Van-Jess-VIBE-NEXT-1b-1520367673 Van-Jess-VIBE-NEXT-1b-1520367673
Stacy-Ann Ellis

NEXT: VanJess Flaunts The Sweetest Sounds Of Sisterhood

Get acclimated with the sisters going after your eardrums.

It’s hard to tell the Nwokike sisters apart, until suddenly it isn’t. On an overcast New York day, the Nigerian-American singer-songwriter duo arrives right on time in the front foyer of Chelsea Market. Before hugs, formal introductions and the walk to the top of The Highline for a quick, drizzly photo shoot, my eyes shift back and forth between them. For both women, waist-length poetic justice braids frame even brown skin, romantic almond eyes, full lips, striking bone structure and beat faces Ms. Fenty, herself, would be proud of. The real delight, though, is witnessing their complementary personalities come into full bloom as the day unfolds.

Jessica, who considers herself the shyest, has the most to say. Warm in nature, she talks through smiles that curl at the corners when she exchanges pleasantries. Ivana, older than Jessica by 15 months and an expert smizer and Milly Rocker, emits an effortless cool. Together, Jessica and Ivana, the two sultry voices who make up R&B pair VanJess (they decided on their group name in church), finish each other’s thoughts and sentences and sound like magic when singing in harmony. It’s this natural chemistry—both the result of literal DNA and the way they oscillate between the extremes—that makes for an unbeatable work relationship.

“It’s a blessing having a sister that can sing with you,” Ivana says over a plate of hot ravioli. We’ve since retreated from the elements inside the Tribeca eatery, Sarafina. “I don’t think that’s something that always happens.” Jessica, forking through her Tartare di Sofia and Brussels sprouts, nods in agreement. Singing on church and high school choirs initially tipped the sisters off to how well their voices melded together. Ivana and Jessica would often handle the organization and arrangements for the school talent shows and holiday concerts, even though they didn’t yet know the name of their skillset.

“That’s when we were harmonizing a lot more, and [made sure] everybody got included,” Ivana says. “Even without realizing it, we were arranging at that point. That was our way of developing our harmonizing together.” By 2010, all the positive feedback received from their small-scale productions sparked the transition to the next incubator for their professional careers: the Internet.

VanJess began dipping their toes into YouTube’s uncertain terrain singing covers. Each day after school, they’d drag their keyboard into their bathroom and knock out acapella covers of popular songs before their parents got home. YouTube’s cover circuit at the time only included Esmee Denters (who went on to compete on The Voice UK), Dondria Nicole (the eventual Def Jam signee went by the username “Phatfffat”) and bowl cut-era Justin Bieber. When VanJess started, there weren’t opportunities for revenue, let alone any blueprint for leveraging the platform into a formal career. The site was just a tool to gauge their improvement. “When we started posting, people would instantly tell us, ‘Oh you have to work on this and that,’ so we used it as a way to grow,” Jessica says.

Opening themselves up to the wrath of the Web proved to be more fruitful than frightening. Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed” was the first cover video to veer into viral territory, but their beatbox-accented rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”—Ivana typically handles all the percussion and instrumentals—still holds the record for most views on their channel with 5.4 million views; quite a feat for a couple of teenage girls who only started singing for kicks. None of them expected for their channel to reach such a wide audience and, ultimately, turn into their bread and butter. “It [was] just for fun, a hobby,” Ivana says. “Who knew that years later, so many people would be doing the same thing and utilizing it as a platform to find their way through the music industry?”

Fast forward eight years later, and VanJess has made the transition from singing their faves’ songs to fans serenading them with their own melodies. “Any moment, any time/You can make me move my body, when no cares or worries yet/Everybody's staring, oh the night/I can't promise that my hands won't touch the floor, yeah,” the two sing on “Touch The Floor,” their infectious 2016 single featuring slick saxophone handiwork by singer/rapper/instrumentalist Masego. The summery, feel-good song—fueled by the energy of a blissful beach day and tasty Jamaican food—was penned on the short car ride on the way to the studio. “Touch The Floor” was a welcome deviation from their stockpile of mid- and down-tempo selections. “I was like, I think we’re going to write something fast today,” Ivana recalls. “I just had a feeling, because that was just a vibe.”

