The 17th annual BET Awards on Sunday night in Los Angeles, hosted by “Saturday Night Live” star Leslie Jones, included performances by chart-topping hip-hop and R&B artists, causing the hashtag #BETAwards to trend all night.
But throughout the program there was also a focus on social justice and a tribute to Chance the Rapper’s humanitarianism, which was celebrated by former First Lady Michelle Obama, who joked that she’s known him since he was “a wee little baby rapper.”
BET President Debra L. Lee honored Chance with the 2017 Humanitarian Award presented by Walmart (a DiversityInc Noteworthy Company), saying he uses his “incredible creativity to provide children with the type of education they deserve.”
SocialWorks, Chance’s youth empowerment charity, is a nonprofit organization that aims to empower youth through the arts, education and civic engagement while fostering leadership, accessibility and positivity within the youth throughout Chicago, his hometown.
In March, the three-time Grammy award-winning rapper announced in a news conference that he would be donating $1 million to the Chicago Public Schools system.
Chicago is also the hometown of the former first lady, who has long been an advocate for education. During her time in the White House she launched “Reach Higher,” an initiative that encouraged students to pursue education past high school.
In a surprise video message to congratulate Chance on his award, Obama said both she and former President Barack Obama are “incredibly proud” of him:
“Hello BET family. Barack and I are so sorry that we can’t be there tonight in person. But please know that we are with you in spirit and we are so incredibly proud of you, Chance.
“We have known Chance and his family since he was a wee little baby rapper. And it has been a thrill watching him come into his own in so many ways.
“In addition to making some really amazing music, Chance has been taking that big, bright spotlight that follows him around and he’s shining it on young people in our hometown of Chicago. Time and again he has been standing up, speaking out and doing the work to get kids in our community the education they deserve.
— HipHopDX (@HipHopDX) June 26, 2017
“And with these passionate efforts, Chance is showing our young people that they matter. That they have something inside of them that is worthy of being expressed, and that they have so much to contribute to their communities and to our country.
“Chance, you are an outstanding role model, and an inspiration to all of us who care about our next generation. Because of you, countless young people will grow up believing in themselves, fulfilling their God-given potential, and then reaching back and lifting up other people along the way.
“I am thrilled to celebrate you here tonight, and honored to call you my friend. Thanks so much for everything you do. Congratulations.”
Chance was visibly moved by Obama’s message. At 24 years old, he is the youngest person to receive the TV network’s humanitarian award. He said in his acceptance speech that it “feels a little early to get something like this,” but he added, “My God doesn’t make mistakes, and I like to think that he’s putting this enormous pressure on me to see how I react.”
Chance also took the opportunity to highlight issues of injustice in the U.S. including mass incarceration, police brutality and the underfunding of public schools.
“I had plans originally to try and tell the world and everybody watching how to make it a better place,” he said.
“To tell everybody in this government that y’all need to let everybody out of jail for selling weed before y’all start making it legal for people to sell it, and make capital off it.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Blacks are more than three times as likely as whites to get arrested for marijuana possession.
Chance also said, “I was going to tell the Chicago Public Schools system not to take out a loan from Chase bank when they know that our schools are planning on failing in our district.
“I was going to tell those judges that we need a conviction,” he said, referring to the recent acquittal of former St. Anthony Police Department Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the death of Philando Castile.
But Chance then said he took the advice of a friend who told him “we’ve gotta work on ourselves before we work on the world.”
“I’m a good man, and I am going to become a better man,” he said.
Chance was also congratulated on Twitter:
— rolandsmartin (@rolandsmartin) June 26, 2017
— jesse Williams. (@iJesseWilliams) June 26, 2017
Similar to Chance, Yara Shahidi, a star of the hit TV show “Black-ish,” was inspired by Obama, who actually wrote her a college recommendation letter.
Shahidi won BET’s Young Stars Award at the awards ceremony, which took place on the birthday of Tamir Rice, who would have turned 15. In 2015, Rice was killed in a fatal encounter with law enforcement in Cleveland, Ohio.
During her acceptance speech, the actress acknowledged his birthday.
“Today is Tamir Rice’s birthday, and so amidst this celebration I’d love to honor his life,” Shahidi said.
Shahidi has decided to attend former President Barack Obama's alma mater.
The 17-year-old announced earlier this month on social media that she has committed to attending Harvard University. Malia Obama will begin classes at Harvard in the fall after taking a gap year between high school and college.
See complete list of 2017 BET Award winners