When Lil Nas X calls BET it means something

The BET Awards air Sunday night, and at least one notable person is highly unlikely to be in attendance: Lil Nas X. In case you missed it, the pop star is currently furious with the network because her name could not be found when the nominations were announced earlier this month. On the same day, he sent a now-deleted tweet: “thank you bet rewards. Another outstanding zero nomination. Black excellence!” And for the past few weeks, the masterful social media provocateur has been trolling BET and teasing “Late to Da Party,” a new song released on Friday featuring the repetitive chant “F***BET!”

I can already hear the snark chime: So…you mean some super-famous, rich celebrity complaining here about not being nominated for a totally subjective award? Who even cares?

I hear you. The the ego is strong with this one. But it is not that simple.

Part of Lil Nas X’s dismay stems from a sense that his very overt homosexuality — still relatively rare for a pop star of his status, especially a black man — had something to do with the omission. In another since-deleted tweet, he wrote, “I just feel like black gay people have to fight to be seen in this world and even when we get to the top mfs try to pretend to be invisible .”

BET’s responsein part, was that the network “likes[s] Lil Nas X,” and that its Voting Academy is made up of “nearly 500 entertainment professionals… No one from BET is a member of the Voting Academy.”

So it’s crucial to note here that Lil Nas X has been nominated for two BET Awards and has performed at the ceremony twice in the past; last year ended with him sharing a passionate kiss with one of his male dancers. He’s also won two BET Hip-Hop Awards and received two nominations at last year’s ceremony. And since its release in 2019 at the height of the “Old Town Road” pandemonium, it has garnered unprecedented and overwhelming support from fans and celebrities alike.

But! He also faced a lot of homophobia and derision from online trolls and celebrities. (See, for example, rapper Boosie Badazz, who seems to have a sickening and violent obsession upset him.) And his flamboyance was criticized by other gay people, who accused him of being too “in your face” about his sexuality, especially after that performance at the BET Awards. His suspicions about why he was snubbed this year, after releasing commercial success and critical acclaim first album, did not just appear in a vacuum. (Meanwhile, his collaborator on “Industry Baby,” polarizing white rapper Jack Harlow, oddly scored a nod for top male hip-hop artist, and is also set to perform on Sunday.)

Lil Nas X’s claims with BET speak to a paradox that has played out in much publicized fashion over the past decade: how do you reconcile the apparent subjectivity of entertainment awards with historical biases among awards voting groups? Drake and Frank Ocean, for example, protested the Recording Academy and the Grammys, accusing the organization of looking down on black artists. Ocean refused to submit his album Blond for exam – “[The Recording Academy] just doesn’t seem to represent very well for people who come from where I come from and who maintain what I maintain,” he told the New York Times. For this year’s ceremony, Drake withdrew his two nominations for Certified loverpiling up on a long string of criticism he got for the Grammys — “I’m apparently a rapper, even though ‘Hotline Bling’ isn’t a rap song,” he said during a meeting in 2017, adding, “The only category they manage to fit me in is in a rap category, maybe because I’ve rapped in the past or because I’m black.”

Like Lil Nas X, Drake and Ocean have won awards from the same institutions they criticize, but I don’t think that, or the fact that there are undoubtedly selfish interests at stake, necessarily invalidates those arguments. Price discounts do have a lot of issues to sort out, starting with who, exactly, votes and how. Last year, it was announced that the Grammys would be eliminating their secret nominating committees, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has been working to diversify its membership in the context of #OscarsSoWhite. The disgraced Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which presents the Golden Globes, came under scrutiny last year for its lack of black members. The industry seems to know it has a problem.

Often the retort to accusations of bias with these awards is that the work may not have been good enough to be nominated or win; “subjectivity” and “meritocracy” are easy ideas to adopt. But those two things are exactly that – ideas that are rarely, if ever, confirmed in practice. Lobbying, expensive campaigns and so many other factors go into creating these awards every year that it is impossible to suggest outright that the only obstacles to becoming a nominee or a winner are in the art itself. You just have to remember how green book won the best film award, among others, Rome and Black Pantheror Macklemore- Macklemore, people! – won Best Rap Album against Kendrick Lamar.

Back to Lil Nas X. The BET Awards aren’t the Grammys, the Oscars, or even the Golden Globes. To the outside world, they’re more like MTV’s Video Music Awards, a ceremony where everything revolves around fashion and performance, and where hardly anyone will remember who won the year before, let alone who was nominated. I can’t remember ever seeing an artist, movie, or show billed as a “BET Award winner.”

Yet they do seem to matter to artists and the industry itself, and for Lil Nas X, there’s something about feeling rejected by your black peers, in a predominantly white industry that has found all the ways to avoid or reject them all at one time or another, that makes it particularly upsetting for him. When someone on Twitter highlighted his Grammy wins, he replied“That’s exactly what I mean, how can I be recognized by the most acclaimed awards ceremony in the world and not even a single nomination from my own people? Isn’t that crazy ?”

OK, “most acclaimed awards show” seems like a stretch, but I get his point. Awards are misguided measures of talent or artistry, but they’re also part of the game. They exist to feed egos, but when you’re black and queer, that recognition — or lack thereof — is just different. .

This piece first appeared in NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Register to receive the newsletter so you don’t miss the next one and receive weekly recommendations on what makes us happy.

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