With that new upbeat energy in mind, VanJess felt that Masego, whom they’d met on set at Goldlink’s “Palm Trees” video shoot, would be a perfect fit for the song. Cozied up in producer Jay Kurzweil’s Los Angeles apartment, he knocked out his contribution in just two takes. (The sisters hint that “Best Believe,” an unreleased song recorded in that same session, will be another surefire addition to warm weather playlists.) A similar easygoing energy funneled into the making of “Through Enough” featuring Goldlink, which found a home on the soundtrack for Issa Rae’s Insecure.

While VanJess’ career is on the upswing, their professional journey hasn’t been without bumps. “Drumroll,” an ill-fated attempt at a mainstream pop song, easily comes to mind. Although their voices sounded pretty rich on the 2013 track, it’s clear that the bombastic island-tinged vibe wasn’t really them. “At that point, we weren’t being ourselves. I think we didn’t really know who we were,” Jessica says. While they had some say with the lyrics, they had no input in terms of production. They trusted the counsel of their previous handlers more than they should have because they were still fresh in the industry and unsure of the lane they truly wished to explore. “That was us saying, ‘Let’s channel what our sound would be.’ But I think we let a lot of people pull us in the wrong direction.”

VanJess has since figured out that their sweet spot lies between slinky slow-burners and trap undertones they love listening to in their leisure (Ivana does weekend cleaning to Post Malone and Kodak Black, while Jessica doesn’t try to hide her Drake adoration). The soft thump of songs like “Adore” and “Easy” (featuring rappers Berhana and Leikeli47) are clear markers of this fusion, where they flaunt a sensuality that toes the line but never spills over into being overtly sexy. Notes bathed in indigos and violets paired with their command of the low-register easily nod to the ‘90s essence of TLC, Brandy, and Brownstone. The links are something they’re aware of, but promise nostalgia isn’t their intentional shtick.

“The ‘90s really set the tone for our inspiration, our vibe,” Ivana says. “And the thing is, to be honest, it was never like a thing of, oh my gosh we’re just engulfed in the ‘90s.” According to Jessica, when you think about music that makes you feel something, that was just the time where much of music did that. “That’s the spirit we’re trying to bring back. Just soulful, feel-good music,” she says.

Rather, Nigerian music, Aaliyah, TLC, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Mark Morrison (“Return of the Mack” is Ivana’s jam), Elton John, Madonna, and even then-Puffy Combs contributed to a “feeling” they grew up with around the house, both living stateside in Fontana, Calif., and in Apapa, the Nigerian town where they spent nine years growing up. (“I think [Apapa] gave us a sense of culture and coming over here, we kept that. It’s nice to have two things that influence you.”)

The plan is for these myriad influences to culminate on their forthcoming debut project, which they promise will be consistent with their previously released singles. “Production-wise, we have a lot of electronic vibes, dance vibes, also hip-hop and very forward thinking R&B,” Jessica says. Stuff that makes you feel good, essentially. Either way, the sisters are ready to share it all. “I feel like we were given a gift and it wasn’t given to us to keep it,” Ivana says. “I just want people to receive it as much as they can.”

Videography by Jason Chandler

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Gabe Ginsberg

10 Indie Artists Issa Rae’s Label Raedio Needs To Sign

Insecure star and creator Issa Rae has steamed up timelines all across social media with her trailer for the upcoming rom-com, The Photograph. But after spending much of recent years behind the camera and in front of it with her popular show Insecure and as an executive producer for Robin Thede's Black Lady Sketch Show and Rap Sh*t, she's taking a stab at the music business.

In October, the award-nominated creative announced Raedio, a joint partnership with Atlantic Records which will enable her new baby to carve out more space in the crowded entertainment industry.

“Music has always been an essential part of every project I do and working with emerging talent is a personal passion,” Rae said in a statement. “Raedio allows me to continue that work within the music industry and audio entertainment space. The Atlantic team are innovators in terms of shifting and shaping culture. I’m excited to join forces with them to discover new artists."

Her label reveal kicked off the introduction of Raedio’s flagship artist, Haitian-American singer-rapper TeaMarrr and her single, “Kinda Love.” At the Soul Train Awards this week, she introduced Teamarrr to the audience for a solid performance of the single.

Rae’s track record with spotlighting “female, independent” artists is pretty impressive. From featuring music by Saweetie to SZA to Houston’s own Peyton on her show and soundtracks, Issa has an ear for future sounds unlike anyone else in the biz right now.

