Music Business

Music Business: Lilian Blankson, BET Awards Best International Act Africa Nominations – What is the Way Forward?

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The 2012 BET Awards just wrapped up. I thought I shared my thoughts on the event but apparently that is not enough for some of you. Nevertheless, I would have still declined on expanding on my thoughts but for blogger Ameyaw Debrah’s post where  he asks why BET continues to relegate African artists to the back of the bus i.e. “snub” African artists. I think his question is fair and appropriate and is one that cannot be swept under the rugs of “processes” or “it takes time”. I have asked this question for three years now. Nevertheless, seeing someone ask the same question made me really think, once again, about my position.

Here we go on my candid thoughts on Lilian Blankson (Ghanaian-American employee at BET International responsible for spear heading the BET International Act Africa category) and her efforts at BET International, BET Networks and the way forward:

The Factual Context

Let me tell you all a story.

About three years ago, I was at New York Fashion Week when I was invited by Nduka Obaigbena of Arise Magazine Fashion Week to a VIP gathering in his hotel suite. Arise had just put on a successful show and members of the press (myself included) and other important guests were present. After the event, a select few were invited, as indicated, to continue the dialogue on Africa, mingle, chat etc. During that time, I met Debra Lee, legal colleague and entertainment lawyer turned CEO of BET Networks. We struck a conversation and talked for a while about law school, the legal practice, the entertainment business, among other things, and finally WHY Debbie was there. At the time, BET had just made its foray into Africa and so Debbie talked rather extensively about what BET was doing in Africa and BET’s goal and vision. I listened. I asked questions. I told her about Ladybrille. When the night concluded, she urged me to attend the upcoming BET 2010 Awards event. She concluded by giving me her contact information.

The following year I decided to go to the Awards event because Africans were nominated for the BET Awards in the Best International Act category; and everything Debbie discussed with me seemed very credible given the nomination of our artists. I also decided that if I would attend the event, I really wanted to go in a media capacity as opposed to going as a guest, per her invitation, because I wanted to bring this historic moment (contemporary African artists being nominated at the BET Awards) to the world. To make the long story short, the good folks at BET made it happen and Ladybrille was one of two African owned publications (Dele Momodu’s Ovation International was the other one) to bring the exclusive coverage of the event specific to Africa, for the first time, to a diverse audience worldwide, via the internet.

Now, for all intended purposes, my focus was on M.I Abaga who Ladybrille had been instrumental in supporting his career and keeping the buzz flowing about him in the States. I was very excited for Kojo Antwi and P-Square but I was particularly excited about M.I.

Click on video to watch M.I if you please.

A day prior to the event, the talents had a media call to show up for interviews. They showed up. I was there too.

At the venue for media call, the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles where the Awards ceremony was to be held, had a backstage interview room that was subdivided into two: 1) The Radio remote room where all the radio stations around the country gathered and interviewed nominated artists and; 2) the social media room.

As time progressed while in the radio remote room, I became hugely disappointed. My excitement died when I saw no one recognized our artists and worse radio stations were not even willing to give them the time of the day. Here are artists commanding millions of attention across Africa, now nominated in the USA on BET’s huge platform and they couldn’t even get face time with a radio host? It was like M.I who? P-Square what?. I began to wonder why BET, at the very minimum, did not have its act together so much so that our artists would travel over six thousand miles to California only to be disrespected and ignored. It bothered me. At some point, I made my way to the social media room and later expressed my disappointment when I struck up a conversation with Blankson, who I met for the first time. As I spoke to Blankson, she informed me I could not even begin to understand the hurdles she had to go through to get our artists nominated.

I was intrigued. I asked what she meant by her comment. She explained that she was the lone voice in the department trying to get everyone to see the Africa she saw and grew up in. She was motivated by so many reasons including her personal experience with the stigmatization of Africans in the USA. She spoke so passionately, her passion was infectious. I was flawed. “Wow!” is what I kept thinking and at times saying aloud as she continued sharing.

I had never heard of her before. She then told me she was of Ghanaian heritage. At that point, it was time to switch on my recording device, go back from the beginning and capture as much as I could. I told her there was no way I would let a woman doing such remarkable things she shared with me, get lost in the mix. Her contributions and efforts needed to be acknowledged, publicly and certainly on a platform like Ladybrille that recognized the efforts of brilliant women, wherever they could be found. Blankson became very emotional. I was touched.

