Sunday night’s BET Awards marked the first major awards show to return to the pre-pandemic format, rolling out the red carpet in Los Angeles for the likes of Issa Rae, H.E.R., Cardi B, Andra Day, Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion.

Hosted by Taraji P. Henson, with Queen Latifah receiving the night’s big Lifetime Achievement Award, the show welcomed an in-person, vaccinated audience to celebrate its theme, “Year of the Black Woman.” It also hosted a large red carpet outside of downtown’s Microsoft Theater, with dozens of masked reporters and photographers (who had been repeatedly tested and symptom screened in the days prior), becoming the first awards show to do so.

“We’re all just happy to be out, and what better place to start than here at home at the BET Awards celebrating all of Black women, and women all together,” Jennifer Hudson told The Hollywood Reporter on the carpet, ahead of her Aretha Franklin tribute. “We do everything, the least they can do is give us our flowers,” adding that on top of her goal of meeting rapper DaBaby, she was happy to “just be off the couch and in the midst of it all.”

Connie Orlando, executive vp of specials, music programming and music strategy at BET, said months of planning went into the in-person event, after last year’s show was filmed partly virtually and without an audience. “Safety was always our first concern but we followed all the guidelines and came back with a blockbuster show,” Orlando said, with Henson at the helm as “there’s no better person to host the biggest night in culture in the year of the woman.”

The hot summer carpet, during which many talent brought their own personal fans and chugged water bottles to keep cool, also included DJ Khaled, Chloe Bailey, Marsai Martin, Lonnie Chavis and Saweetie, with lots of embracing and celebrating after the last year and a half apart.

“BET is everything. This is a stage for us, for Black women to be recognized, and I just think it’s really important to have that and I’m thankful for it,” said H.E.R. of her recognition this year, following recent wins at the Grammys and Oscars. “We’ve had a crazy year and I think we’re all starting to see the importance of supporting Black people — obviously supporting all people but we all know Black people are under-acknowledged and under-recognized and under-celebrated. It’s the year of the Black woman, it’s the year of really giving people their flowers. I’m proud and I hope we keep that same energy.”

On top of the show’s acknowledgement of the year’s best in Black music, TV and film, this year’s BET Awards also included a tribute to DMX, who died in April. Actor Michael K. Williams took part in the performance, and said it was particularly meaningful as “he and I are both two Black boys from the mean streets of New York City who went after our dreams. I believe what he gave, what he brought in his artistry, he paved the way for me to be here today as an actor.”

And though some, like A Black Lady Sketch Show‘s Gabrielle Dennis, admitted they were nervous to return to in-person life, “It’s great to come out of the deep depths of the pandemic and be in this moment where we’re just out celebrating each other,” she said. “Women are always amazing to celebrate, and then Black women who are typically overlooked sometimes, it’s that much more of a sweet taste.”

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