With that in mind, VIBE imagines 10 indie acts that we’d love for Issa Rae to sign to her budding label and champion artistic evolution.

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Emmavie

If Issa is looking for new sounds in the “intense and sensual” department, then Emmavie is the right artist to turn to. Her rhythmic sensibilities enhance any room where lovers are looking to have a red light special moment. Much like her television counterpart, the Harrow, London original writes, arranges, and produces her own music with a mix befitting of Insecure’s vibe. Emmavie’s unique blend of electronic, R&B, and jazz on songs such as “Distraction” and “Can’t Get Over You” would play well over scenes where Molly is caught up between her would-be lovers, Niko and Dro.

Mylezia

Mylezia is considered by most underground R&B/soul lovers as the “King of the First State.” The Delaware Valley native has been recognized by her peers as a rising pop phenom with songs such as “Can’t Trust Your Smile” and “Party Of One” racking up thousands of views and streams online. Her independent success caught the attention of Meek Mill, which meant that the young sensation has not one but two cities riding for her. A nuanced performer with the radiance of a blockbuster supernova, Myleiza can be as powerful as any of today’s pop stars, while remaining down-to-earth like our favorite around-the-way-girls. Backed with an angelic voice and a long family history of singers, Issa Rae’s Raedio label would be betting on a sure winner with Mylezia.

Quiñ

Pasadena all the way down to the socks, singer-songwriter Bianca Leonor Quiñones has been a name that has rang bells around the indie LA R&B scene for some time. Better known as Quiñ (pronounced “Keen”), her song “Mushroom Chocolate” landed into lover’s Valentine’s Day-inspired date night playlists, thanks to her silky vocals and its guest star, Atlanta rapper-singer 6LACK. Her latest project, 7th Heaven, promises to up the ante with a true sense of after-hour musical adventurousness, which, judging by this, is right up Insecure’s lane.

Liza Colby

Oozing danger and sensuality are two traits that singer-songwriter Liza Colby holds in spades. As the frontwoman and lead for The Liza Colby Sound, her sexy-soul vocals are paired with gritty garage textures that make for a thumping, late-night romp. Like Insecure, Colby exerts a confident charisma that blows away the competition and attracts people who enjoy good music with a bit of a rough edge. For example “Cryin,” off the band’s Draw EP, is powerful and free, yet a bit reluctant and demure as well. It would make for a perfect pairing alongside franchise artist, TeaMarrr, whose “One Job” sounds similar in subject and tone.

Jamilah Barry

Jamilah Berry is a super-talented songstress with a strength in storytelling. Her replay-worthy 2018 EP, Salix Babylonica, placed her squarely alongside other UK R&B/soul artists such as NAO and Jorja Smith, thanks to her vocal skill and deft songwriting. Her ability to extricate emotion from inner conflict on songs like “Sunblock” and “More Than (>)” is a trait that Insecure fans have come to know and love from Issa Rae, making this Raedio connection one that would work greatly if it were to happen. With cosigns from Nile Rodgers and Roy Ayers, adding Jamilah Barry to Issa’s label roster is a soulful vibe worth clamoring for.

Yung Baby Tate

Even though 2020 is the year Yung Baby Tate will break out to the masses, Issa Rae has a chance to close by signing this ATL superstar talent. After gaining momentum in the streets with her #MegatronChallenge, bookended by her GIRLS and BOYS projects, Yung Baby Tate is setting her sights higher — and what better way to do so than be a part of Raedio? The versatile artist has explored the alternate identities of girls and women, making jams like “That Girl” and “Freaky Girl” standout amongst all the rest in the game. With Tate on board, Insecure could feature an artist who is thrilling when she’s just being herself on records.

BbyMutha

To call bbymutha “underground” is a misnomer. The Chattanooga MC, whose real name is Brittnee Moore, is a new type of role model. Her parental advisory raps advocate for women to keep fake dudes in the rearview mirror and their money ambitions in the front. Think if Tiffany DuBois was riding for working mothers everywhere set to songs like “Rules” and “Lil’ Bitch,” and you have bbymutha. Raedio could serve as a stable place for the self-proclaimed “work-from-home” mother of four and her upcoming album, Prosperity Gospel. If Issa Rae has cultivated a career where she’s been “rooting for everyone Black,” then signing bbymutha would enable her to move into her “Spooky Mutha Mansion” without begging the white man for a job.

