Lizzo, Sylvia Rhone, Keke Palmer and More Honored at Black Music Action Coalition Gala 2023

The Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC) celebrated its third annual awards gala at the Beverly Hilton last night in Los Angeles. Throughout the evening, the collective, which formed in 2020 to address systemic racism in the music business, honored artists, philanthropists and executives during the three-hour show, urging advocacy and education in the industry while honoring several notable figures — although Lizzo’s Humanitarian honor grabbed some late-night headlines.

Hosted by Kenny Burns, the gala began with a mission statement. “Tonight we gather to pay tribute to the remarkable individuals who have utilized their platforms, resources and influences, to propel the fight for social and racial justice through intentional and impactful action,” said Burns. “However, let’s be clear: everyone in this room tonight bears a responsibility of being a change agent.”

He continued to honor the late Clarence Avant, a music executive generally referred to as “The Black Godfather” for his contributions to the culture. Singers Luke James, Chanté Moore and BJ the Chicago Kid set the tone with impassioned performances of songs Avant helped release, including Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lovely Day.” They were accompanied by 1500 or Nothin’, who served as the house band throughout the night.

The evening was replete with emotion and impassioned speeches, with each honoree getting introductions from surprise guests. Epic Records chairwoman and CEO Sylvia Rhone first received the BMAC Clarence Avant Trailblazer Award, which her daughter Quinn presented to her.

“I accept this recognition not just for me, but on behalf of all the people I’ve worked with in this remarkable journey in music,” said Rhone. Throughout her career, she’s helped nurture and launch careers of stars across genre lines including Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, En Vogue and Travis Scott. “I’m proud to say that our leadership at the company is 56.6 percent women, and 57.1 percent people of color and Black folks. And I don’t play around with that. It’s a constant commitment in my life to make sure that people of color and women have the opportunity in every aspect of the business, not as a secretary alone. And as Clarence Avant often reminded us, the business of music is collaborative. My team has a commitment for excellence. They really have a zeal for pushing boundaries.”

Keke Palmer was on hand to accept the BMAC Social Impact Award. “I’m so grateful for the family that I have, because from a very young age, my love for entertainment comes from wanting to uplift my community,” said the multi-hyphenate, who was introduced by her two sisters. “Being Black isn’t a monolith, we’re all individuals, we’re all different, but we’re all trying our best. And for me, what you see in me, whether you love it or hate it or whatever it is, it’s truly coming from my heart, you guys.”

As the night came close to its end, legendary musician and executive Jermaine Dupri appeared to receive the second BMAC Clarence Avant Trailblazer Award. Songwriters Johntá Austin and Bryan-Michael Cox, who worked with him on hits including Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” and Usher’s “U Got It Bad,” set the stage for Dupri, who read his acceptance speech off of his phone and put artificial intelligence in the crosshairs.

“Last night, I was in D.C. with ASCAP and I was at the Library of Congress, because I don’t fuck with A.I.— I think A.I. has taken the emotion out of music. The emotion that everybody had when they came up on stage and talked about their awards and how they feel, you can get that in A.I. When we start trying to make some law where people can take our words and our voices and do what they want to do with it without our consent, I need everybody to stand up and make sure that that’s not gonna happen.”

Of course, the gala culminated with Lizzo appearing to accept the Quincy Jones Humanitarian Award, which she received just hours after a former stylist for her tour named her in a lawsuit for sexual harassment, assault and more. Her Big Grrls dancers showed up en masse to present her with a statuette, stating, “She has used her platform to give back to our community. Black community. Black women, Black men, trans, non-binary, genderfluid, everybody. We love her. We love her so much.”

Lizzo wiped away tears as she took the stage. “Black Music Action Coalition, y’all really are about that action. Thank you so much for this, because I needed this right now. God’s timing is always on time!” she said. “I didn’t write a speech because I don’t know what to say in times like these.”

“It’s easy to do the right thing when everybody’s watching you, and it’s what you do in those moments when nobody’s watching that defines who you are,” she said, describing her humanitarian and activist initiatives including donating a quarter of a million dollars in June to Black-led organizations. “And I’m going to continue to be who I am, no matter who’s watching. I’m going to continue to shine a light on the people who are helping people, because they deserve it. I’m going to continue to amplify the voices of marginalized people because I have a microphone and I know how to use it.”

She continued, “I’ve been blessed to receive a lot of incredible awards but this one truly hits different, because humanitarianism, in its nature, is thankless. It’s selfless. To be kind to someone isn’t a talent. Everyone can do it, it’s a gift that you give. I, in all my years of activism and outreach, I have witnessed at the core of every organization, every movement, every march, it’s just people helping people. And they do it every damn day.”

Additional awards at the BMAC Gala were given to Dr. Menna Demessie, Jesse Collins, Jason Flom and Tariq Cherif. Attendees and presenters included LL Cool J, Doechii and Flavor Flav.

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