There is no room for stodginess, and glittery pretension is left outside. Unlike any other awards show, the BET Awards come close to approximating the keeping-it-real, party vibe of a black family reunion, where everybody has returned home extremely successful, looking flashy and fly. Mutual love and respect are shown between the older musicians who paved the way and the younger ones keeping the flame alive.
The BET Awards, airing Tuesday with Baltimore actress-comedian Mo'Nique as host, have been a smash for the Black Entertainment Television cable network since the show's launch in 2001. The program last year scored a 4.92 rating within BET's coverage universe, meaning 6.6 million viewers (4.1 million households) tuned in.
Those numbers catapulted the BET Awards to No. 1 among cable award shows last season, topping the MTV Movie Awards, TV Land Awards and TNT's Screen Actors Guild Awards. In black households, last year's program now stands as the No. 1 cable telecast of all time with a 31.94 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.
With sometimes rare, often spectacularly staged performances and unpredictable but mostly tasteful banter, the BET Awards are looser than most music-award programs.
"The show reflects who is hot currently, as well as who has talent. The Grammys have had trouble with the former, while the American Music Awards often do poorly with the latter," says Wesley Hyatt, author of six entertainment reference books, including this year's Kicking Off the Week: A History of Monday Night Football. "For a long time, the Grammys and the AMAs have simply got it wrong with what was the best and freshest in R&B.;"
The traditional music awards shows cover an array of styles in a scattershot way, leaving most viewers bored or confused. The BET Awards always have centered on urban sounds -- harder-edged, black-influenced music -- that have long dominated the mainstream.
"BET presents the show with soul in a way that the other awards shows can't," says Malonda Richard, author of the just-published memoir My Life Isn't Perfect ... But Thank God My Baby Is. Between 1999 and 2001, she was the host of two BET music programs: Out the Box and BET: Next, among the first places to showcase Alicia Keys. "The soul of the BET Awards ... is a subconscious language that speaks to the masses in a way that is highly creative and personal."
The show's nuanced focus on a particular culture also sets it apart from most award shows.
"The BET Awards is the most successful because it's dealing with the most relevant culture in the world right now -- urban culture," says Damien Douglass, president of Mandalay Alliance Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based urban film division. "Urban isn't an ethnicity; it's a culture that encompasses white, black, Asian, Latino, everybody. It's young. It's flashy. It's hip."
A nod to the giants
While the BET Awards manage to be all of those things in a natural way, the program has always given props to veteran performers who cleared the path for the Rihannas and Chris Browns of today. The inimitable Chaka Khan, perhaps the most influential black female vocalist of the last century after Aretha Franklin, was feted on last year's show. After a montage of vintage performance clips showing a fresh-faced Khan resplendent in leather and feathers, the vocalist received the award for lifetime achievement. Afterward, Stevie Wonder, Prince, India.Arie and gospel star Yolanda Adams sang a medley of her greatest hits before Khan joined them all onstage and turned the house out.
Timeless pop diva Diana Ross will be this year's recipient. Without her style and musical template of grandiose glamour laced with city-girl swagger, the careers of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Beyonce probably wouldn't exist.
But because mainstream hip-hop is prominently featured on the BET Awards (controversial thug rapper 50 Cent is scheduled to appear on Tuesday's show), some argue that the program helps glorify the nihilistic inanity troubling the culture these days.
"Those people probably have never seen the awards, since it's much more than that," says author Hyatt. "In particular, the humanitarian award is an inspiring honor for deserving personalities."
Beyond the wailing, rapping, crooning and dancing, the BET Awards meaningfully spotlight the humanitarian efforts of important urban figures. Last year's recipient was legendary actor and outspoken civil rights activist Harry Belafonte. On Tuesday night, gifted actor Don Cheadle will be recognized for his efforts in raising awareness of the effects of genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.
The added soulful touch to this year's BET Awards is having Mo'Nique return as the host. The proudly full-figured comedian was sassy and hilarious in the job in 2003 and 2004. That year, she memorably opened the show with a spoof of "Crazy in Love," Beyonce's ubiquitous smash.
"I've been to all of the award shows, and I'm going to this year's BET Awards," says Mandalay's Douglass. "The energy is different. It's like a homecoming for many of the artists on the show. These artists -- Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg -- remember when they couldn't get on any other station but BET. The humor, the music, the styles of urban culture -- it's all proudly celebrated there. It's electric, man. There's no other show like it right now."
For a photo gallery of nominees and performers, go to baltimoresun.com / bet