Tiffany Gouche

Tiffany Gouche is no stranger to the music scene, having worked with or shared a stage with the likes of Masego (“Queen Ting”), Terrace Martin (“Never Enough”), Lalah Hathaway (Honestly, 2017) and more. An all-around musician, Tiffany earned everyone’s attention back in 2015 with her esteemed Pillow Talk EP. “Red Rum Melody” might be a bit dated for another sexy-sex scene between Issa and Daniel, but songs like “Dive” and “Down” could be playful and flirty songs that would turn Raedio from a boutique label into a powerhouse that creates a much-needed discussion through stirring melodies.

Joy Postell

Joy Postell is a rising soul singer from Baltimore who has already impressed music lovers with her debut album, Diaspora. Singing about self-love, self-acceptance, and self-awareness, Joy Postell packs a punch on every song she performs. Her mesmerizing vocals on “Make Believe” from Back and Forth (2019) and her advocate intonations on “Consciousness” reflect on what’s happening in her life and the world around her. Raedio’s stance as a label that empowers independent women would be emboldened with Joy Postell’s speaking-truth-to-power vibes on deck.

IAMDDB

Manchester hip-hop songstress IAMDDB is defined by her songs of women empowerment, representation, and self-acceptance—three tenets Raedio subscribes to. At only 22-years-old, Diana Debrito has, in the past few years, graduated from a local favorite into a Miss Lauryn Hill-cosigned, buzzed-about artist all throughout Britain. Her wildly popular songs like “Pause” and “Shade” mixes hip-hop, trap, and silky Afro-jazz, and has garnered over 20 million streams on Spotify. As one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” entries on its annual list, her independent status is ripe for Raedio to bring her talents to the U.S. as R&B’s next big thing.

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Paras Griffin

Soul Train Awards 2019: Watch All The Performances Here

The Soul Train Awards are always a must-watch event, with the show consistently giving roses to the veterans who built the music industry as we know it while showing love to younger, promising artists who carry on the traditions of their predecessors. Look below for the performances from Sunday's event.

SiR ft. D Smoke – "Hair Down," "John Redcorn"

SiR was the first major performance of the night. Outfitted in a blue flannel and accompanied by a team of dancers dressed as flight attendants, he performed his Kendrick Lamar-assisted single "Hair Down." There was then a brief moment that highlighted his older brother, Rhythm + Flow winner D. Smoke, at the piano, playing background as SiR performed another Chasing Summer highlight, "John Redcorn."

K. Michelle – "The Rain"

Songwriter/production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were honored for their achievements on Sunday night, and this continued with K. Michelle's performance of "The Rain." The song is a remake of the 1998 New Edition hit "Can You Stand The Rain," which was written by the duo. K. Michelle performed the record in a glowing all-white dress.

Tiana Major9 and EarthGang – "Collide" Tiana Major9 and EarthGang recently released the music video for "Collide," their beautiful new song from the soundtrack for Lena Waithe's upcoming film Queen and Slim. They performed the song tonight, first with EarthGang member Olu performing a spoken word poem written by Lena Waithe, then he and Tiana Major9 intimately sharing space in front of a colorful arrangement of flowers and car rims.

Wale ft. Jeremih and Kelly Price – "On Chill," "Sue Me"

Wale's sixth studio album Wow... That's Crazy was one of the best of 2019, and he got well-deserved recognition at the Soul Train Awards. He and Jeremih rocked his sultry hit "On Chill" before leaving the stage, and in an unexpected twist, he returned to the stage with Kelly Price for a performance of the album's intro "Sue Me."

Queen Naija – "Good Morning Text"

Queen Naija kept it real during her performance of her new single “Good Morning Text.” The singer-songwriter provided power vocals to the stage while looking great doing so. In a soft-off white number, Ms. Najia belted her ballad in style.

Boyz II Men and Stokley Williams – Medley

To kick off the first part of the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis tribute, Boyz II Men started with a performance of “Tender Love” (1985), the duo’s written and produced single for Force MDs. Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, and Wanya Morris then moved on to their 1994 hit “On Bended Knee.” But all the aunties weren’t ready for the next performance… After the first dose of nostalgia from the R&B trio, singer Stokley Williams took us even deeper into the 90s with a performance of Mint Condition’s “Pretty Brown Eyes” and a live performance of his 2019 single “She…” setting the tone for the live performances of the night.

