Taraji P. Henson was the hostess with the most costume changes at the 2021 BET Awards, rocking multiple looks to pay homage to the Black women who’ve inspired her, ranging from Erykah Badu, Betty Boop, and performer/winner H.E.R.
The 2021 broadcast was all about “The Year of the Black Woman,” and Henson was particularly hyped to salute Queen Latifah with the Lifetime Achievement Award during the ceremony.
“I’m a huge Queen Latifah fan. She taught me to go for it all in Hollywood — not just to be an actress, but to produce and direct,” Henson told Variety on the red carpet Sunday in Los Angeles. “She led the way and I’m so grateful for her getting being recognized. It’s long overdue.”
Latifah took the Microsoft Theater stage after a star-studded performance tribute featuring Lil Kim, Monie Love, Rapsody and MC Lyte. The multi-hyphenate entertainer got emotional accepting the award, with her father Lancelot Owens, Sr. at her side and a photo of her late mother Rita in her hands.
“I’m so extremely moved, I don’t even know what to say,” Latifah said, getting emotional thanking all those who’ve supported her, including her longtime business partner Shakim Compere.
“I’ve always celebrated the woman because I was raised by a strong Black woman, raised by a father who loves women,” she continued. “We can’t live without each other. I wanted to celebrate us because I know, together, we stand stronger, than when we tear each other apart. I’ve seen enough of that. So respect to all the females on the stage tonight.”
As Latifah closed out her emotional speech with a “Happy Pride” shoutout after expressing love for her partner Eboni Nichols and their son Rebel, audiences took note that the event was about more than celebrating Black women, but the full spectrum of Black folks, making an effort to highlight the LGBTQ community as well.
One of the crowd’s loudest roars of excitement came at the end of Lil Nas X’s spicy performance of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” when the artist kissed one of his dancers. Ahead of the show, B. Scott spoke about BET’s move to become more intentional about LGBTQ inclusion. Scott is set to become the first trans non-binary person to host a show for the network, with the upcoming “Twenties the After Show,” sharing that Lena Waithe and BET president Scott Mills really fought for them to host the series.
“I think that is the new direction of [the network,] more inclusivity and also really showcasing the intersectionality that exists in our community,” Scott said. “The LGBTQI, we are the sweetest part of the Black community. So it’s nice to be in a space where we feel safe, and we can be celebrated.”
With more than three decades of hits under her belt, Latifah was a major inspiration for many of the actors, artists and emcees — from established entertainers like Ashanti, Album of the Year winner Jazmine Sullivan, and Saweetie to breakthrough talents like Gabrielle Dennis, Coi Leray and Latto — who walked the blazing hot red carpet (both in terms of temperature and fashion).
Riding high off the release of her debut album, H.E.R. was also celebrating her 24th birthday and noted that the award show marked a full-circle moment.
“Eleven years ago today, when I was 13 years old, I came to the BET awards,” H.E.R. recalled. “Me and Queen Latifah introduced Alicia [Keys] and I sang a minute of ‘Fallin’, and she brought me up on stage. I’ll always cherish that moment.”
“Respect” star Jennifer Hudson celebrated her own full circle-moment by presenting a tribute to her idol Aretha Franklin during the show. “A lot of us wouldn’t be here without Aretha Franklin. So we have to uphold our legends and our icons forever,” Hudson said. “I grew up on Queen Latifah, and I’m wondering, why are we just now giving her her flowers? But I’m so happy to see her receive her flowers.”
Andra Day, who picked up the best actress award during the ceremony and performed a medley, shared a similar sentiment.
“To me, it’s always the year of the Black woman,” Day said. “But I think some something as big as BET acknowledging that, is just a reminder that we’re not a monolith. There are micro communities within the community that all need to be paid attention and need to be represented.”
Speaking of Latifah and Henson specifically, Day added that she’s been inspired by their bravery. “Especially with Queen, making music at a time when people said you can’t do stuff like this,” she explained. It’s the same thing with Billie Holiday. It is the bravery of Black women, and we sometimes have to be more brave than we should, but we are.”
The award show also marked the return of a live audience after COVID forced the 2020 edition of the BET Awards to go fan free. This year, the audience packed into the Microsoft Theater, cheering extra loudly for stars like Chloe Bailey, Issa Rae, Michaela Jaé (aka Mj) Rodriguez, and Rep. Maxine Waters as they walked to and from their seats to present during the show. Waters carried a handful of flowers, from the heartfelt bit at the top of the show where Henson made sure to salute the women in the audience.
The Black lady love bled over into the commercial breaks too — as superstars like Rae, Waithe, Naomi Campbell, and Cynthia Erivo were spotted laughing and catching up. As far as Covid protocols went, the in-theater crowd was reminded by the announcers to wear their masks whenever cameras were off.
After the show ended, the audience filed outside to a post-event reception, where the red carpet had been transformed into an after-party, with DJ D-Nice keeping the vibe going.