Whether it’s blood-infused sneakers or satanic panic, Lil Nas X is no stranger to controversy. Last week, he spoke out on Twitter after receiving “zero nominations again” at the BET Awards, where he was snubbed in categories like Artist of the Year, Best Collaboration, and Album of the Year. The omission is particularly glaring considering that the number-one singles “Industry Baby” and “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” received a combined five nominations at this year’s Grammys, although the 23-year-old rapper ultimately went home empty-handed.
Lil Nas X hasn’t been nominated at the BET Awards since 2020, when he lost Best New Artist to Roddy Rich. (This is despite the fact that Lil Nas X’s breakout hit, “Old Town Road,” spent 19 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 en route to becoming the first diamond-certified single in 22 years.) Since then, he has not only become one of the world’s biggest pop stars, but arguably the most visible openly gay Black musician in the industry today.
The gap between his upward trajectory and the lack of kudos from BET did not escape his notice. “I just feel like Black gay ppl have to fight to be seen in this world,” Lil Nas X said in a since-deleted tweet, “and even when we make it to the top mfs try to pretend we are invisible.” BET responded to the post in a statement claiming that he was not nominated by the awards show’s independent voting pool, which, it said, is “comprised of an esteemed group of nearly 500 entertainment professionals.” The network said it would “continue to support Lil Nas X’s artistry, creativity, and musicality,” but did not specify how it would do so. (Neither Lil Nas X nor BET responded to requests for comment on this story.)
By failing to nominate Lil Nas X, the BET Awards are helping to exacerbate queer erasure while upholding many of the same structural blindspots as other award shows. Being touted as a show that is “for us, by us” means that the BET Awards must honor all parts of the Black experience—not only what fits into a heteronormative mold. It’s time for the show to finally integrate queerness into its definition of Black excellence.
As a network, BET has a contentious history with how it engages with Black LGBTQ communities. In 2013, internet celebrity B. Scott, who identifies as trans and non-binary, filed a $2.5 million workplace discrimination lawsuit against BET and its parent company, Viacom. Scott alleged they were subjected to transphobia after being hired as a correspondent for the pre-show red carpet at the BET Awards. In an open letter, Scott claimed the network attempted to force them to wear more masculine attire to ensure the show’s sponsors would be “comfortable,” and said that they were eventually relieved of their duties over the conflict. Singer and actress Adrienne Ballon was eventually tapped as a replacement.
Being touted as a show that is “for us, by us” means that the BET Awards must honor all parts of the Black experience—not only what fits into a heteronormative mold.
“It’s not just about the fact that BET forced me to pull my hair back, asked me to take off my makeup, made me change my clothes, and prevented me from wearing a heel,” Scott alleged in the letter. “It’s more so that the mentality and environment created by BET made me feel less than and that something was wrong with who I am as a person.”
Although Scott would ultimately settle with BET out of court for an undisclosed amount, issues relating to LGBTQ people have continued to plague the network. Last year, the BET Awards reportedly did not air an ad submitted by TransLash founder Imara Jones that called for an end to violence against Black trans women. As Jones claimed in an open letter, BET greenlit the ad but chose not to broadcast it. The network denied that it was involved in making the decision in a statement to the LGBTQ-focused news publication Them.
When it comes to the BET Awards themselves, very few openly LGBTQ artists have ever been nominated. Cardi B, who is bisexual, took home Album of the Year for Invasion of Privacy in 2019 and is the only queer musician to do so. No other explicitly out artist has been nominated for AOTY, although past and present nominees Megan Thee Stallion, Tyler the Creator, and Doja Cat have hinted at being queer. (Doja Cat’s Wikipedia page describes her as “relatively quiet about her personal life.”) Just a handful of out queer female musicians have ever received any kind of recognition in any category, and the few who have include Janelle Monáe, Kehlani, and Azealia Banks. None of those artists have won.
When it comes to out queer men, the list of winners is extremely short: Sam Smith—who now identifies as non-binary—won Best New Artist in 2015 after coming out as queer a year earlier (although, interestingly, Smith is not a person of color). Frank Ocean has yet to take home a single BET Award despite releasing two of the past decade’s most acclaimed records: Channel Orange and Blonde. He received two nominations for the mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011 at the BET Hip Hop Awards—a separate show celebrating achievements in hip hop—prior to opening up about his sexuality the following year.
While some may claim that Lil Nas X was excluded because his music leans more toward pop than the typical BET Awards winner’s does, that explanation doesn’t hold water. Beyoncé, whose music straddles pop, R&B, and hip hop, is the most decorated artist in the show’s history, with 33 awards. Doja Cat leads all nominees at this year’s awards with six bids, and Lizzo received five nominations in 2020.
The BET Awards need to make sweeping changes to ensure they do not replicate the same inequities that have kept other shows from recognizing talented, deserving performers.
The BET Awards aren’t the only award show that continues to marginalize underrepresented artists. Musicians of color have long been sidelined at the Grammys, where only 11 Black artists have ever won Album of the Year. Prior to jazz musician Jon Batiste’s surprise win earlier this year for We Are, Herbie Hancock was the last Black artist to take home AOTY in 2008 for River: The Joni Letters, an album of Joni Mitchell covers. Lauryn Hill, the last Black woman to win the award, earned AOTY in 1999 for her solo debut. Acclaimed musicians like Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, H.E.R., Rihanna, India.Arie, and Ella Fitzgerald have all been passed over in the category, typically in favor of white artists. Aretha Franklin was never nominated.
Beyoncé is a particularly illustrative example of the phenomenon, in which even the biggest megastars in music lack institutional power among leading industry gatekeepers. With 79 nominations, Beyoncé is the most nominated female artist in the Grammy history, but the majority of her 28 wins have been relegated to the lower R&B and Urban Contemporary categories. These awards are rarely broadcasted on the show. Among the evening’s top categories, she only has one sole win: Song of the Year for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in 2010.
The BET Awards need to make sweeping changes to ensure they do not replicate the same inequities that have kept other shows from recognizing talented, deserving performers. The network has already begun to make some progress in its original programming, airing the Lena Waithe–scripted shows Boomerang and Twenties, the latter of which featured the channel’s first masculine-presenting woman as in a lead role. After B. Scott’s lawsuit was settled, they made history in 2021 as the first trans person to executive produce and host their own BET show: Twenties After Show, a companion to the second season of Waithe’s semi-autobiographical comedy.
These are steps, although small ones, in the right direction, but more progress is needed to address the issues that have long plagued BET. It begins with bringing more queer talent into the fold. After being called out for lack of diversity in their nominees, both the Grammys and the Academy Awards expanded their voting pools with a focus on historically underrepresented groups. Of the 2,900 new Grammy members invited in 2021, 48 percent were women and 32 percent were Black.
For his part, Lil Nas X is proving yet again that he can turn any publicity into good publicity. On Tuesday, he tweeted a snippet of a new song titled “Late to Da Party,” which opens with a “Fuck BET!” chant. It’s a testament to his artistry that Lil Nas X has never needed the approval of BET Awards voters to thrive. When the show invited him to perform last year—perhaps hoping to address the lack of queer representation among nominees—he kissed a male backup dancer on stage while performing “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” a display of unapologetic queer sexuality that was a first for the event. It was a reminder that artists can use BET’s platform to be radically, authentically themselves, if only they could be given a chance.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Writer at VICE.