Pink Sweat$ – "Honesty"

In one of the better, yet shorter performances of the night, newcomer Pink Sweat$ shared emotive, melodic harmonies from his single "Honesty"

Teamarrr –"Kinda Love"

Filmmaker, director and actor Issa Rae has ventured into music with a new label called Raedio, and at the Soul Train Awards she had an opportunity to present her first signee. Haitian-American singer Teamarrr has a unique voice, and she showcased her talent with a performance of her hit song "Kinda Love."

Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper, Carl Thomas, Keyshia Cole, Le'Andria Johnson, Anthony Hamilton – Soul Cypher

This year’s Soul Cypher was anointed with some of the most important voices in contemporary R&B. With Erykah Badu and Robert Glasper providing the instrumentals, Carl Thomas, Keyshia Cole, gospel vocalist Le'Andria Johnson and Anthony Hamilton sang passionately and confidently while noting their classic hits. Thomas reworked his jam "I Just Thought You Should Know" while Cole created a mini-universe using songs like "I Should've Cheated," "Last Night" and "Trust and Believe." Next was Sunday's Best winner Le'Andria Johnson, who called on all to rightfully "Call on Jesus" while Hamilton closed out the cypher with a twist on his classic, "Charlene." But before we said goodbye, Badu had to hit a few notes–including a pretty high one.

Yolanda Adams – Medley

Moments after being honored with the Lady of Soul Award for the way she's merged soul and gospel throughout her career, Yolanda Adams blessed the audience with what Kirk Franklin described as her "god-kissed voice." She first performed the uptempo "Victory," and continued into a medley of other songs like "Born This Day," the vulnerable "Open My Heart," "Be Blessed," and "The Battle Is The Lords" before closing her set with a stirring performance of "In The Midst Of It All."

Luke James ft. BJ The Chicago Kid, Ro James – "Go Girl"

Luke James provided ultra nostalgia for his performance of "go girl" with R&B bredrens Ro James and BJ The Chicago Kid. Each of the sultry singers arrived dressed to the nines in fits that paid homage the iconic fashion of the 90s. The track does the same with odes to Martin and more. “It’s a celebratory song that I created with two of my best buds in the business, Ro and BJ. ‘go girl’ is a feeling, an unconventional vibration about a specific woman," James previously told Billboard about the track. "It’s perfectly freeing... as if it came out of a ‘90s classic love song or film.” We totally agree.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis tribute

If you call yourself a musician and don’t know Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ discography, you better start doing your research and watch these performances. After delivering a moving acceptence speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award, the songwriter and production duo hit the stage (with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds) to join acts like the Sounds of Blackness for “Optimistic” and The S.O.S. Band for their 1983 classics like the smooth “Just Be Good To Me” and the popularly covered, interpolated, and sampled “Tell Me If You Still Care.” Cherelle and Alexander O’Neal hit the stage for rendition of their 1985 single, “Saturday Love.”

But the real party went down when they reunited with their felliow bandmates of The Time. Morris Day brought the smooth swag in his silver suit and shades as they performed their Prince-produced jam “Jungle Love” (1984), with signature dance and mirror holdin’ hypeman (Jerome Benton) in tow. But what’s a performance by The Time without Morris Day doing the bird dance? Gotta have it every time. It never gets old.

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Singers Ronald Isley (L) and Kim Johnson perform at the "18th Annual Soul Train Music Awards" at the Scottish Rite Auditorium on March 20, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevin Winter

Music Sermon: The Soul Train Awards Been Lit, We're Just Late To The Party

Black entertainment's oldest televised awards show has been patiently waiting for us to come back.

As I was watching the 2019 BET Awards, at some point around trying to decipher the difference between DaBaby and Lil Baby, I said – not for the first year – “I’m not the BET Awards demo anymore.” BET’s flagship awards’ aspiration to cover every segment of black entertainment has always stretched it a little thin; current rap and R&B artists, plus legends, plus some gospel, plus a few TV, movie and sports moments, and some social good and politics crowd a run-of-show. But in the last several years – probably due to me moving solidly into the Urban Adult Contemporary demo – watching the BET Awards has been comprised mostly of me tweeting “Who is this child?” while waiting to see maybe two performances and a tribute.

