The 16th annual BET Awards delivered its fair share of Twitter-worthy moments Sunday night, from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar’s powerful “Freedom” statement and emotion-packed Prince tributes to Grey’s Anatomy actor/activist Jesse Williams bringing down the house inside the Microsoft Theater — and around the country — with his urgent call to action about #BlackLivesMatter.
“I said on the red carpet that this would be our best show,” BET chairman/CEO Debra Lee tells Billboard. “Looking back on last night, I didn’t know the half of it.”
Below, Lee talks about the impact of Williams’ speech, the challenge of keeping a lid on the show’s surprise opening, helping Prince fans find closure — and what happened to D’Angelo’s anticipated performance.
The reverberating impact of Williams’ speech:
That was a total surprise. In fact, I heard he’s been trending as “Jesse for president.” We didn’t pre-approve his speech. I know he rehearsed it, so I guess my folks may have known something about it. But not about the feeling he brought last night. You could clearly tell those were his thoughts, words and feelings. I knew he was a passionate advocate for social justice. I saw him do a panel for the Advancement Project during which he talked about why it was important for him as a celebrity to be involved in social causes and the problems with our prison pipeline. He’d also done a documentary for us called Stay Woke about #BlackLivesMatter. I knew about his commitment and passion. But oh my God, just standing there listening to him last night was just such a moment.
When we were walking offstage, I gave him a hug and told him how awesome his speech was. What was also so great was seeing his parents sitting there. His father is black and his mother is white. Jesse is the epitome of our mixed culture.
The messages last night were so loud. We need to end gun violence and we need to vote. Hopefully, our young people heard that because we’re living in trying times. We try not to be too political, but some of that came through last night as with Usher’s message [“Don’t Trump America”] on the back of his jacket. We’ve really worked hard for the past several years to incorporate social messaging into our show; to shine a light not only on music but on people in our communities like the two men last night who were recognized for their individual efforts.
The challenges behind keeping Beyoncé’s performance a secret:
She committed several weeks ago. We had four tons of water that we had to get on the stage and then clean up after her performance. We were worried about electricity and other things that could go wrong. But we wanted her to have the performance she wanted. She hadn’t been to the awards in a few years. After hearing her new music, I thought it was important for her to be there. She has a show in England tomorrow night, so it was great of her to agree to stay because it wasn’t the perfect timing. I saw the rehearsal the night before the show and that’s when I first learned that Kendrick Lamar was part of it. She does the water dance in her concert but with all women. But Beyoncé thought it was important to have men and women of color come together. She wanted this to be a performance she’d never done before. She wanted it to be epic, and it was.
We threatened people within an inch of their lives to keep the secret. Beyoncé wants to do it her way; I respect her for that. And she didn’t want people to know she was going to be on the show. So we told very few people on the team. I was a nervous wreck until the day of the show [laughs] because I was like, “If this leaks out, this may not happen.” All of her rehearsals were closed. You had to have special permission to get in. Beyoncé would rehearse late at night for hours. She and the dancers would get wet, look at the tape and then get wet again. The night I went, all the dancers were onstage in bathrobes waiting to rehearse again. At one point they started heating the water to make Beyoncé and the dancers more comfortable.
Her reaction to the multiple Prince tributes:
It just brought closure to so many people. Looking at the faces of Janelle Monae, Sheila E., Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Hudson and the other performers as well as those in the audience: People really wanted those moments. They wanted to see artists bring their best in paying tribute to Prince. And Bilal … It felt like Prince had come back to earth and taken over his body.
We all knew the Prince tribute was important, so Stephen [Hill, BET president of programming] shared with me some of the artists who were performing. I know they were changing things around up until the last moment. The Hudson moment with “Purple Rain” was incredible, but I heard at one point she was going to do another song. I also knew Sheila E. was going to close out the show. But Stephen and Connie Orlando [BET senior VP of music] also like to surprise me. I have full trust and confidence in them. I’m not the kind of boss that says, “Tell me every moment and every performance.”
On why D’Angelo didn’t perform:
I don’t know what happened, to be honest. I did hear along the way that he had pulled out. You’d have to talk to Stephen about that. My understanding is that it wasn’t anything bad. It just didn’t come together. Dealing with that many people, you never know what’s going to happen. And those things happen. But we love D’Angelo and hope he’ll be back another time.