So, I want to add my reaction to the many out there re: Jesse Williams’ fiyah spoken word piece at the BET awards, and actually not his words, those I appreciate and recognize from social media, but to the backdrop of his speech, to the people I feel like benefited as much as us at home watching and that is the Democratic Party and presumptive Democratic Party Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton. To my eye, clearly the folks at BET have returned to the side of Hillary Clinton for the 2016 election (you’ll remember the former owner, Bob Johnson, endorsed Clinton over Obama). In most years, the musical performances dominate the discourse of the BET Awards, but this year the noteworthy performance was not the performance featuring both Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce, but from an actor – Jesse Williams – giving a speech reflecting his continued commitment to speak out against police violence. In the past days, the New York Times, LA Times, Time Magazine, and countless other media outlets (not to mention Twitter and Facebook) have spotlighted Williams’s speech, and of course I agree with all of Williams’s words, how could I not??, but I have been thinking a lot about the frame within which I saw his words and of course frames affect pictures.
For me, the core message of the evening didn’t come into view w/ Williams’ really well crafted combination of speech, spoken word and informal chat, but rather started with Terence J, who prior to introducing the hosts Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, told the audience “Your vote is your voice.” Shortly thereafter, Tracee Ellis Ross shared that the most important demographic in this fall’s presidential election was single women and that her vote (because she is a single woman) would decide the election and concluded by stating “Welcome to the White House, Hillary Clinton.” Throughout the show BET would include more messages on the importance of voting (and due to Ross’s quote – it was clear these messages are pro-Clinton) all of which set the stage for Williams to really put it down for the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
To reiterate, everything Williams said was true and was quite poetic, “Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.” However, it is impossible for me to not see his words inside the context of the Clinton advertisement that was running throughout the 2016 BET Awards. So, the current Democratic political climate has ostensibly embraced the rejection of bigotry – in fact, the rejection of bigotry has become profitable (Apple was sure to announce they would not sponsor the RNC due to Trump). Clinton, despite her own history of bigoted politics (which were on display in her last attempt to secure the Democratic nomination and the mass incarceration policies of the 90s), has somewhat successfully turned herself into the candidate whose bigotry is acceptable while running a campaign that argues Trump’s bigotry is not. BET’s endorsement of Clinton from Black Girls Rock to this BET Award show assists in that cause. Still, without Williams, the night’s endorsement is incomplete.
Williams’s poetry legitimized the BET Awards as a “woke” platform as he bravely denounced whiteness and police brutality, gave deserved props to black women, and spoke against the appropriation of black culture. However, following Williams’s performance, Samuel L. Jackson, stated “That brother is right and he’s true.” He then added an interpretation Williams’ had not even remotely implied and said, “Make sure you vote and take eight more people with you. We gotta fix this. Don’t get tricked like they did in London.” So, who is the benefactor of the call to vote? What Jackson ignores (or doesn’t see) is that the whole Award show is part of the trick because by placing Williams’s spoken word in the context of this larger call to vote, Clinton benefits from Williams’ words without taking any of the risk or committing to any of what he offered. Williams made the BET Awards “woke,” and since BET is down with Clinton she is thus also “woke” or maybe more accurately “woke enough” or “not a Trump nightmare”. In case we had somehow missed the message, the show concluded with Usher dancing with an anti-Trump message on the back of his vest (i.e. a pro-Clinton one and since when is Usher making explicit political criticisms?) as social media pounced on Justin Timberlake’s cultural appropriation, I was also seeing the Clinton campaign’s appropriation of the evening, the kind of appropriation that Williams had just rebuked.