In the early 1980s BET was a mash-up of Soul Train, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and CNN operating on less than one-fourth the budget all wrapped in the lo-fi basement tape aesthetic of Media Bridges.
When BET launched in January 1980, it only broadcast two hours a week.
However, it was a brilliant post-civil rights response to what was certain to be the racist broadcast practices and procedures of a nascent MTV had it not been for Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking “Billie Jean” video, which was a pointed reminder to the youngish white MTV birthers that Rock & Roll was birthed from the Blues which begat Soul and that nobody’s cooler than a black man wearing a wide-lapel, leather tuxedo, pink shirt, red bowtie, high waters and white socks.
And while BET — with its you-videotape-it-we’ll-air-it roster of a few dozen early crude music videos — was a basic cable wet dream to a gaggle of stinky, moody, funny-looking black teenagers coming of rage in Forest Park, MTV, shrewdly aware of the audience for and cultural imprimatur of Rap, struck black gold in the late 1980s with Yo! MTV Raps.
However, a few hours of dedicated programming, of a televised cultural drive-by, couldn’t come close to quenching our thirsts for repetitive, 24-hour blackness in the guise of the squinty-eyed video host Donnie Simpson (and all those “surprise” in-studio guests!) and, later, the indomitable Bev Smith’s Our Voices, which had a decade-long run beginning in 1988.
Smith was like your buxom aunt who was always getting somebody told at the family reunion with a wry smile on her face. She held down an issues-oriented show when Oprah Winfrey (who was introduced nationally in 1986) was two years into syndication and was still a ‘bama with a bad perm and low self-esteem.
Then there was Ed Gordon, a real live trained black journalist who scored some big-ticket interviews in the early and mid-1990s when I was trying to be a (scared shitless) daily newspaper reporter in my hometown of Hamilton, Ohio.
I looked up to Gordon since the only other black folks on screen during network news broadcasts were (now-deceased) Ed Bradley and broadcast pioneer Max Robinson, who was the first black person to ever anchor network news in 1978.
There were other blacks on the news: those whom news producers used to tint stories on AIDS, welfare fraud, rape and robberies.
It’s imperative you know all this back story so you can more fully understand my lamentations and mourning for the black cable network.
BET was never really great.
It wasn’t professional in its programming and broadcasting.
At times BET gave the impression there were interns behind the scenes holding giant plugs in sockets, some monkeys on stationary bikes and that Robert L. Johnson, founder and former chairman and CEO, was somewhere begging the utility company not to disconnect him.
But that tangible hot mess was part of its appeal, part of why so many of us watched, why companies advertised and why Johnson ultimately sold the network to Viacom for $3 billion. Before that, though, Johnson turned the fledgling network into the first black-controlled business listed on the New York Stock Exchange a mere 11 years after its start, and a decade later he became the first black billionaire — before Winfrey — and the first black listed on any of Forbes magazine’s “world’s richest” lists.
Johnson was so cold he bought back all BET’s stock that had been publicly traded, making way for the historical sale to Viacom.
It’s been a long and inevitable fall for BET from those salad days of early cable programming to its postmodern affiliations with stupidity, buffoonery and greed and its seemingly permanent place at the forefront of the denigration of black women in music videos more suitable for pornography and its exaltation of black male thuggishness dressed up in its Sunday gawdy best for its “BET Hip Hop Awards” taped Saturday in Atlanta, the black Hollywood of the South.
Rappers and labelmates Rick Ross and Young Jeezy mixed it up backstage like a coupla drama queens and all the TMZ video shows is cursing, shoving and yelling. Hip Hop legend Funkmaster Flex tweeted the mêlée spread to the parking lot and Vibe.com says shots were fired in the parking lot. Reportedly, 50 Cent and his clique jumped Ross’ protégé, Gunplay.
I hate to go all Black History Month-y on your asses but is beefing between (millionaire) Rap cliques really why Martin Luther King took that bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel?
Are manzier spokesman Ross, yelper Jeezy, 50 and all those other wannabe superstars looking for any crumbs of vaporized fame aware there’s a black incumbent president fighting for the life of his second term? Do you think they know the foreclosures and joblessness of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has hit America’s blacks disproportionately harder than any other population?
Do you wonder what if?
If they were really the gangsters they’ve lied about being in their raps that they’d have busted a cap in someone’s ass for real?
Wouldn’t a nigga be dead today from the weekend festivities?
Black rappers these days be talkin’ a blue/black streak and ain’t sayin’ nuthin.’
All this empty madness because of the perceived threat to a nigga’s respect. Respect is what Hip Hop — and all its cousins: Rap, generally, and Gangsta Rap and spoken word, specifically — was founded on.
How can you be the offspring and benefactor of black entertainment, of Michael, who came from Sammy Davis, Jr. and James Brown; of Afrika Bambaataa and the Sugar Hill Gang, who came from The Last Poets, and go out like some sucka nigga playing into all the stereotypes new money breeds?
Because this is what passes for black entertainment these days.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org