Before Sunday night, you might have recognized actor and social activist Jesse Williams, 34, for his role on ABC’S “Grey’s Anatomy,” or perhaps you’ve come across news coverage on his active participation in recent protests that began shortly after the death of Michael Brown. However, it was the speech Williams gave while accepting the Humanitarian Award during Sunday’s BET Awards that catapulted him to a new level and shed light on his genuine passion as a social activist.
The brilliance of Williams’ speech is that it simultaneously inspired, convicted, encouraged, and indicted his mostly black audience. His overall demeanor and diction created a didactic environment that impacted all who were listening, including some of the biggest entertainers in the world, the media, and the thousands of viewers who tuned in Sunday night. No matter who you were, on Sunday night we received a treat when Williams took the stage to deliver such a powerful message.
Although Williams took the time to address a number of things that were long overdue, it was the below points that created opportunity for some serious reflection on how faith has been misused in the black community and how we can use that same faith to actively gain the freedom we were given by God and promised by the American enterprise.
Many of us have been praying for the wrong things.
All of us in here getting money—that alone isn’t going to stop this… Now, dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back. [We] put someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid with brands for our bodies. —Jesse Williams
This point was directed particularly towards the celebrities in the room, but it applies to everyone in our culture that makes the concept of “celebrity” something to strive for, the measure of success. In just three sentences, Williams highlights the complex relationship between black people’s enduring faith in the midst of slavery and the travesty of so many of our people twisting the American dream today. They have taken advantage of the freedom that the slaves prayed for in exchange for socioeconomic slavery. This new-age slavery comes in the form of corporate branding and the dollars that are attached as a measure of success.
How many people do you know that are praying from an impoverished, prosperity theology? Perhaps you also know a few people who measure their success and “favor” by material wealth, selling themselves for money, attention from “the right people,” and likes on social media.
Williams’ statement reminds us that the success we should be praying for and working toward is measured by the freedom of self-determination and liberty for our communities, not dollars in our bank accounts and designers on our bodies.
We can’t just wait to die and go to Heaven to be free.
Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter but, you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.—Jesse Williams
Jesus prayed for the Kingdom of God to come and the will of God to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:9-10). Then, Jesus took action everywhere; He went to correct the earthly things that were at odds with Heaven, from sickness to disease, to demonic attacks. He addressed everything from the exploitation of the poor to self-righteousness, to pride, and all of the impacts of sin that separates us from the power of God’s presence in our lives.
Jesus did not die only for us to focus on the afterlife. Instead, He promised the disciples that those who follow Him would receive back what they have left to follow him (family and land) in both this life and the life to come (Mark 10:29-31). Indeed, whom the Son has set free is free indeed!
Williams’ speech reminds us that we must have an active faith in order to see God’s work through us in our communities. Praying for individual success without praying for collective liberation is not a true reflection of God’s kingdom as followers of Christ.
Waiting for freedom to just be given to us by those who oppress us is not the answer and neither is putting it off until the afterlife. Jesus taught us to believe in the ultimate justice of God and pray for God’s will to be done on the earth. Then, we are to ask God to use us as his vessels to show love and justice as Christians here on Earth. Jesse Williams reminds us that faith without works is dead, so let’s heed the call and get to work in our faith for freedom.
Check out Jesse Williams’ entire speech below:
Share your thoughts on Jesse Williams’ call-to-action during Sunday night’s “BET Awards” below.
The water-cooler reviews are in, and BET’s 2009 awards show has got people talking. Unfortunately, much of the talk is not favorable. Indeed, Sunday night’s show was kind of a mess. But I think we should give BET a little grace. When Michael Jackson died last Thursday, BET completely overhauled the show to weave the King of Pop throughout and accommodate the mass number of celebs wanting to offer tributes. The show was quite literally thrown together. And so, yes, in many instances it looked like it.
To take a show that normally takes six months to plan and totally revamp it in a couple of days was an unenviable but admirable undertaking. Certainly there’s plenty to bash BET about — the network’s shoddy and sometimes downright trashy programming is now legendary.
But perhaps, in this case, we should give BET credit for attempting to pull off the impossible in order to honor one of the Black community’s — and the world’s — greatest entertainers. Some additional thoughts about BET’s show:
Ne-Yo did a phenomenal performance of “The Lady in my Life.”
Jay-Z rocked it with his new single “DOA.”
Joe Jackson sat up front all show long with Al Sharpton — which was weird, to say the least. Don’t we all dislike Joe Jackson because of all he put Michael through as a child? I’m confused …
All of the other celebs who came out of the woodworks for MJ tributes, like New Edition, were totally subpar.
The O’Jays tribute with Tevin Campbell was painful to watch…just a bad performance.
Jamie Foxx was a great host but went a little heavy on promoting his own upcoming tour.
