The 2023 Soul Train Awards, aired by BET and other Paramount-owned TV networks on Sunday, was literally a house party that focused more on artist performances than actual awards. That’s because most of the winners (such as SZA, Usher, and Victoria Monét) and nominees weren’t at the show, which was held in the backyard at an unidentified owner’s mansion in the Los Angeles area. It was a change of location from the usual awards show places of hotel ballrooms or concert venues.
Keke Palmer energetically hosted this year’s Soul Train Music Awards, but the “house party” setting had mixed results, because it was small, held outdoors, and didn’t seem like an awards show at all.
The entire show had the vibe of a party where most of the guests of honor couldn’t bother to be there, so some other guests performed to distract from these absences.
SZA won the most awards (four): Best R&B/Soul Female Artist, Album of the Year “(for “SOS”), Song of the Year (for “Snooze”), and the Ashford and Simpson Songwriter’s Award (for “Snooze”), a prize that also went to “Snooze” co-writers Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Blair Ferguson, Khris Riddick-Tynes, and Leon Thomas. Usher won three prizes: Best R&B/Soul Male Artist, Best Collaboration (for “Good Good,” his team-up with Summer Walker and 21 Savage), and Certified Soul Award. Monét’s “On My Mama” garnered two awards: Video of the Year and Best Dance Performance.
It’s not necessarily that these no-show artists have anything personal against the Soul Train Awards. More likely, it’s a sign that there’s an oversaturation of awards shows. Celebrities and audiences are starting to lose interest in the ones that they don’t consider to be essential to attend. Having this televised awards show at someone’s house says it all.
By comparison, the 2022 Soul Train Awards took place at the 9,500-seat Orleans Arena in the Las Vegas area. Would the Soul Train Awards have been able to sell out that arena in 2023? Let’s just say that it looked like less than 300 people were at Sunday’s “house party.”
Performances in a backyard meant that there was no room for big, splashy stage productions. All of the artist performances seemed very low-key compared to what audiences usually expect from televised music awards.
Having the show outdoors at night in late November was also a questionable choice because it was visibly windy on a moderate (not extreme) level. In the beginning of the show, Palmer constantly had to flick her hair out of her face because of the wind. Later, she wore her hair pinned back in a bun to avoid this problem. Audience members in the background, where they were seated on couches and lawn chairs, could be seen looking affected by the windy weather.
Palmer announced the categories in the rare instances where award categories with nominees were announced. There were some celebrities in attendance who weren’t there to sing on stage but to promote other projects. Robin Thede, Ray J, Tamar Braxton, Ms. Pat, and Serayah were among the stars who got some screen time to shine.
Janelle Monáe, wearing an outfit covered in flowers, opened the show with her song “Float.” She later received the Spirit of Soul Award, a noncompetitive prize whose recipient is announced several days before the show. Flyana Boss presented the award to Monáe.
In her acceptance speech, Monae credited her grandmother for being a major inspiration to her: “I’m just so grateful for her spirit. Her spirit was one of humbleness. Her spirit was one of taking care of our family. She would always tell me, ‘Take care of your family.’ And that is what I’ve tried to do since the beginning of my career.”
She continued, “Y’all are my family. I’ve always wanted to shine a light on our community through my storytelling, through the art that I make—through movies, music, fashion—bringing it back around to us, to our Blackness, to our beauty.”
Monáe also expressed gratitude for the spirits of people whom she’s met who thanked her for feeling less “unseen,” “unsafe,” or “unheard.” She added, “I’m thankful to be able to show up for people in ways that are rooted in love.”
Monáe also said she was grateful of the spirits of Prince, Nina Simone, Grace Jones, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind & Fire as influences. She concluded her speech with this call to action when seeking justice in an unjust world: “Let the spirit of love use you.”
T-Pain received the Legend Award, another noncompetitive prize. David Banner presented the award to him.
T-Pain began his speech with a joke about the windy weather at the show: “Next year, we’re going to film this sh*t in Florida during hurricane season.”
On a more serious note, T-Pain said that Banner is his life coach and thanked Banner for all of his help and guidance. T-Pain also thanked his wife for dealing with “the Internet … and my flaws,” which he said “is a feat that I haven’t figured out.”
He added with a smile, “Receiving a Legend Award at [age] 39 is a little weird, a little early. I feel like there are two or three more songs that I could probably do.”
T-Pain also revealed, “Growing up, my family and I didn’t tell each other that we loved each other at all, until my brother passed away. And we suddenly realized that life is so short.”
T-Pain also said that life shouldn’t be about chasing awards. He offered this advice to aspiring artists: “I want you to be who you are, unapologetically.”
He later took the stage to perform a medley of hits, including “Got Money,” “Good Life,” and “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper).”
Coco Jones, winner of Best New Artist, was also one of the few award winners at the show. Instead of going up on stage to make a speech, she got her trophy handed to her while she was sitting on a couch.
Jones said in her acceptance speech: “There’s so much history involved with the Soul Train Awards. And I hope that I can do my culture justice, continue to be passionate, break down barriers, and create more platforms for us. I’m so honored.” She also thanked the Soul Train Awards, her family, and her business team.
Jones later joined SWV for a performance of “Double Back” and “Rain.” She also did a duet with BJ the Chicago Kid on “Spend the Night Together.”
Other performers at the show were Muni Long (“Made for Me”), Dante Bowe (“Wind Me Up,” “Your Majesty”), October London (“Back to Your Place”), Honey Bxby (“Touchin””), Fridayy (“When It Comes to You”), and host Palmer (“Ungorgeous”). Nicci Gilbert, Arin Ray, Eric Bellinger, and Marsha Ambrosius participated in a soul cypher, featuring DJ Brian-Michael Cox.
Kirk Franklin’s “All Things” won the Best Gospel/Inspirational Award. Maverick City Music was named Best Group. Franklin and Maverick City Music were no-shows.
There used to be a time when it would be unthinkable that most of the nominees would skip going to the Soul Train Awards. Times have definitely changed.