For the past 20 years, some of music’s most celebrated stars have come together at the annual BET Awards alongside the industry’s newest acts. It’s a tradition that has created some of the most exciting, iconic and historic moments to ever happen in the music industry.
Ahead of the 20th anniversary of BET’s annual celebration that will premiere virtually June 28, we’re taking a look back at a special performance that no one saw coming: Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar’s epic water dance performance for “Freedom” that opened the 2016 BET Awards. This appearance was the first time that two artists had ever performed together and was shrouded in secrecy up until the moment they took the stage.
We're looking back at how the stage came together, straight from BET Network’s former President of Programming Stephen Hill, the mastermind who orchestrated their unforgettable performance.
It’s after 11 p.m. on a Saturday night and Beyoncé has forgone a slew of other places to be here.
Fresh off a Hawaiian vacation with her family, her sister’s 30th birthday celebration and the 41-date U.S. leg of her Formation World Tour — complete with a 36-song set — it would be understandable if she were asleep. But she wasn’t. Instead, she opted for the dark, empty confines of an empty arena. Drenched in water and taking refuge beneath a towel while seated at a three-monitor setup next to Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé is still working. With less than 24 hours to spare before her next gig, she is correcting camera shots, repeatedly running through physically taxing choreography and belting out “Freedom” over and over, each time with the same fervor as the last rendition. In a covert operation manned by more than 100 people, the striking part of her impromptu night shift is that millions of people don’t know it’s taking place. There’s no photo op. No interview. No audience. Propped up in a an all-white bodysuit adorned with sequins and tassels, the singer is a far cry away from rest and relaxation, as a 10-hour flight to Sunderland, North England looms.
The locale of choice for the biggest star in the world this evening is the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, rehearsing for the 2016 BET Awards.
Seated among the skeletal list of spectators allowed to watch Beyoncé in all of her rehearsal glory was one of the people who made it possible: the network’s President of Programming, Stephen Hill. Visibly excited to see another run-through of the secret he’s been orchestrating, his eyes light up at the opportunity to loosen his grip on the information he’d kept secure for weeks. Leaning in to speak matter-of-factly, gratefulness is audible in Hill’s speech as he lays out how the stars aligned for BET and Beyoncé after a few years of out-of-sync timing. Since keeping a close eye on the mega-star last year, the network's opportunity wedged itself between Beyoncé’s last weekend off and the first night of the international leg of her Formation Tour – which brought some threatening math into play.
“We approach Beyoncé every year for a performance," Hill says. "A few times she’s been in Europe, sometimes it’s been off-cycle and there’s been nothing out. So we thought at the end of last year that this timing might line up for her to have a project out before the BET Awards. And then, when she booked the tour, we saw there was a date in Sunderland on the 28th, and we were like, ‘Oh man, this isn’t gonna hit.’ From L.A., they’re nine hours ahead. So by the time she steps on stage here, it will already be the 27th where she’s performing. That’s a bad thing, because nobody wants to do a performance and then travel. We thought, ‘Oh no, it’s gonna be a problem.’”
Luckily, for everyone else in the room, the only problem tonight is whatever small tweak Beyoncé was making to the performance she graciously agreed to. Exuding a warm professionalism, the singer is poised and even pausing for a few laughs – contrary to any assumptions one might have about a performer under such a time crunch. Hill’s big job now was making sure the information doesn't leak.
"I Googled ‘Beyoncé BET Awards,’” he admits. “And there was one entity that said, ‘Will Beyoncé show up at the show?’ Last year, there was nothing out. The year before, there was a European gig. That’s the question every year, but this one kind of lined up like, ‘Here’s the reasons it could happen.’ And we were like, ‘Oh no, please don’t let this get picked up!’”
As the whispers did little to prove what was actually happening behind the crisp cold walls of the Microsoft Theater, Beyoncé is giving her notes to the show’s executive producer, Jesse Collins. Attentively taking the star’s suggestions and offering his own, Collins is working shoulder-to-shoulder with the singer to inch towards perfection. A week prior, however, their collaboration hit a roadblock. “This thing came within fifteen feet of not happening,” he says, sharing that the 60-foot pool (that holds 60,000 gallons of water) was initially too large for the 45-foot setup BET designed. But one late-night trip to the final U.S. stop on the Formation Tour ensured his crew that the production was possible. Only then was the ball finally able to roll for Beyoncé. Or as the staff called her, “Percy Mavis.”
“The most important thing about keeping a secret is coming up with the perfect code name,” Collins reveals. “Sometimes you try to come up with something silly, sometimes it’s something funny. For this one, because it was so important that it not get out, we picked the most basic, random name that had nothing to do with her. We didn’t pick ‘Ms. Lemonade,’ we didn’t pick anything like that. Actually, I think the name is the aunt of somebody in our talent department. So, people would think ‘Percy Mavis’ was just some artist. And then for Kendrick, we picked his manager’s name, Dave Free.”
There might have been a sacrifice on Kendrick Lamar’s part as well, though it isn’t visible as the two share a laugh after their first run of kicking water in each other’s faces for the night. Hill alludes to a vacation cut short after a call from Mrs. Knowles-Carter, but notes that there was much more. After bringing solidarity to last year’s BET Awards with a polarizing performance of “Alright” from atop a police car, K. Dot’s big-named co-star likely came second to their song’s message on his list of reasons to attend. “Freedom,” which serves as a war cry of America’s oppressed, would count as the first time the two revolutionaries would appear on a song together. And the anthem was perfect for the BET stage and audience. Thankfully for Hill – who only hoped but did not ask for a “Freedom” performance – his wish came to fruition.
“‘Freedom’ is not what I thought she was going to perform, but it’s what I was hoping she was performing, and I’ll tell you why,” he says before clearing his throat. “I went to go see the show in San Diego, and if you’ve seen it, she has a wonderful stage, and then she has a runway to another stage in the middle — and it’s filled with water! My producer mind first goes, ‘OK, how the heck did they fill that with water?!’ But I saw that and I actually sent a message to her after that, talking about the show and what I thought about the water, and the technique of dance they were doing going with ‘Freedom.’ It was just symbolically perfect.”
So when Hill and Beyoncé's teams discussed their game plan, the exchange was one between two camps that love a good surprise.
“The conversation is, do you want to announce it and make it huge or do you want to surprise everyone and shock the world? And there’s benefits to both, but we rode with shocking the world," he says slyly. "It was like, ‘Can we pull off the biggest artist in the world at the BET Awards and just have everybody at 8 o’clock be like, ‘Oh my God?’”
It looks like you can.
(Photo: Kevin Winter/BET/Getty Images for BET)