The vignettes spliced between performances and awards offering tributes to MJ were awkward. The celebs shared MJ memories off the cuff, and since they were likely unscripted, the stories were rambling and sentimental, but not well-communicated.
Janet Jackson showed up on behalf of the Jackson family to say “to you, Michael was an icon, but to us, he was family.” It was the most touching moment of the night but lasted about 5 seconds after the show was already running behind 40 minutes.
The whole night was a little low-budget and unrehearsed. But in a way, it was like one big ghetto funeral. People were just there to show their love, raw and uncut. I kind of liked it.
BET has never been one of my favorite networks, but when it announced that it would change its awards show at the eleventh hour, working overtime as a labor of love, to pay tribute to the King of Pop, I had to tune in. And though there were a number of times I wanted to tune out, I did not, hoping that it would get better. I am sad to report that it never did.
I expected BET to honor Michael Jackson last night in a way befitting a King. I expected BET to have a tribute that was thoughtful, meaningful, memorable, and inspirational. I expected to be proud after the show was over and to have my spirits lifted. I expected to see those most influenced by Michael Jackson to collaborate and show an anxiously awaiting world how much Michael Jackson meant to them and their careers. I never expected to be so embarrassed and ashamed at this substandard expression of blackness … ever.
Jamie Foxx’s monologue was terribly inappropriate. Many of his jokes were out of line and just not funny. I understand the notion of celebrating Jackson’s life; but humor, in my estimation, was not the best way to commemorate his life, legacy, and contributions — not this soon at least. His death is too fresh, and too many people were still in the first stages of the grieving process. But I don’t blame his shortcomings on his poor judgment or even on the alcohol he openly admitted to consuming before the show. Rather, I blame the executive team of BET who should have demanded that Foxx’s tone be serious, solemn, and respectful of the Jackson family and millions of adoring fans who were watching the show to process the loss of a musical genius who forever changed the way we view entertainment.
Instead of a video montage of all of the times Jackson appeared on BET, or a montage of all the artists who were heavily and noticeably influenced by Jackson, or even something as simple as a short bio of his life, there were 10-second snippets of Jackson dancing scattered randomly throughout the show. Is this what chairman and CEO Debra Lee was talking about when she said the show would be an ongoing tribute to Jackson throughout the evening’s festivities? I hope she wasn’t referring to the few celebrities who were selected to share their personal encounter with Michael Jackson before the commercial breaks; and I certainly hope she wasn’t talking about the arbitrary and thoughtless statements too many of the artists inserted extemporaneously before they presented or received an award.
Perhaps the most humiliating and embarrassing aspect of the awards show was to witness the disconnect between what Black entertainers said they received from the now late-and-forever-great Michael Jackson and the vulgar, offensive, and tactless lyrics with empty messages of individualism, materialism, misogyny, and self-aggrandizement. My suspicion is that had Michael Jackson been there that night, he would have probably felt more insulted than honored.
CNN reported from the red carpet before the show began. During this special presentation, Danyel Smith, the editor in chief of Vibe magazine, had an exchange with CNN anchor Don Lemon. In summary, Lemon said that many people expressed to him that they had never heard of the BET Awards and admonished him to explain. She replied that everyone knew what the BET Awards were and went on to give them accolades. Regardless of whether she was right or wrong, the international coverage of the first big awards show since Michael Jackson’s untimely passing invited new people to the audience. I, for one, am sorry they were invited. Though there were a few artists who had moving tributes, as a whole, the night’s celebrations were overwhelmingly sloppy, disorganized, distasteful, and unsophisticated. In a word, the 2009 BET Awards was a disappointment.
The BET Awards is just a small piece of its greater programming. The advertisements for new shows that will broadcast in the cable network are indications of the buffoonery that is to come. Personally, I am in favor of starting a campaign to take BET off the air. The network does nothing to edify the Black race and seems more interested in working against the ground we have gained as it relates to a more positive portrayal of Blacks in media.
We have come too far to let one cable network turn us around. I am reminded of the song made popular by the Civil Rights Struggle: “Ain’t gon’ let nobody turn me around!” — especially not self-serving Blacks and media conglomerates who care more about the bottom line than they do about the future of the Black community.
The children of America’s greatest peacemaker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are once again squabbling over the rights to their parents’ estate. Following DreamWork’s announcement that Steven Spielberg would produce a biopic of King’s life, it came to light that only one of the three surviving siblings, Dexter King, actually gave permission to the studio. The others now say the sale of these rights is invalid. What a shame. As of now, DreamWorks says it will not move ahead with the project until all the King siblings are on the same page.