But then, in sweet November, BET gives me my entire two-step life with the Soul Train Awards, where I know (almost) every artist and live for every performance and I can’t even tell you who took an award home because that’s not even the point. The Soul Train Awards is family reunion time: an opportunity for your respected faves to get their props and a platform for soulful new school artists who don’t get mainstream airplay. It’s a night to dance and sing along in your living room. Ain’t no stuntin’, no pretense, no cappin’ (did I use that right?). It’s just a good a** time. So why did it take us so long to embrace it again?

BET has owned the legacy awards show since 2009, but for years the Soul Train Awards seemed a bit forgotten. The timeline wasn’t joining forces to watch the Tom Joyner Cruise Live (Side note: Tom Joyner should absolutely do the Tom Joyner Cruise Live). Over the last four years, however, an aging millennial demographic combined with a drive of ‘90s nostalgia and renewed demand for straight up and down soul music has shined a light on the awards broadcast. Since 2015, the BET ecosystem has also thrown more support behind the show, including moving it from a Centric/BETHer-branded property to a BET proper event and giving it the same Viacom-wide simulcast as the BET Awards. Production values, talent bookings, and show elements keep rising, and the TL (timeline) is paying attention. This Sunday, the Soul Train Awards will air live for the first time (the show is usually taped a week or two in advance), with Black America’s favorite on and off-screen besties Tisha Cambell and Tichina Arnold hosting for the second year.

It’s by grace, though, that the Soul Train Awards is even still here for us to enjoy. The show that launched as the only televised black entertainment awards ceremony started fading during black music’s growing mainstream dominance, and then was lost in the shadow of the bigger and splashier BET Awards. Superstar artists stopped attending, because teams no doubt felt like their presence wouldn’t move the needle on sales, and it became the Old Heads Awards. Quietly, though, the Soul Train Awards has been a ratings driver for BET since the network acquired the show; the rest of us (including talent) are just finally catching up. And we should be ashamed it took so long! This specific celebration of black entertainment is as important now as it was when launched over 30 years ago — almost more so — for the very reason that it’s not just a show packed with hottest, newest, latest. But to appreciate the show’s legacy and staying power, we should look back at its history.

In 1987, Soul Train founder Don Cornelius decided it was time to elevate his 20-plus-year-old platform to another level. At the time, the major entertainment awards weren’t properly acknowledging black artists. The handful that had reached massive pop success – Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston – were recognized and honored.

But in the '80s, the soul and R&B world was still vast and wide.

Cornelius decided it was time to create a night of celebration and excellence which, like Soul Train itself, was created for us, by us. He insisted at the time, “Black music is too big and too powerful not to have its own awards show. It’s overdue.” The Soul Train Awards was born.

Not only did Cornelius want to create a space for our artists who were overlooked by award shows like the Grammys and the AMAs, but also an awards system that didn’t hang on politics, or follow the same long-time criticisms of Grammy voting; selections by a group of people who just vote on the names they know. The voting block for the Soul Train Awards was made up of black retailers, radio programmers and artists themselves, to grant the prized Soul Train trophy design based on African sculpture. But the Soul Train Awards weren’t even meant to be about the awards; they were about highlighting our talent – current and established – featuring special legacy honors, originating the concept of tributes via performances instead of just film packages, and putting together super-performances of key artists across genres. This was our showcase.

For the first eight years of the show, the hosting panel was a mix of Dionne Warwick, Luther Vandross, and Patti Labelle, and our biggest and best showed up in their award finery ready to celebrate and be celebrated. When the Grammys weren’t yet making room for hip-hop, Don gave it a little light (not a whole lot, but a little), and the Soul Train Awards honored black entertainment across the board, not just music.

In fact, until 1994, the Soul Train Awards were the only televised black entertainment awards. The Source Awards debuted as the first hip-hop awards show in 1994, The NAACP Image Awards were first televised in 1995, and that same year the female-artist heavy landscape prompted the creation of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Awards. For the first several years, the black entertainment community turned out in numbers for their long-awaited party. The first year, black luminaries from Magic Johnson to Miles Davis to Stevie Wonder to Don King to Run DMC to Isaac Hayes were in the building. In 1990, Michael Jackson snubbed the Grammys but showed up at the Soul Train. Whitney Houston was even famously booed at the Soul Train Awards because the crowd felt she was too pop, and this was not a pop space. This was a forum for soul.