I returned from the BET 2010 event and I wrote our story i.e. the story of African artists that were nominated and the African woman who saw the vision and helped pulled it off, thanks also to her bosses at BET International who believed in her vision and went to fight for Africa with their bosses, the executives at BET Networks. The story was shared on the Ladybrille platform and so many other platforms. I followed up with subsequent stories on Blankson. It felt so good to share the wonderful works of Africans in the diaspora opening the doors for fellow Africans, however impossible and daunting the task.

Nevertheless, during all of this time, I never wavered with my position on BET’s disrespect and disregard of African artists, the entire continent backing them and Africans in the diaspora supporting these artists who made up the BET audience. Blankson had done a brilliant job. At a minimum, she had provided and continues to provide the opportunity for our artists to network and broker collaboration deals with USA artists etc. Her push had cranked open the door, but she needed all of our extra hands (her fellow African brothers and sisters) to really push that door wide open so those that needed to get through could. BET Networks needed to be pushed by the African community at large so they could show and give our artists the respect they deserved, given their choice to nominate our artists as part of their awards event.

Indeed I had a problem with the 2010 Nick Cannon 106 & Park interview where Cannon asked if we had televisions in Africa while interviewing M.I et al. I had a problem with the lack of respect I witnessed both behind the scenes and on camera towards our artists. It got to me. I knew then that I would not stop calling for a change so long as BET kept nominating our artists each year, putting them on 106 & Park and thinking that was enough.

The following year, BET did the same thing. They nominated our artists, did a few interviews they showed in the BET UK and BET Africa market and that was it. That year, I insisted, again, that our artists MUST have a visible platform on stage during the event. At a minimum, a 15seconds blurb on our artists that the world could see was enough. An entire continent was awake to praise our artists and there was nothing in return that gave Africa and its citizens the respect it deserved. Blankson was not thrilled with my position and let me know. Needless to say, I have never been a girl (now a  woman) who changes my position on things I believe in, even if I break bread with the people I disagree with, just to please them. I understood the tremendous energy and effort Blankson and the BET International staff undertook to get Africans nominated but it did not preclude my clear stance on BET Network’s attitude towards our artists, in general, and I certainly let Blankson know that.

So, here we are, third year in a row, and once again, it is the same story. Yes, BET International did some taping of our artists hosted by April Woodard. Yes the video-taping they did will be shown in the UK and Africa but what has that got to do with BET Networks USA; and showing our African artists in the USA during the BET Awards event? Is BET International or BET Networks doing Africans a favor by taping a show in the USA to be shown in Africa? The show can easily be taped in Africa hiring independent contractors like Clarence Peters et. al as they have done in the past with BET Hip-hop cypher.  Surely our African artists came for the visibility on BET’s stage, even if BET made no promises to them ?

Lilian Blankson, BET Awards African Nominees – What is the Way Forward?
Again, here we are. Blankson has done her part. Our African artists are being nominated but what does the future hold?

I know it is very hard to believe this and might even appear harsh for some who read this. But, the BET Awards Best International Act Africa category is NOT about Lilian Blankson even though she spearheaded it. It is about Africa. And indeed as a community, we’ve got to see the bigger picture.

Blankson has been the lone voice pushing her bosses at BET International to give Africa face. Her bosses at BET International who should also be applauded have bought into her message and have in turn gone to their bosses to make the case for Africa. However, at the end of the day, in the final analysis, Blankson is just one employee at BET International pushing the African music agenda.

If Blankson decides that BET is no longer a fit for her i.e. the employee-employer relationship terminates and she moves on to bigger better things; or if BET comes to that conclusion, for whatever reason, will all of her efforts be in vain? Can her efforts be sustained? Surely, just from that basic standpoint alone, the Africa category and nominations has to be bigger than Blankson. What happens to all of her efforts? Who keeps the fire burning? Will her bosses (non-Africans) be the ones pushing the African music agenda? Will they take on Blankson’s role to now figure who’s hot and who isn’t so as to even know who to nominate? Will there even be a budget to specifically hire a person well versed in Africa’s music industry who can manage the nominations? How pragmatic is that?

Necessarily both from a logical and long term standpoint, if we say we are about Africa and African artists, then the way forward has to be that we as a community (throughout the year) leading up to the event, stand up and say, “BET, our sister is not going to carry this burden by herself. We are a continent of over 800million, BET does business and makes monies on our shores, we are also in the diaspora and have the statistics to show we are a very important demographic with strong spending power. We insist and  say break down this stereotypical, biased and prejudiced wall towards Africans. As a BLACK entertainment television who makes money off our communities, give our African artists the respectful platform they deserve during your awards show. Stop putting Africans at the back of the bus.”

