BET Awards 2017: Turning hits into movement

Jun 22, 2017 - Culture and Trends

The 2017 BET Awards celebrate a year in which hip hop and R&B reached new heights of creative expression, impacting the musical and cultural landscape in ways their impressive view counts only begin to capture. Harnessing the power of the visual medium and YouTube's global reach, BET nominated artists like Bruno Mars, Solange, Migos and Rae Sremmurd did more than just top the charts -- they turned hits into movements.

Bruno Mars has existed in the upper echelons of pop since his tale-of-the-tape video for “Just The Way You Are” debuted in 2010, earning a healthy YouTube subscriber base and giving the Super Bowl halftime show a jolt from his electric live show not once, but twice. But it is the title track from his long-awaited third album 24K Magic that has arguably helped cement the crooner’s place among music’s international elite. Released a month before his album dropped, the track’s Cameron Duddy-directed video, which follows Mars and his entourage as they touch down in Las Vegas and revel in Sin City’s glitz and flash hit big immediately, earning over seven million plays on its first day. And from there things only grew, with the clip amassing over 728 million views in just eight month’s time.

This success is a product of both Mars’ and YouTube’s global reach, with the track reaching massive numbers in places as far flung as Quezon City (13.3 million), Bangkok (9.3 million), Mexico City (8.4 million), Santiago (7.8 million), New York City (7.7 million) and, fittingly, Las Vegas (2 million). All told, the song has eclipsed the million-view mark in over 75 countries, and the video is on pace to enter the exclusive Billion Views Club within months.

The buzz also provided a boost for the rest of Mars’ YouTube-available catalog; his channel has added over 4.5 million subscribers since last October, and the charmingly minimalist clip for the winkingly seductive “That’s What I Like” has been viewed more than 670 million times since its premiere in March. “24K Magic” clearly has high-rolling appeal that transcends cultural boundaries, resulting in an international movement paved with gold bricks.

While “24K Magic” revels in turning everything all the way up, Solange honored the power of steely-eyed resolve on A Seat at the Table, a stunning, exploratory statement on the African American experience that she released late last year. The twinkling, pensive "Cranes In The Sky" is a standout on an album full of them, a reflection on ways of working around crushing pain. Solange wrote “Cranes” years before Seat came together, but she felt it was appropriate to the album’s themes. “I remember thinking of [‘Cranes In The Sky’] as an analogy for my transition—this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us. And we all know how that ended,” Solange told her sister, Beyoncé, in Interview earlier this year.

The “Cranes In The Sky” video, co-directed by Solange and her husband Alan Ferguson, collects images that are still yet resplendent, showing Solange as she stands alone and with other women amidst stark landscapes while dressed in clothing both simple and complex—white athletic wear, lavender dresses that seem to connect to one another as they billow in the wind, an eye-popping sheath of gold fringe, a candy-floss puffer made of memory foam. The clip, which has garnered over 26 million views since its release on Oct. 2, was shot in nine cities, including Solange’s hometown of Houston and current home, New Orleans. “All we can do as artists, and especially as songwriters, is write about what’s true to us,” Solange explained following her Grammy win for Best R&B Performance earlier this year. “And I think that the music that is out right now, and really connecting and thriving, reflects that.” The video’s unflinching hushedness brings Solange’s vision to life even more fully. [ ]

The past year has also been a monumental one for Atlanta’s hip hop collective Migos. While the trio has been burning up the internet since dropping their first mixtape in 2011, it was “Bad and Boujee,” the lead single from their second album Culture, that turned their online heat into true pop stardom. The opening lines of that Lil Uzi Vert-featuring track—including the triple internal rhyme “raindrop, drop top”—became fodder for viral-video makers all over the world, helping to drive interest in the months after the track’s release.

Fueled by both the creativity of their fans and their now iconic YouTube clip for the video, the song quickly became an unabashed cultural phenomenon. Donald Glover celebrated his series Atlanta winning Best Comedy Series at the Golden Globes with a shoutout to the group—”not for being on the show, but for making ‘Bad and Boujee.’ Like, that’s the best song ever," the rapper-director said, adding backstage that he thought Migos were “the Beatles of this generation.” By then Migos’ total daily views had reached the high 5 million range, and the Jan. 27 release of their second album Culture sent that number above 9 million and helped the song vault up the YouTube Global Chart. “Bad and Boujee” has been played more than 525 million times since its Halloween 2016 release, and that number will only grow.

Fellow Atlanta hip-hop act Rae Sremmurd also found themselves at the center of the cultural zeitgeist this past year, with their smash hit "Black Beatles" taking off at nearly the same time as Migos’ explosion. While the song’s hazy video repurposes Fab Four-related iconography so that it’s more 405-appropriate, the track rose to new levels when it became associated with the Mannequin Challenge, a viral-video stunt where large groups of people hold still so that they resemble clothing-store fixtures. The spaced-out feel of “Black Beatles” fit perfectly with the frozen-in-time visual accompaniment, and the track soon became the meme’s de facto soundtrack.

Its appeal was so widespread that original Beatle Paul McCartney got in on the act—a true testament to how the song’s infectious appeal resulted in a movement that transcended genres and generations. Rae Sremmurd staged their own version of the Mannequin Challenge on Nov. 3; the song hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 on Nov. 14, racking up 20.8 million YouTube streams over the course of that chart week. While interest in the Mannequin Challenge peaked in mid-November, the track hung on to the top spot through the end of 2016, inspiring an ever-growing number of people to strike a pose and switch on their phone’s camera.

Taken together, the successes of Bruno Mars, Solange, Migos, and Rae Sremmurd this year all show how a single song can spark a movement—whether it involves dancing on the Las Vegas Strip, honoring pain with beauty, reveling in the power of a simple rhyme scheme, or standing completely still. These four songs brought people together in unexpected and thrilling ways, allowing listeners to join in movements that stretched all around the world.