But like many of our most important early platforms for black culture, progress eventually rendered almost of these celebrations obsolete. As black music crossed over, more black artists were being recognized by the mainstream, and black culture became the culture, the entire Soul Train brand felt outdated and unnecessary. By 2000, the awards were in a bit of an identity crisis. After twelve years at LA’s Shrine Auditorium, the show bounced to a new location every year for the next six years. Cornelius started having trouble getting stars to commit to the awards because they were held within a month of the Grammys.

Then, in 2001, BET debuted their award show: a younger, hipper, and larger budget version of the Soul Train Awards that adopted virtually the same format, with Viacom promotional power and a dedicated channel and time slot (unlike Soul Train’s syndication) to their advantage.

In 2006, Soul Train signed off after 35 years and over 1,100 episodes as the longest-running nationally syndicated TV program in America at the time. Around the same time, the syndication company for the show and the awards, Tribune Entertainment, changed hands and shut down. In 2007, the Soul Train Awards’ biggest winners of the night, like Beyoncè and John Legend, didn’t bother to show. Finally, in 2008, there were no Soul Train Awards. And had that been the end of the line for the show for good, there probably would have been very little complaints or rumblings – we’d stopped paying attention, anyway. BET seemed to have all Black excellence bases on lock with the BET Awards, the BET Honors (which debuted in February of 2008), and the BET Hip-Hop Awards (2006). But fortunately, someone at the company had the good sense not to let the Soul Train Awards die.

As part of BET on Jazz’s rebrand to Centric (now BETHer), BET acquired the Soul Train Awards and revamped the program to fully embrace its old head’ness, perfect for the channel geared towards an older demo with a soul music focus. They moved the awards from LA to Georgia (it has since moved to Vegas), changed the date to November, got Terrence Howard and Taraji Henson coming straight off of Hustle & Flow to host, and gave tributes to Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band, Chaka Khan and Motown. That’s a party.

Now, here’s the part we probably haven’t been paying attention to: since the very first year in 2009, the Soul Train Awards has been a fourth-quarter ratings hit for BET. In fact, 2009 was the award show’s highest-rated broadcast ever in its history. Media and consumer trends often focus on the young, overlooking that while the 35-and-older set may not be as reactive, we’re loyal. Especially with music and entertainment (a look at any number of R&B theater tours featuring people who haven’t released an album in ages will tell you that). The cultural powers-that-be finally seem to be catching on: things that were long considered “Auntie & Uncle” territory, like Essence Festival, are hitting the hip radar. The Soul Train Awards is part of that wave. Also – and this is my personal, not data-supported, get-off-my-lawn opinion – there’s a lightness and fun with good ol’ R&B, soul and even older hip-hop that you just don’t get from the pull-your-panties to the side R&B and mumble rap of the last 10 years.

The BET Awards is now at a similar crossroads as the Soul Train Awards was in the early 00s: major talent is skipping the show, and the network is challenged to put together a cohesive program while trying to serve all demos. After two years of plunging ratings, the broadcast finally seems to have found balance again in 2019. But still, I’m not personally here for all the Lil’s, the YBNs and YGs and other letter configurations, and Babies and whatnot. I need music that works as a backdrop for brown liquor in red solo cups, please. But as viewers and fans, we also have to check ourselves on our awards show criticisms. Complaints amplify every year around the Grammys, AMAs and the like that we need to give less weight to mainstream awards and celebrate our own, ourselves, which is exactly what Don Cornelius and then Bob Johnson and team set out to do. During the BET Awards, though, there are gripes about the diversity and quality of talent, content, and production. There was even a period of Black Twitter referring to them as the “EBT Awards.” Criticism is often valid, but straight disdain isn’t. Also every year, there are cries about how we need more and different awards shows. Meanwhile, Soul Train’s been right there, chillin’, with your old school faves and your burgeoning soul stars. I’m ok with knowing I’m not the right in the pocket of the BET Awards demo anymore, but that means I’m going to support the Soul Train Awards with all my Auntie might because black music and black culture need the intergenerational love and community that the Soul Train Awards represent.

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