Now to some of you, this might seem too dramatic. As far as you are concerned, whether BET shows Sarkodie or Wizkid receiving an award on their platform has no significance on your paycheck, really. I get it. Indeed, I am about my money so I understand the mentality.

However, for those Africans who reside in the USA (myself included) that have children or plan to have children, you clearly know you care or should care.

Our African children who reside in the USA should not be subject to ridicule from both Black and Whites attacking their personal identities as Africans. They should not be subject to name calling such as “African booty scratchers.”  They should not have their self confidence ripped from their young backs with lame and absolutely degrading and abusive questions such as whether Africans eat feces, like the one asked of the 22year old Nigerian student who made history by graduating from John Hopkins University with a 3.98 GPA. They should not be asked whether they run wild in the bush of Africa like monkeys or whether they have HIV AIDS and the list goes. Our kids should not lose their self esteem, and wait to find it, if they are lucky, as adults. To the degree those degrading and humiliating comments are thrown at them, they should be able to say look at BET Awards, “Wizkid got an Award on BET, he’s African.” Indeed Africans on BET’s global platform are also uniquely positioned because majority of the time, they also are college graduates, an important influence to both White, Black, African and other minority kids in the USA and worldwide.

That’s why I care and think you ought to care. If BET will present Africans, its fellow black people with a nomination, it should do so with the dignity and respect Africans deserve .

Showing Wizkid or Sarkodie on stage as winners of the 2012 BET Best International Act, Africa Category might be insignificant for BET. However for Africa and the African diaspora: 1) it makes total economic sense (especially given BET makes money off our communities both in the diaspora and the continent) and the numbers from the US census bureau support these economics; 2) our children can see themselves and members of their families reflected on national television and know it is not a big deal to achieve what they want to achieve; 3) it is a step towards healing the big divide and ill-informed views that both the Black and African community have about each other; and 4) it shows BET has a clear understanding of its obligation to represent a positive image of black people worldwide, not just those in America, although it is debatable whether they even represent the black voice in America positively.

Final Thoughts.

1. Sign Change.org Petition

Clearly I am not the only one with this view. Even if I was, I would still let it be known, needless to say. Someone else with this view has started a petition on change.org. You can read her opinion and sign the petition here. It takes less than a minute for you to sign or come up with more creative solutions and suggestions.

2. Write and Call BET Networks Asking that This Attitude Towards Africans Change in 2013

3. Encourage and reward members of the BET International staff for their efforts so far so they can push even harder.

Awards are always a great thing and we all like receiving them. Face2Face Africa gave an award in 2011 to Blankson, more African owned organizations can do the same, clearly based on the merits. However, don’t stop there. Ava Hall (Vice President Programming and Production) and Michael Armstrong (Senior Vice President and General Manager for BET International), Blankson’s bosses are certainly names that should be recognized for all of their work in getting Africa’s music on the map by saying “yes” to Blankson; and doing the best they can to provide the resources, albeit limited, for her to materialize her vision under the BET umbrella for Africa.

I have shared my thoughts. That should do it for those who wanted more than the cursory response I gave. Lol!

NOTE: As you know or should know, I never shy away from dissenting/differing opinions. I welcome it. I think conflict of ideas are great in pushing forth better clarity, creativity, proffering solutions and innovation. So, please feel free to state your position. However, under no circumstances are insults/personal attacks permitted. They will be deleted, if they are even lucky to escape my comment moderation filters.

-Uduak
@uduaklaw

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Africa Music Law™

AFRICA MUSIC LAW™ (AML) is a pioneering music business and entertainment law blog and podcast show by Fashion and Entertainment Lawyer Ms. Uduak Oduok empowering the African artist and Africa's rapidly evolving entertainment industry through brilliant music business and entertainment law commentary and analysis, industry news, and exclusive interviews.

Credited for several firsts in the fashion and entertainment industry, Ms. Uduak is also a Partner and Co-Founder of Ebitu Law Group, P.C. where she handles her law firm’s intellectual property law, media, business, fashion, and entertainment law practice areas. She has litigated a wide variety of cases in California courts and handled a variety of entertainment deals for clients in the USA, Africa, and Asia.

Her work and contributions to the creative industry have been recognized by numerous organizations including the National Bar Association, The American University School of Law and featured in prestigious legal publications in the USA including ABA Journal and The California Lawyer Magazine. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the prestigious Academy of Arts University in San Francisco.
For legal representation inquiries, please email (uduak@ebitulawgrp.com). For blog related inquiries i.e. advertising, licensing, or guest interview requests, please email (africamusiclaw@gmail.com). Thank you for visiting Africa Music Law™.

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