By Gerrick D. Kennedy
7:30 AM EDT, July 1, 2013
As Nicki Minaj climbed a gyroscope-like contraption high above Chris Brown during his opening number at Sunday night's BET Awards, it was clear that the cable network was celebrating more than just the nominated artists and athletes.
The 12-year-old award show's first ambitious telecast from the Nokia Theatre in downtown L.A. also marked one of its most impressive moves yet: transforming the annual telecast into a three-day destination festival called the BET Experience.
Viewers who tuned into the 3 1/2-hour telecast Sunday saw performances from Erykah Badu, Miguel, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. But in the days leading to Sunday's show, those acts were among many that played for the thousands of music fans who descended upon the L.A. Live complex for the inaugural BET Experience.
The festival took over L.A. Live and paired concerts from headliners Beyoncé, the Roots, Kirk Franklin and R. Kelly with wellness seminars, comedy shows, celebrity panels, an outdoor fan expo, a film festival and Sunday's telecast. The events took place in and outside various venues throughout the complex.
More than two years in the making, the BET Experience showcased the network's ambitions to expand its highly rated awards show — and to make L.A. a destination for urban music fans.
The BET Experience was a massive undertaking for BET and Anschutz Entertainment Group — the two paired in 2012 to launch the festival — but for urban music fans in search of big-ticket events, it is the biggest in Southern California this year. The BET Awards were previously held at the Shrine Auditorium.
As with any ambitious experiment, the big question was did it work? Absolutely.
Kicking off Friday and concluding Sunday, the festival drew in tens of thousands of people to sold-out shows at Staples Center and Club Nokia as well as free events set up in an adjacent parking lot and in the JW Marriott hotel.
Though crammed with activities, including a sprawling fan expo and performances across multiple stages, the festival ran into a few obstacles other than crowding and a heat wave that drove temperatures into the triple digits. Lines coming in and out of the expo were often snarled as too few staffers were on hand to scan credentials and do security checks of festival-goers pouring in and out of the free events.
But the true focus was live music.
And BET, which has been a leading destination for black music for more than 30 years, curated an impressive package of shows.
Unlike at Southern California's biggest festival, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, AEG and BET wanted fans to be able to customize packages to do as much or as little as they were willing to pay for.
There were VIP packages ranging from a few hundred dollars into the thousands for fans who wanted to attend the awards show, on top of the concerts — but the Staples Center series of shows were the hot ticket.
On Friday, Beyoncé anchored the opening day of the festival with the first night of her U.S. tour, and much of the late-night buzz at LA. Live stemmed from excitement over the singer's performance.
"Give it up for our network, our station," the pop diva beamed as she thanked BET for allowing her to open the festival.
A sizable chunk of Beyoncé's audience then quickly migrated to the 2,300-capacity Club Nokia, where Badu unspooled a lush groove that stretched late into the night.
All weekend, the action — and the heat — never dialed down. It reached a fever pitch Saturday when Brown led a celebrity basketball game that attracted a swarm of gawkers — and took away some much needed attention from buzzy acts such as Mateo, Elijah Blake, Austin Brown and Bridget Kelly, who played on the nearby Music Matters stage, which showcased emerging talent.
On Saturday night, a curated bill of hip-hop and R&B with Snoop, Lamar, Cole, Miguel and Schoolboy Q (who, along with Lamar, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul, constitute the Black Hippy collective) rattled Staples, and the Roots, along with a host of special guests, kept the groove going late into the night at Club Nokia.
And all this action came before Sunday's show. But viewers at home wouldn't have known.
The telecast made a brief mention of its new digs, and plans for R. Kelly to close the show with a performance beamed from Staples were punted.
Instead, he made great use of the Nokia auditorium early in the telecast and had dozens of backing singers fill the aisles and tear through a medley of his hits before he took the stage.
As for the awards? Two of the night's notable winners, Miguel (he took home the award for R&B male) and Lamar (he went home with new artist and hip-hop male) also triumphed with their performances — both on the telecast and in their concert slots Saturday.
It would have been ideal if the millions of viewers at home had gotten a sampling of what they missed over the weekend.
But as with any great music festival, the experience is better felt on the ground, sticky heat and all.
As fans and celebrities headed home or to after-parties, a swath of the audience made a familiar pilgrimage — over to Staples Center to catch the closing performance of Kelly, New Edition and the Jacksons.
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