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The Radical BET Awards

Jesse Williams, Justin Timberlake, and an awards show with real stakes

Getty Images
Getty Images

Last night, Justin Timberlake made the mistake of logging onto Twitter, reading a stray critique of his privilege as a white musician, and answering that critique with the age-old insistence that “we” — black people, white people — “are the same.”

That would’ve been provocative enough on any given day, at any given time, but he tweeted this during the BET Awards, where the actor Jesse Williams — recipient of the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award — had just delivered a passionate appeal to black elites, laced with disdain for white “bystander[s],” regarding the future of civil-rights activism in America. Timberlake, whose whiteness makes him a bystander in Williams’s formulation, was quick to praise Williams’s remarks, and, then — inexplicably — he was equally quick to quote and answer the critic in his mentions with a postracial dismissal.

Justin Timberlake has performed at previous BET Awards ceremonies, and so, I guess, one might understand how he’d be so presumptuous as to foist his two cents on this sensitive topic. While we’re at it, I might also blame social media for this universalization of concern for an awards ceremony that’s rather explicitly concerned with the celebration of black talent, musicians, and actors, old and new, in general solidarity with one another. So of course Williams, honored as an activist, seized the stage to memorialize our dead and challenge the living. If, up until that point, you assumed that the BET Awards were just a glorified awards ceremony like any other on TV, the brutal familiarity of Williams’s remarks should’ve clarified the distinction between the BET Awards and, say, the Grammys. They’re both rigged, and the awards are mostly bullshit, but the Grammys are a bland and total farce for a general audience, whereas the BET Awards are the closest thing we’ve got to black Illuminati meetings.

Following Beyoncé’s at the Super Bowl, the year’s most provocative, prime-time-televised performance of note was Kendrick Lamar’s black-power medley at the Grammys in February. (The two artists opened last night’s show together.) Lamar’s Grammy performance was a powerful spectacle, but one so heavily teased by the artist’s management and co-opted by Grammy organizers that it felt, dare I say, official. Last night, Jesse Williams kept it unofficial; he truly had us all on edge. Wearing all black, he broke a sweat without choreography or pyrotechnics, launching into hot poetic cadence without fault in his voice. He honored black women and promised to prioritize their well-being. He disparaged American history as a mirage of human progress. “If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression … If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down,” he said. The mic should’ve dropped itself.

Timberlake, who has no such critique of oppression on record, has now half-apologized for speaking out of turn. “I forget this forum sometimes,” he tweeted. He was referring to the public and unwieldy nature of Twitter discourse — but also, whether he appreciates this or not, to the wildly divergent stakes for black and white creative types. Williams addressed this inequality in his speech, charging the commercial forces of white supremacy with “ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius.” If Timberlake had really listened, he might have taken that to heart, along with Williams’s most succinct sound bite of the evening: “Sit down.”