“Tonight’s honorees represent our radiance and our royalty … Thank you all for showing the world how bright we shine and how hard we rock,” said Black Girls Rock! founder Beverly Bond, speaking to the audience at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center during the Black Girls Rock! Awards, which aired on BET on Sunday night.
Lena Waithe, Naomi Campbell, Tarana Burke, Mary J. Blige, Judith Jamison and Janet Jackson were all on hand to receive their awards at the 12th annual awards ceremony, which honors the unique greatness and accomplishments of black women. Also saluted were the Coca-Cola-sponsored “M.A.D. Girls”: first national Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, Every Kid Fed founder Shanay Thompson and child activist Naomi Wadler, who said in a taped interview:
“As long as you have made an impact, you have been successful and you have made a difference.”
“Collectively, you all represent why black girls rock,” host Queen Latifah told the honorees, each of whom had major words of inspiration to share with those of us watching. We encourage you to print them out, post them on your mirror, or tattoo them on your arm, as needed.
Writer, producer and actress Waithe, sporting a kiss print from Ava DuVernay, who presented Waithe her “Shot Caller” award, thanked Bond and Black Girls Rock! “for reminding folks that gay black girls rock, too.” Using her recently cropped hair as a metaphor for freedom, she encouraged us all to “get free,” by whatever means necessary.
“For me, it was hair; for you, it might be something else. But whatever it is, I want to encourage you to stop letting it hold you captive,” Waithe said. “You might need to get free of a relationship that’s not serving you. I implore you to get free of that. I want you to get free of your narrative—sometimes, we’re so used to things being bad all the time that when good things come, we can’t embrace it. Get free of that. And last, but not least, let’s get free of the idea that we can’t go after our dreams, because of how we look, where we come from, who we love or how old we are. We all have gifts, and we can either lock into those gifts, or act like they don’t exist. You can’t live your dream if you never go after it.”
In supermodel, activist and “Black Girl Magic” award winner Naomi Campbell’s taped interview, she said, “I think black women have always been royal; I see how regal and proud and elegant that they are, and I think that black women should never think of themselves as anything less.”
Accepting her award onstage, Campbell called attention to the bevy of black women recently featured on magazine covers around the world, reminding us that “this should the norm; it shouldn’t be noteworthy. … We’ve got to make sure black women are empowered, and we’ve all got to own our own magic. … We are not a trend, we are here to stay, and let’s keep going.”
#MeToo Movement founder Tarana Burke, honored with the “Community Change Agent” award, wanted to ensure that the Black Girls Rock! audience continues to claim a movement that was initially created for them, imploring black women not to be discouraged by the mainstream adoption of #MeToo.
“Black women are magic, and we rock, mostly because we are resilient. We have a long history of taking what we have to make what we need—that’s how this movement was born,” she said. “What you all have solidified for me—and by ‘you,’ I mean black women—is that no one can take what was meant for us. It can be used by everybody and still be ours. Don’t opt yourself out of what was started for you because the media isn’t acknowledging your hurt, and your pain, and your stories. They never have. ... We don’t need validation from anyone to do that work; we can validate ourselves ...
“I’m here to say to you, black women and girls, that you deserve safety, and you deserve protection. And I’ve committed my life to ensuring that you have it.”
Mary J. Blige’s acceptance speech was a testament to her own evolution, and to the fact that she has indeed been growing up beside us, “singing [our] lives with her songs,” as presenter Phylicia Rashad (obviously a huge MJB fan) proclaimed as she brought Blige to the stage to accept her “Star Power” award.
“We are healing together, we are growing together, we are going somewhere together, we’re making progress, so that’s what I’m here for,” Blige said in her taped interview, admitting onstage that, “It’s taken me a while for me to realize that I rock—it took me a long time to get here, to stand here. But now that I’m here, I know I’ve been rockin’ for years. ... [I]t means so much to me for the world to see black girls rocking together. We share in the struggle—and even better, we share in the triumphs.”
Judith Jamison, Alvin Ailey’s muse and now Artistic Director Emerita of his now 60-year-old famed dance company, described working with the legendary choreographer as a “sacred experience.” In fact, the recipient of the “Living Legend” award used the experience of being mentored and elevated by Ailey to advise the Black Girls Rock! audience:
“Know always that you don’t get there by yourself. You are constantly lifted by trailblazers and mentors. … Please remember that you wear a crown,” she said.
Janet Jackson doesn’t need a “Rockstar” award to affirm her iconic status; her over 40 years in the entertainment industry speak for themselves—as did the cheers of “Janet! Janet! Janet!” that rose from the Black Girls Rock! audience when she appeared to accept her award. But Jackson made sure to give credit to the women who rocked before her, calling out Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin and her fellow honorees, among others.
“We have a long and beautiful tradition of rockers, and I’m so proud to be a small part of that tradition,” she said. “Just as beautiful is this brave, new young [generation of] black girls who are rocking harder than ever; they give me hope, and I love them very much. They stand strong, they stand independent, they demand their own equal place, they will not be intimidated, they will chart their own course, driven by their own burning talent. Yeah, we rock.”
Jackson’s words were perfectly applicable to the many dynamic performers at the ceremony, including Fantasia, who opened the show with the first of several musical tributes to Aretha Franklin, H.E.R., Victory and Tamia, who all turned in lovely performances, and Rapsody, who broke a rhyme scheme down to its roots, reminding us that hip hop is pure poetry.
But hands-down, the most incredible music of the evening came via a flawless medley of Aretha songs performed by Jazmine Sullivan, Ledisi, Cynthia Erivo, Stephanie Mills and Yolanda Adams, backed by Kim Burse and the Black Girls Rock! band. Watching each blaze through some of Franklin’s most beloved songs, it was hard not to hope the powers that be might reconsider the casting of Franklin’s biopic. No shade to the mega-talented Jennifer Hudson, but remember that biopic of Bob Dylan that featured six incarnations of the singer? Aretha deserves at least that many.
And then, there was a poignant message from our forever first lady, Michelle Obama, reminding black women of our much-needed power at the polls; a sentiment backed up by Queen Latifah, who said:
“Together, we can move the needle of apathy. Voting is the most important thing you can do.”
It was a glorious evening, and profound reminder of exactly what makes black women and girls so magical. In the words of Janet Jackson:
“Black girls rock, now, more than ever. And girl, all I can say is rock on.” — Janet Jackson