If the film does actually make it into production, we’re curious about who Spielberg will get to play the starring role. Sean Smith at Entertainment Weekly is throwing Jeffrey Wright’s name in the ring. You’ll remember him from Casino Royale (Felix Leiter), Cadillac Records (Muddy Waters), and W (Colin Powell). He delivers strong performances in all of his flicks and even played King in the 2001 HBO movie Boycott. He could be a great choice, but to be honest, the pickings are slim. All of the standby black male leads like Denzel Washington, Will Smith, or Forrest Whitaker aren’t right for the role, either due to age or body type. Perhaps this will be the career-making breakout role for an emerging black actor with little notoriety. We want someone who can allow us to sink into King’s life, evoking the aura of the great preacher, without the ghosts of his previous roles haunting the screen.
By now, you’ve probably heard about 23-years-old church worship leader Kris Allen’s win on American Idol. Though he clearly lacked the crowd appeal of competitor Adam Lambert, past crowd-pleasing winners have taught us an important lesson: American Idol viewers don’t always translate into CD buyers. Last year’s winner David Cook has experienced only minor success despite his popularity and talent. The question now is what kind of album will Kris Allen make? Will the support of Christians that likely pushed him to the top on Idol ultimately help or handicap Allen artistically as he goes to work on debut album? Time will tell.
In case you’d forgotten how old you’re getting, this past week marked the 25th anniversary of The Cosby Show. Most of the cast celebrated with a reunion on the Today Show on Tuesday. However, celebration over the inroads African Americans have made on television was short-lived for some fans as news surfaced Thursday of the CW network’s cancellation of The Game and Everybody Hates Chris. While the content of both shows lacked the strong moral character of The Cosby Show, sometimes reinforcing negative stereotypes of the black community — The Game‘s Wendy Raquel Robinson’s colorful “ghetto hustler” persona and the ongoing baby mama drama storyline between Tia Mowery (Melanie Barnett) and Pooch Hall (Derwin Davis) are examples — many African Americans were just happy to see black actors on television in lead roles that offered realistic portrayals of African American life. UrbanFaith’s own Nicole Symmonds broke down the lack of multi-dimensional black characters on television for us at her Loudmouth Protestant blog, saying she doesn’t think the CW is prejudiced, just shortsighted. The network “does well at depicting the many faces of white America while giving black America short shrift. We exist!” Is there any positive urban programming left on television? What are you watching these days?
Ciara’s ‘Mama’ Drama
The drama surrounding pop and R&B singer Ciara’s controversial change in management has extended to the release of her film debut in the gospel movie Mama, I Want to Sing! Back in 2007, websites like BlackVoices were buzzing about Ciara’s starring role opposite Patti LaBelle and Lynn Whitfield. But since the studios originally had hoped to piggyback off of Ciara’s album promotion, when the record label delayed Fantasy Ride‘s release the studios were forced to push back the film as well. Now FoxFaith and CodeBlack have scrapped plans for a movie theater release, sending the film straight to DVD this August or September. We sure hope the movie’s worth all the trouble. Mama, I Want to Sing! is the longest-running off-Broadway black theater musical in history, about a preacher’s daughter who leaves the church choir to become an international pop star. The original stage play was written by Vy Higginsen and loosely based on her sister Doris Troy’s rise to fame.
From Beyoncé to Smokie
BET has released the nominees for the 2009 BET Awards, set to air live on June 28th at 8 p.m. ET/PT. We’re sure all the usual suspects will appear, like Beyoncé and Kanye West who are both scheduled to perform. But we’re more interested in the gospel music category, as its always telling to find out who’s garnering the most attention in the secular music arena. Nominees for Best Gospel Artist include Regina Belle, Smokie Norful, Shirley Caesar, Trin-I-Tee 5:7, and Mary Mary. It’s nice to see Smokie Norful and Trin-I-Tee 5:7 getting some love, as both were passed over for Dove Award nominations. Who do you think should win the category?
DMX the Televangelist?
While finishing up a 90-day jail sentence for drugs, fraud, and animal cruelty, rapper DMX told reporters about plans to start his own Christian TV show called Pain and Perseverance. He said, “It’s about how I can reach people that the average person can’t reach because I’m grounded. I’m going to give my first sermon, in the church. That’s going to be incredible for me and hopefully the congregation of that church.” This isn’t the first time DMX has talked about going into ministry. Back in March 2003, he toyed with the idea of retiring from rap, but eventually decided to continue his career after seeking advice from born-again rapper Mase. “I talked to Mase. I said, ‘Dog! I’m fed up with this rap sh–. I know the Lord. I know my true calling is to preach the Word, where do I go from here?’ He was like, ‘As long as the Lord gives you the talent to do what you do, do it. He’ll call you when he’s ready.'” Fast forward a few years and X was back to battling the demons of drug use and other criminal activity from his past. But maybe now DMX is ready. God’s clearly had a hold on his life for some time, as X often talks about his strong desire for a deeper relationship with Christ and a hunger for his Bible. We want to give him grace and trust that he’s serious this time. But we’ll believe it when we see it.