Crowds brave the heat to participate in the Fan Fest at the BET Experience… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)
In a parking lot across the street from the L.A. Live complex in downtown L.A. on Saturday afternoon, the temperature outside the BET Experience matched the star wattage of the weekend's performances.
"I feel like my shoes are sticking to the asphalt," said Drew Gordon, a 22-year-old music fan from San Jose who came to L.A. for the festival. "But you don't see something like this often. This is a really good way to get people to step out of what they're used to."
That goes for BET as well. This year the network, America's major hub for African American music culture, turned its annual awards ceremony into a weekendlong blowout of concerts by stars including Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg and R. Kelly, along with live broadcasts, panel discussions and outdoor festivities over the entire L.A. Live complex.
The BET Experience was a festival dedicated to showcasing contemporary black music in the heart of Los Angeles, at a time when the city's hip-hop and R&B artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Miguel are dominating charts and winning critical acclaim. But it was also an experiment in using the downtown complex as a cohesive music destination.
Starting Friday and concluding Sunday, the festival turned almost the entirety of L.A. Live into an open-air fan bazaar punctuated with pop shows. Friday's Beyoncé concert at the 18,000-capacity Staples Center showcased one of the music industry's biggest stars, with a set of bass-rattling, soulful pop that announced the lofty goals of the fest: to bring nearly every major name in black music together.
The experimental R&B singer Erykah Badu played her own bewitching set at the 2,300-capacity Club Nokia that same night, while an after-party at the Conga Room raged until dawn. The BET Awards will take place at the 7,000-capacity Nokia Theatre on Sunday night.
Though temperatures edged into the 90s Saturday, hundreds of fans milled about the Fan Fest area in the afternoon, as bands and DJs played on several outdoor stages and an array of food trucks hawked Jamaican curries, New Orleans-style crawfish and more traditional soul food fare (there were even a few vegan-friendly soul food stalls, such as Grandma's House Catering).
One of the most popular daytime attractions was a tent where fans could meets the casts of BET staple shows such as "The Game" and "Let's Stay Together" — or perhaps they just wanted to enjoy some time in an air-conditioned tent.
But unlike MTV — BET's pop-culture analogue, which has almost entirely abandoned music programming — the network's focus for the festival was celebrating musicianship.
"It's a great time for hip-hop, especially if you look at someone like Kendrick Lamar," said Shawn Sanders, an L.A.-based talent scout who said he'd worked on BET's marquee show "106 & Park," which was broadcasting live from the event. He too was hiding from the heat under an outdoor umbrella Saturday but enjoying the company. "This is a great way to bring our whole community together."
The scope of the music on offer at BET Experience cast a wide net, from pop luminaries such as Beyoncé; a deep bill of ambitious hip-hop and R&B including Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, Snoop Dogg and ScHoolboy Q; gospel from Kirk Franklin; a long-form jam from hip-hop's house band the Roots; and the lascivious soul of R. Kelly.
Although not without growing pains — lines were considerable at almost every turn — the big achievement of the event was to provide a showcase for contemporary black music culture in a way fans can experience on par with fests like New Orleans' Essence Music Festival, the only comparable festival in America.
Though most of the major shows were individually ticketed, the festival's unifying theme and the walkable proximity of all the events suggested that, at an excellent time for ambitious black music in L.A., this festival could be an annual kingmaker, as well as an example of how to use downtown L.A.'s venues in a music-fest format.
It's easy to imagine CMT or MTV taking a similar long-form, in-person approach to their own awards seasons. Not only did the BET Experience give fans another platform to enter the BET universe, it proved that downtown L.A. can host a major, weekend-long music event and show off the area's growing renown as a live entertainment hub.
For hip-hop fan Elise Gordon, Drew's younger sister who also came down from San Jose, it's been a long time coming, and it can't happen again soon enough.
"I'd love to see this annually," she said. "Maybe even more than annually."