NEW YORK — As she took the stage at the start of BET's "Black Girls Rock!" event, host Nia Long announced, "The golden rule for this evening is to believe in yourself fearlessly." Her smile seemed to invite the audience to give it a try.
Anchored by stellar performances from Jill Scott, Keri Hilson, Ciara and other heavy hitters, the program's 11 honorees — including Lifetime Achievement Award winner Missy Elliot — carried a message of empowerment. "Black Girls Rock!" is a tribute devoted to honoring African-American "Icons, Moguls and Sheroes" and will be televised for the first time on BET Sunday (November 7) at 8 p.m. ET.
An audience full of icons could make anyone feel intimidated, but Shontelle, who performed her hit single "Impossible," embraced the challenge. "Walking onto the stage, I was a nervous wreck," she admitted to MTV News. "[I was] in front of all these legends I look up to. I was so nervous at first, but then I realized everyone was singing along and it felt really great."
"Black Girls Rock!" is supported by a diverse mix of talent; 2009 honorees included Janelle Monáe, Mary J. Blige and poet/activist Sonia Sanchez, but this year's broadcast is poised to bring "Black Girls Rock!" to a global audience — a dream come true for founder Beverly Bond.
"I want young black girls to know that they matter," the stylish Bond shared at a New York press screening of the awards on Tuesday. The celebrity DJ and former model founded the non-profit organization in 2006 to provide mentorship and programs to young black girls, including a DJ academy, college campus tours, a summer camp and poetry workshops.
"It's up to us females to open doors for other females like the legends sitting here tonight," Raven-Symoné said while accepting the Young, Black & Gifted Award. The actress — "The Cosby Show" vet was at 5 years old the youngest artist signed by RCA and has been producing since 18 — revealed that hearing "no" during her career has never stopped her from achieving her dreams. "Stay true to yourself," she advised.
But the actress/singer wasn't the youngest honoree of the night: The vibrant Nickelodeon star Keke Palmer was presented with the Who Got Next? Award. The 17-year-old, who won Favorite TV Actress at this year's Kid Choice Awards, released her first fashion line in 2009 and is actively involved in charity work.
"A lot of black girls don't know they rock," Palmer stressed. She applauded the organization's efforts to help girls improve their self-esteem. "[This] lets them know dreams do come true."
At the preview screening, a solemn Hydeia Broadbent watched herself onscreen, one of several young women at this year's awards show recognized as Black Girls Making A Difference. An HIV/AIDS activist who contracted the disease from her biological mother during childbirth, Broadbent has traveled the country to share her story and has won numerous awards for her advocacy.
During a panel discussion that followed the screening, Broadbent choked back tears of happiness. " 'Black Girls Rock!' represents a change for so many people. ... I'm honored to be a part of it. I can't wait for my younger sisters to see [the show]. There are not enough role models for them."
Bond is on a mission to change that. She sees her partnership with BET as an opportunity to utilize a wider platform that will be "the beginning of an empowerment movement for women of color across the globe."
And to think, it all began with a T-shirt design. Four years ago, Bond was a successful DJ in a profession that was often "a boys club," but didn't like the way that black women were increasingly being portrayed in the media, particularly in music videos. Bond found herself designing a T-shirt for herself that carried a simple but powerful message: "black girls rock." The t-shirt logo eventually became the name for Beverly's nonprofit organization.
"Our girls are not being told how amazing they are or how amazing they can really be," she said. "It is time we start telling them. It is time we start shouting out to the entire world that we, black girls rock!"
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