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Arts & Culture

#BackChannel: BET Awards, Remembering Prodigy And More

Earlier this week, the BET Awards recognized some of the best in black entertainment. At the awards, Chicago-based artist and activist Chance the Rapper delivered a stirring speech after receiving the BET Humanitarian Award. Chance the Rapper was praised for recently donating $1 million to Chicago Public Schools. 

The program also included recognition for the rapper Prodigy, who was one half of the hip-hop duo Mobb Deep and died earlier this month after complications with sickle cell disease. The BET Awards were somewhat a capstone to African-American Music Appreciation Month, also known as Black Music Month.

Host Frank Stasio talked about the awards, Black Music Month and more with Natalie Bullock Brown, professor of film and broadcast media at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, and Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University in Durham.


On Chance the Rapper receiving the BET Humanitarian Award and the impact of his philanthropy

Mark Anthony Neal: One of the reasons why Chance has to donate money to Chicago and their public schools is because the City of Chicago, like many other municipalities, is going to spend millions of dollars paying out to a family for a wrongful death suit because of police malfeasance. And he names that in that context. A larger swath of America has to hear those kinds of narratives. It’s not as if black celebrities and black entertainers aren’t committed to the communities and giving back to the communities, but that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And really, it’s just a couple drips in the pan in that regard, the issues are so much larger than that. But it does encourage other artists to be focused and think about giving back in a way that is sustainable.

Natalie Bullock Brown: Part of Chance’s appeal, definitely as a native Chicagoan for me, is he is emerging from a culture that has been so maligned in the media. Chicago has been going through with all the gang violence and the violence that comes at the hands of law enforcement for years. Being away from Chicago, I have been concerned with how we are going to fix this. So it is very heartening to see someone so young be so committed and to really understand what the problem is because he comes from that environment.

On the legacy of New Edition and their performance at the BET Awards

Natalie Bullock Brown: New Edition really took the best of what the Jackson 5 did. They brought that professionalism and the soul that comes from a different era and they updated it. When you think about their background and where they came from, the Roxbury section of Boston, … they are enduring. Their influence and their impact is enduring. Their music continues to be the soundtrack of a generation.

Mark Anthony Neal: They are a legitimate supergroup, and their longevity, this is where the BET thing comes in. They have been pushing this mini-series [The New Edition Story] for a long time and nobody thought it had any value to it. 30 million people watched The New Edition Story on BET. Without BET, there wouldn’t have been an outlet for them to tell that story and to tell how important they are …. They are also the last generation of young black performers that performed. The most touching thing is when you see the kid version of them from the series and the folks who play them as adults, and then the actual New Edition, and all 18 of them are on stage performing together – you’ve never seen anything like that before.  

On the death of rapper Prodigy and the work of hip-hop duo Mobb Deep

Mark Anthony Neal: This is a period in the mid-1990s of New York East Coast hip-hop. The West Coast had taken over and New York City responds. They respond with groups like Mobb Deep, they respond with Notorious B.I.G., they respond with Nas, really dissonant, lack of melody, hardcore. This is stuff you couldn’t dance to. This is classic, head-nodding hip-hop. You think about the production of folks like DJ Premier in this particular moment. And they were quintessential New York hip-hop in that period of time. What made their story so important – as we hear some of the lyrics and obviously as he got older – you have this figure like Prodigy who is also suffering from a debilitating disease and his music and lyrics are reflective of his disease, that disease being sickle cell.

Natalie Bullock Brown: I think there’s something really striking about the contrast in the vulnerability that comes from dealing with something like sickle cell in contrast to the toughness and the grit that Mobb Deep is describing in their lyrics. Prodigy, I think he cuts as an interesting and fascinating figure.

In honor of Black Music Month, Mark Anthony Neal and Natalie Bullock Brown each chose an artist to highlight

Mark Anthony Neal: “Still Bill” by Bill Withers. Too many people think of him as a one-hit wonder because of “Lean On Me.” He is someone who would not have survived the contemporary music industry because he was 32 years old when he released his first album. He jokes about the fact that before The Tonight Show called to perform live he was making a real decision because he had been laid off as an airline mechanic and he’d gotten a call to go back and do that work. Then The Tonight Show called and he decided to do the music thing instead. But this was a grown man who told grown-man stories. There’s not a whole lot of that in the music industry these days. They’re all looking for 16-year-olds who can be on American Idol. He was a fully-formed grown  man and his music reflected the fact he was a fully-formed grown-ass man.

Natalie Bullock Brown: "A Seat At The Table" by Solange. She rides so hard for both black women, but black people in general. Right now, in the midst of the Trump era and all that has been happening in terms of these non-convictions of law enforcement who have killed black people, men and women. “F.U.B.U.” has really been hitting me because I understand the impulse to be like, “You know what, forget it. Let’s not even try to appeal to the white power structure, white systems, to make room for a seat at the table. This is for us, by us. Let us come over here in our little corner and all the N-words in the whole wide world, let’s just rally around each other.” So part of my love for Solange and this album is my anger and my cynicism over what I am seeing in our culture as a result of a Trump administration. Also, there are so many lingering issues related to black hair, black bodies and just blackness in general that I think Solange does an amazing and touching job of addressing and it just speaks to me.


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