Every year, the public tunes in to award shows and their lineups of iconic and established names in pop culture. Whether these artists are nominated in multiple categories or gearing up for performances of a lifetime, there’s always an artist to root for at award shows whose craft deserves global acclaim.
However, these celebrations of artistry have also consistently proven to be more than just a gathering of a specific industry’s cream of the crop. Not only do award shows honor notable milestones in their respective fields; they also champion meaningful advocacies that their attendees bring to light through various platforms.
Multi-hyphenate Janelle Monáe brought this purposeful spirit to the 2023 BET Soul Train Awards, where they earned a definitive achievement in their career that’s the first of its kind, too.
If you’ve never heard of the BET Soul Train Awards before, then consider Monáe’s recent feat as your introduction to the program. Every year, the award show celebrates the most inspirational names in soul, R&B, and hip-hop. This year, they renamed one of their most prestigious awards to honor Monáe not just as a singer but also as a nonbinary icon.
On Nov. 26, Monáe received the Spirit of Soul award, which was once limited to female recording artists only. Previously called Lady of Soul, the Soul Train Awards renamed the category for the first time in history to laud the inclusivity and diversity that its latest recipient has stood for.
In their acceptance speech, the “Lipstick Lover” singer paid tribute to Prince, using his “I Would Die 4 U” lyrics in a nod to their identity. “I am thankful for the spirit of Prince, who taught me that I am not a woman, I am not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand.”
For Monáe, there was no better experience than being recognized by their own community and the artists they grew up listening to. “I’m so honored to have something like this for us, that continues to evolve and showcase so many different forms of what soul can be,” they shared.
They ended their speech on an encouraging note in light of global conflict polarizing public opinions. “May our spirits guide us towards creating a safe and equitable space for our people,” they said. If the Soul Train Awards could do so, then so could its viewers and future nominees.
While previous hitmakers and recipients of the award have reinvented soul music in their own right, Monáe and their contributions to the genre were impactful enough to change one of their gendered awards into a gender-neutral one.
Most award shows haven’t changed their separate distinctions for male and female artists yet. The Soul Train Awards themselves still have other gendered categories for their nominees. However, Monáe’s latest accolade incites hope that award-giving bodies around the world will feel inspired to take the progressive route for nonbinary musicians in the near future.
In addition, local award shows have had their fair share of compelling speeches through the years. We’ve witnessed winners remind their fellow nominees and audience members that they’re all bigger than the programs themselves, and that there are more pressing matters to care about than the trophies in their hands.
Take it from trans artist Iyah Mina, who dedicated her Best Actress win at the 2018 Cinema One Originals Awards to the LGBTQIA+ community and her fellow trans actors in the Philippine film industry.