Lil Nas X's BET kiss was a step forward for a network known for thinking backwards
Lil Nas X didn't rip his pants this time, but he did tear through an invisible barrier after passionately kissing his male background dancer during an Egyptian-themed performance of his already controversial song "Montero" at the 2021 BET Awards last night. It was not only his first-ever performance at the BET Awards, but possibly the first televised performance in BET history that involved two men kissing, a progressive feat unlike most of BET's recent history. Following the performance, Lil Nas X bestowed the legacy Black music network with a new name more fitting of its newfound inclusivity.
Lil Nas X's unapologetic homosexuality on stage is only a sign of BET moving in the right direction because it highlights how backwards the network was in the past. Pose star Angelica Ross called out BET as recently as 2019 for not including any mention of women who are trans during Black Girls Rock, the network's annual award show celebrating the achievements of Black women in a multitude of fields. The year 2019 was when dozens of transpeople were killed, a fact which made BET's omissions even more reprehensible to Ross, a transgendered woman. Viewers also criticized the network for having Lil Nas X perform yet not nominating him for Best New Video or Best Male Hip-Hop artist, an issue of diversity that has plagued the award show since its inception in 2001.
The BET Awards has been an award show mostly in name and not in any displays of meritocracy. Between 2009-2018, either Drake or Beyonce won Best Music Video six of the 10 times. Only five women have ever won Best New Artist in the BET Awards' 20-year history, including perplexing losses by Dej Loaf and Tinashe in 2015 to Sam Smith, a white singer with the sort of soul you enjoy but not champion over Black women on a Black Entertainment Television network. From 2014-2019, Beyonce was the only woman to win Best Female R&B Artist. And it doesn't appear any openly gay person has ever won a major BET Award. Pretty much, you had to be a straight man or Beyonce to be worthy of the network's most prestigious awards, a severe blindspot for a network that was once the voice of Black America.
That sordid history made last night's BET Awards feel like a course correction towards the future. Outside of Lil Nas X's barrier bursting on-stage intimacy, BET billed this year's award show as "BET's Year of the Woman" and delivered on its promise. Of the eight genderless categories for artists at the BET Awards this year, women won five of those awards including Jazmine Sullivan's Heaux Tales defeating The Weeknd's blockbuster After Hours album and Nas's Grammy Award-winning Best Rap Album King's Disease. Lil Nas X's performance may have been the most provocative, but Cardi B ripping through vicious bars performing "Type Shit" with Migos while pregnant and congresswoman Maxine Waters reclaiming her time before Ari Lennox and Sullivan yearned to sit on "it" (see also: dick) were the best performances of the night. Blackness is varied in music and BET took steps to break out of that monolithic mindset.
Last night marked the first time in his 11-year career that Tyler, the Creator had performed at the BET Awards. His performance was essentially him rapping his "LUMBERJACK" song off of his weirdo manifesto of an album Call Me If You Get Lost while fighting through a storm that ultimately ripped him off the stage. It was the only performance that felt like a mini-movie that was telling a story rather than performing for the crowd, which Tyler seldom looks at the entire performance. His iconoclastic style of music that blurs genres made him unattractive to BET's audiences in the past. But, allowing him to perform an art piece on an award show with more ass acrobatics than storytelling is another sign that BET is willing to venture outside the confines of its network to embrace the full scope of Black artists.
Moving forward, BET has a unique opportunity to not only revamp its image but use its massive established fanbase to further the conversation for the LGBTQ+ community. During the BET Awards telecast, the network previewed All The Queen's Men, a Tyler Perry Studio drama coming to the network's BET+ streaming app and set in the world of male exotic dancing with Eva Marcille as the head bitch in charge of all of those men. Aside from it being a P-Valley ripoff, it broadens BET's typically narrow depiction of Black men as heterosexual or primary protagonist over women. To take the inclusivity efforts further, BET should take Lil Nas X's endorsement of the award show and Pose's MJ Rodriguez's social media-approved appearance at last night's award show as a sign to invest in more programming centered around awareness of LGBTQ+ lives and issues as it did for one month in February 2019 with its 29 Days of Black Queer Excellence campaign.
One kiss can't change a network, but one network that has as much cultural capital as BET does with generations of the Black community can help change a national conversation.