For over 30 years, Debra Lee embodied the ideals and principles of Black excellence. As the former Chairman and CEO of BET Networks, she championed the network’s expansion into original programming, which produced beloved shows like Being Mary Jane and Black Girls Rock. Now, Lee’s greatest endeavor is sharing the intimacies of her life through I Am Debra Lee: A Memoir.
In front of a crowd of her admirers, Black women from across the country convened at the ESSENCE Authors stage during the 2023 ESSENCE Festival of the Culture on Saturday, July 1, 2023, to hear Lee in conversation with Owner and Co-founder Ramunda Young, founder of MahoganyBooks. The two embraced each other in a way only Black women can, a hug, a kiss, a compliment uttered from each other’s mouths before the pair invited the crowd into the intimacy of their experience. It’s often said Black women possess an innate ability to communicate without using their mouths. Although the talk was verbal, there was an aura of compassionate understanding and grace as Lee began to share herself with the stage.
Her love of Black culture was fostered at a young age. She attended an all Black high school in Greensboro, North Carolina. She was a member of her school’s dance team. She witnessed the burgeoning Black youth culture at North Carolina A&T, a nearby HBCU. All of these collective experiences inspired to find a way to give back to her community.
After she graduated Harvard Law School, the then graduate declined to follow in the footsteps of her peers to work in government. Instead of working for the Regan administration, she accepted a position at a major corporate law firm. When BET poached her, she described the experience as a calling.
“They say what God has for you, will find you. It found me,” she said. “I never knew it but it found me. I went to hide out, and BET found me.”
At BET, Lee had found her long awaited dream job. While there, she worked several positions in her tenure, General Counsel, CEO, Chairwoman. Even when she was doing legal counsel and working on boring contracts, as she described, she had so much pride in working for a company that boldly displayed their love for Black culture. When the opportunity arose for her to take over as the CEO, she finally had an opportunity to produce and create authentic, high quality programming that she dreamed of as a little girl watching Soul Train.
“When I took over BET, there was 60% music video programming. That’s because music videos were free and we didn’t have a lot of money,” she said. “By the time I left BET, four years ago. There were no music videos shoes. Music videos had moved online.” During her tenure, programs such as Being Mary Jane, The New Edition Story, The Game, Black Girls Rock, and the BET Awards became household staples in Black communities across the nation.
The girl from Greensboro, North Carolina had finally achieved her dream.
In addition to personal fulfillment, the rise of original programming was to counterbalance the music videos from the popular rappers of the time. The videos, known for their depiction of Black women, resulted in controversy of not only the network, but Lee herself. For seven months, she had protestors outside of her months. “I said I can’t let you decide what videos. I’m running this network. I have to make this decision. But I hear your issues.”
She described the conflict as a tug and pull between listening to what Black youth wanted and what she felt was best for the network to represent. “I tried to give some credibility to what young people want but then came a time where the adults have to step in. That was one of the hardest parts of my job is finding that balance.”
When Lee prevented Kanye West from airing his music video for Flashing Lights on BET, her executive clients brought MTV as a reason to air. “My clients said well MTV is showing it,” she said. “I was like I don’t care. I have to decide what’s best for our community.” Her clients tried to strike fear in Lee by telling her to expect a call from Kanye West.
“He never called me. That was a good learning lesson. I said some of these artists want you to put your foot down. If that’s my job, I’m going to do it.”
As she divulged into her experiences of motherhood, the tender revelation of her abortion story, and the need for young women to protect themselves from intimidation in the workplace, the former executive was met with warmth, love, and compassion from the audience. Here was the coronation for “The Godmother of Black Culture” and it felt good to witness the re-emergence of Debra Lee at her first ESSENCE festival.