Janet Jackson makes an emotional appearance at the BETsBy: NEKESA MUMBI MOODY
LOS ANGELES – Some of the biggest stars on the planet turned back into gushing Michael Jackson fans at the BET Awards, donning single gloves, swapping stories about their idol and singing The King of Pop’s standards. One person who perhaps knew him best, though, brought the night into perspective: his sister.
“To you, Michael is an icon,” a sombre Janet Jackson told the crowd at the end of Sunday’s show. “To us, Michael is family and he will forever live in all of our hearts.”
It was a stirring emotional climax for a telecast that was completely revamped to recognise the legacy of Jackson, who died on Thursday at the age of 50.
For the most part, it was a joyous wake.
“He’s the man who made it possible for me to be on the stage; I love you and I miss you,” said Ne-Yo, who sang one of Jackson’s most sensual songs, ‘Lady In My Life’.
Host Jamie Foxx kicked off the show with a re-enactment of the choreography from Jackson’s iconic ‘Beat It’ video in front of the star-studded crowd, on its feet from the start of the show.
Throughout the night, Foxx also regularly turned up in some of Jackson’s signature looks, like the wide-collar black leather outfit from ‘Billie Jean’.
“We’re going to celebrate this black man. He belongs to us, and we shared him with everybody else,” Foxx told the packed housed.
“I’m going to moonwalk tonight – going to moonwalk from here, all the way to there, for Michael Jackson,” Foxx said, pointing across the stage.
He then performed the backwards shuffle dance step that Jackson made famous, but Foxx didn’t even come close to mastering the move. In fact, he tripped.
The awards given annually by the BET television network honour the best African American singers, actors, actresses and athletes.
“He is one of our heroes. As African Americans, we are not going to let everybody beat him up,” music mogul and rapper Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs said of Jackson ahead of the show.
Sean Paul, Estelle and Alicia Keys were among the celebrities who at one point donned single gloves as part of their ensembles.
Ciara sang Jackson’s humanitarian anthem, ‘Heal the World’, dressed in a jacket that had Jackson’s signature military epaulets.
Joe Jackson, the singer’s father, also was on hand to represent the grief-stricken family, though he did not appear on stage during the show. “I just wish he could be here to celebrate himself,” he said on the red carpet. “Sadly, he’s not here, so I’m here to celebrate for him.”
Jackson’s death prompted BET producers to scramble to meet the moment. While Beyonce, Lil Wayne and Ne-Yo each took home awards, giving out trophies was an afterthought: Honouring Jackson became the show’s main focus.
“This is for you, Michael Jackson,” said Beyonce, as she held her trophy for best female R&B artist skyward, calling the singer “my hero”.
While some artists performed their own hits, most made sure to incorporate some of the man who influenced them in their performances. A chant of “Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson!” was heard while Keri Hilson performed, and Foxx’s ‘Blame It’ incorporated some of the Jacksons’ dance hit ‘Blame It On the Boogie’.
“We all know none of us in this room wouldn’t be here for Michael Jackson,” said Lil Wayne, as he picked up his award for best male hip-hop star.
Backstage, Ciara recounted talking on the phone with her idol and her regrets that she never got to meet him. As she talked, she started to cry. “He meant so much to me,” she said through tears.
While Jackson’s incredible influence stretched across genres, races and cultures, he had a unique place in the world of black entertainment.
His influence is arguably most visible in urban music, seen in stars like Usher who mimic his dance moves, to Ne-Yo, whose music is marked by its Jackson-isms.
But that influence went beyond music: Jackson was black America’s biggest star, who broke racial barriers that allowed for so many other superstars to follow.
“Michael Jackson was so important to our world, to our country, to this network,” said BET Chairwoman Debra L Lee. “Michael was truly a musical deity.”
New Edition, the 1980s teen sensations who were considered that generation’s Jackson 5 with their own version of bubble-gum soul, ran through several of the Jackson 5’s greatest hits, from ‘I Want You Back’ to ‘ABC’, mirroring their idols right down to the group’s original choreography.
And Eddie Levert of the classic R&B group the O’Jays talked about how much he’d miss Jackson – even as his group was honoured with a lifetime achievement award.
Jackson connections were inescapable: Even the building where the ceremony took place, the Shrine Auditorium, was where Jackson’s hair and scalp were burned during the filming of a Pepsi commercial in 1984. It was also the location for several of his Grammy and American Music Award performances.
The night ended when Janet Jackson – in her first public appearance since her brother’s shocking death – emerged and elicited the most emotion as she vowed his memory would live forever.
“On behalf of my family and myself, thank you for all of your love, thank you for all of your support,” she said. “We miss him so much, thank you so much.”
Afterward, Ne-Yo and Foxx performed a sombre version of the Jackson 5 classic ‘I’ll Be There’, as photos of Jackson flashed across the screen.