With Michael Jackson’s death occurring just three days before the BET Awards, the show’s organizers quickly overhauled it to become a tribute to the singer. And from covers of the singer’s hit songs to clips from his iconic music videos to poignant tributes from leading artists, the ninth annual BET Awards became a full-blown celebration of the life and music of the King of Pop.
The nearly four-hour show kicked off with New Edition performing a medley of Jackson 5 hits like “ABC” and “The Love You Save” that garnered a standing ovation from the packed auditorium. Then host Jamie Foxx came onstage dressed in copies of Jackson’s iconic red leather jacket and single sparkling glove for an abbreviated performance of the singer’s classic Thriller single, “Beat It.”
“No need to be sad,” Foxx said afterward. “We want to celebrate this black man. He belongs to us and we shared him with everyone else.”
With Michael’s father, Joe Jackson, sitting in the front row, the tributes from presenters, winners and performers continued throughout the evening. Almost everyone who stepped in front of a microphone took time to praise Jackson. “This is to you, Michael Jackson,” Beyoncé said after winning best female R&B artist. “I have to thank Michael for being my teacher, my hero.”
As soon as she took her seat, Jay-Z took the stage for a performance of his new song, “D.O.A,” and ended by pointing to the sky and saying, “Rest in peace to the King.”
Earlier in the evening, Lil Wayne won the award for best male hip-hop artist and said, “We all know none of us in this room [would] be here without Michael Jackson.”
Alicia Keys and Wyclef Jean, who were given humanitarian awards, both expressed their gratitude to be honored on a night devoted to Jackson. “He has truly inspired me to use music in a way that serves the world,” Keys said, noting that she could feel the singer’s spirit in the room.
During the show, Usher released a statement expressing his regret that he could not participate in the evening’s festivities. “When the BET Awards producers and organizers reached out to me to participate in the tribute, I was extremely flattered and humbled by the opportunity to pay tribute to the world’s greatest musical icon,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, I am currently overseas and would not make it back in time to the awards show. I look forward to seeing the show and I plan to work on a tribute to Michael Jackson when I return.”
One artist who did make it to the show expressed his regrets as well. After a performance with Foxx, Ne-Yo — whose music shows a profound MJ influence — apologized for accepting an award earlier without giving a shout-out to Jackson. Declaring that the singer made it possible for him to become an artist, Ne-Yo said, “I love you and I miss you.”
“My heart and prayers go out to the whole Jackson family,” said 2009 NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James, following his triumph in the best male athlete category. “What they did for us and what they did for music and basketball and everything in the world is unbelievable.”
“If there wasn’t a Michael Jackson, then people like Justin Timberlake would probably be selling curly fries deep in the Valley,” said presenter Jeremy Piven. “I mean that with love!”
“He not only showcased that singing is what it is,” said Ray J. “He showcased that when you perform you gotta be the best at it. You gotta be number one with your performances as well. And we love you for that, Mike.”
Artists were also sure to keep MJ central to their performances, whether with a cover (Ne-Yo’s take on Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life,” Ciara’s cover of “Heal the World” and actress Keke Palmer’s a cappella version of the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You”) or with a wardrobe choice (Keri Hilson’s Jackson-esque silver socks and shiny black shoes while singing her single “Knock You Down”). Young actor Bobb’e J. Thompson (“Role Models”) took the stage with a brief yet impressive riff on Jackson’s dance moves.
The show’s strangest moment occurred when Taraji P. Henson, Tyrese Gibson and Ving Rhames re-created moments from their 2001 film “Baby Boy” onstage, with Tyrese screaming at Henson and Rhames, who seemed to be pretending to be drunk, taking off his belt and threatening to beat Tyrese. The crowd (and even Foxx) seemed unsure if the whole thing was staged or some disastrous live-broadcast snafu.
No single artist dominated the evening. Foxx, Ne-Yo, Lil Wayne, Hilson and Beyoncé all took home wins, as did T.I. and Rihanna, though neither was in attendance.
While the show stretched on (and dragged at times), the performances were first-rate from start to finish. An angelic-looking Beyoncé sang “Ave Maria” and a cover of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” Other performers included Foxx and T-Pain with Travis Barker on drums (“Blame It [On the Alcohol]”), Soulja Boy Tell ’Em (“Turn My Swag On”), Keyshia Cole and Monica (“Trust”), Mary Mary (“God in Me”), Maxwell (“Pretty Wings”) and Drake and Lil Wayne (“Best I Ever Had”) .
And in the night’s most unexpected moment, Janet Jackson herself addressed the crowd on behalf of her family. “I’d just like to say that to you Michael is an icon,” said the singer’s sister. “To us Michael is family and he will forever live in all of our hearts.” As Foxx and Ne-Yo then teamed up for a gentle duet of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” it made for a somber but perfect conclusion to the tribute show.
For complete coverage of the life, career and passing of the legendary entertainer, visit “Michael Jackson Remembered.”
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