raucous cheers from the audience.
However, it was actor Jesse Williams who truly roused emotions on that front. Presented with the humanitarian award by BET chairman/CEO Debra Lee for his social activism, the Grey’s Anatomy star delivered a reasoned and fiery speech about the injustices that black people have suffered—and still suffer—in America and what needs to happen to make the status quo change.
Drake led with nine nominations and won three awards: best male hip-hop artist, best group with Future and best collaboration for his featured role on Rihanna’s “Work.” Rising trap R&B artist Bryson Tiller, who performed his hit “Don’t,” was the evening’s other big winner, claiming his first BET wins with awards for best male R&B/pop artist and best new artist. Additional winners included Nicki Minaj (best female hip-hop artist), Empire’s Taraji P. Henson (best actress), Michael B. Jordan (best actor) and Straight Outta Compton (best movie).
Future’s energetic performance of “Wicked” had the crowd on its feet as did a rollicking Desiigner in his first BET Awards performance. Alicia Keys and French Montana with Fat Joe and Remy Ma also turned in well-received performances. Jamie Foxx paid homage to boxing great Muhammad Ali, introducing Ali’s daughter Laila who talked movingly about the person she said was simply “dad” to her and her eight siblings.
Show co-hosts and Black-ish co-stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Hamilton opened the awards with a spoof of the Tony Award-winning Broadway play Hamilton. Among the show’s more humorous moments: Bobby Brown joining the cast of BET’s forthcoming New Edition biopic to present an award, noting, “I had to come up here with one group I couldn’t get kicked out of.”
A complete list of 2016 BET Awards winners can be found here.
Additional reporting by Ashley Lyle