The perfomances channeled the artistry of The Purple One and it was amazing to watch.
Back in May, shortly after Madonna and Stevie Wonder delivered an underwhelming tribute to music legend Prince Rogers Nelson at the Billboard Awards, BET set high expectations for its Prince tribute at the then-upcoming BET Awards. Minutes after Madonna’s performances of “Nothing Compares 2 U" and “Purple Rain”, the network tweeted from its official account: “Yeah, We saw that. Don’t worry. We Got You.” Bloop!
The stakes were raised, and millions tuned in to see if BET would come through like they said. With a lineup that included Sheila E., Jennifer Hudson, Bilal, Janelle Monae, Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and Stevie Wonder, BET’s Prince tribute exceeded all expectations, and blew away its audience—at the Microsoft Theater and at home. We have to break down how BET not only showed up, but showed all the way out in a series of performances to celebrate, as presenter Dave Chappelle put it, “the rich legacy of this remarkable genius we are all so proud of.”BET came through last night, but the tribute was rocky at first. Erykah Badu, accompanied by The Roots, set it off with an obscure Prince song that nobody seemed to know. (It was “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” from 1987’s Sign O’ the Times album.) She sounded great, but even “Queen to BET” Debra Lee looked confused. The audience offered a polite, but lukewarm applause.
Then Bilal arrived, taking the stage with a pitch perfect falsetto, freshly cornrowed hair, and kitten heels in honor of Prince, to cover the more familiar “The Beautiful Ones”. Channeling Prince’s performance in Purple Rain, Bilal ripped at the buttons of his shirt, then dropped to his knees for a power thrust before falling to the stage and writhing wildly like a man possessed… by Prince. The performance ended with the audience on its feet and Bilal lying there panting, like he couldn’t even believe what just happened. It was glorious.
The celebration continued with Stevie Wonder dressed in purple and black plaid taking on “Take Me With U”. Wonder, who is the unofficial tribute king and always delivers (he wasn’t the problem with the Billboard tribute), was accompanied by Tori Kelly, a new artist that once met Prince. She sounded and looked lovely in purple glitter pants, but I couldn’t figure out why she was there. Wonder doesn’t require assistance on vocals, especially not from a newcomer unknown to the core audience.
Next up was Jennifer Hudson, looking angelic (and also in mourning) in a hooded white dress. She belted out “Purple Rain”, putting a gospel stank on Prince’s most popular song as The Roots’s guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas came forward to play his heart out on the guitar solo. In the audience, Spike Lee, wearing a purple hat and Prince’s symbol on his lapel, clapped like he was in church. Hostess Tracey Ellis Ross, outfitted in a darling purple glitter jumpsuit, said Hudson’s performance made her want to “jump in Lake Minnetonka”. Prince would have been pleased. I was caught off guard by the tribute from Maxwell, who began his set singing his comeback hit “Lake by the Ocean”, before launching into “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Maxwell always sounds heavenly, and tonight was no exception, though it was the first time I understood his lyrics without having to Google. He changed the original opening lyrics to “It’s been seven hours and 66 days, since you took your music away”, a reference to the date Prince died. A stop watch of the days/hours since Prince’s passing ran on the screen behind him. Later in the show, Janelle Monae took to the stage rocking side swept spirals curls Prince would have been proud of, a white lace top, and pants with exposed butt cheeks, a nod to Prince’s (in)famous 1991 VMA appearance. She performed a medley of Prince’s energetic dance hits that would sweat out your edges such as "Delirious," "Kiss", Pop Life" and "I Would Die 4 U" and was backed by a gospel choir that seemed to “catch the Spirit”. Amandla Stenberg, who wasn’t born when any of these songs were initially released, sang along word for word in the audience.
After Monae slayed the stage, host Anthony Anderson appeared, dressed in an all white pantsuit (with ruffles), joking, “Damn, you, Janelle, I told you I was going to wear the outfit!” He turned around—thrice—to reveal his ass-less pants, asking the audience, “Who wore it better?”
The final tribute performance came from none other than Sheila E., who began her career as Prince’s protégé before becoming a star in her own right. In a vigorous ten-minute set that began with Sheila E. wearing out a set of drums, she ran through "Erotic City," "U Got the Look”, and “The Glamorous Life”, which Prince wrote for her in 1984. Early in the performance, Prince’s ex-wife Mayte Garcia, who was a dancer on the late artist’s Diamonds and Pearls tour, took the stage. Much later, after Sheila E had abandoned her drums in favor of a purple and white guitar, then gave that up for a white fur, which she wore as she slid (purposefully) across the stage, The Time’s Jerome Benton arrived dressed in a red suit to resurrect some '80s dance moves. The fast-paced set came to a close with Sheila E lifting the guitar to the heavens, and struggling to hold back tears, as Garcia embraced her and what looked like lilac flower petals fell around them.
It was everything, and a lot, and more than enough (in the best way). And finally, the collective memorial service we all needed to attend to send off a legendary musician who provided the soundtrack for our lives.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.