Stars lash out at racism in political VMAs

Fire tunes: After this pyrotechnic opening number, rapper Kendrick Lamar won six VMAs. © Getty

The 2017 Video Music Awards were not just about pop. There were angry speeches, an appearance from Heather Heyer’s mother, and a “fight against the system” prize. Was it all too political?

On Sunday night, Paris Jackson — daughter of Michael — was standing on a stage in California. “Let’s leave here tonight remembering that we must show these Nazi white supremacist jerks in Charlottesville, and all over the country, that as a nation with ‘liberty’ as our slogan, we have zero tolerance for their violence, their hatred, and their discrimination!”

The crowd roared.

“We must resist,” she finished. And then, with a laugh, she introduced the nominees for 2017’s best pop music video.

The juxtaposition of politics and pop was a theme throughout this year’s MTV VMA awards. Alongside the usual glittery outfits and gossip about Taylor Swift, the celebrities used their platforms to address a wide range of issues.

Cardi B gave her support to Colin Kaepernick, an NFL star who kneeled during the national anthem. Logic sang about suicide prevention. Pink discussed body image.

MTV used the awards show to make its own series of statements: it invited transgender members of the military to attend, just days after they were banned from joining up by President Trump. It gave out gender-neutral awards like “Artist of the Year” rather than best female or male music video. It also introduced a “Best Fight Against the System” prize for songs with a social message — which it then awarded to all six nominees.

Perhaps most striking was MTV’s choice to announce that award: Susan Bro, the mother of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer; introducing her was the Rev Robert Wright Lee IV, a descendent of the Confederate general whose statue sparked the Charlottesville protest. Bro announced a foundation to fight against hatred in Heather’s name, while Lee denounced racism as America’s “original sin”.

It is not surprising that the VMAs were so political this year. It has become fairly standard for celebrities to use award shows to make political statements, and in February the show’s host Katy Perry launched what she called an era of “purposeful pop” in the wake of the 2016 election. But can stars make a difference?

Star power?

Of course, say some. Pop is full of songs which helped to define and critique their era — from civil rights anthems like Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, to more recent calls to action like Beyoncé’s Formation. Pop music is universal, memorable, and creative. That makes it the perfect medium for politics; its stars have a duty to speak up.

Not so, say others. There are some iconic songs — but most “purposeful pop” is vague, vacuous and self-righteous. It is more likely to put off listeners who disagree with the message than change their minds. Glitzy award ceremonies should be about escaping the troubled times we live in, not wallowing in them.

You Decide

  1. What is the best political pop song ever written?
  2. Do protest songs and political speeches at awards ceremonies help to change minds?


  1. List five things that you think make a perfect pop song.
  2. The “Fight Against the System” winners included songs about immigration, body image, diversity, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Write your own pop song about an issue that you care about.

Some People Say...

“Only the audience can change the world – not performers.”

Billy Bragg

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Kendrick Lamar won the most awards at the 2017 VMAs, including Video of the Year and Best Hip Hop. Artist of the Year was won by Ed Sheeran. Pink won the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award (which is sometimes referred to as the Lifetime Achievement Award).
What do we not know?
Whether the night’s political commentary will have had any real effect on the show’s audience. Award shows have a long history of political speeches, and they have become even more frequent in the last 12 months. But while some tweeted support for the celebrities airing their opinions, others were less impressed. “Why can’t an award show be an award show?” asked one viewer, while another told stars to “Stick to the music”.

Word Watch

On August 11–12th this year, a white supremacist rally in the town in Virginia ended with counterprotester Heather Heyer being killed when the group she was in was attacked by being rammed by a vehicle. Some of the protesters carried Nazi flags.
The award show has a reputation for controversial moments — including Madonna kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in 2003; Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift in 2009; and Lady Gaga wearing a dress made out of meat in 2010.
Taylor Swift
The singer released her new music video Look What You Made Me Do at the beginning of this year’s show, though she was not there in person.
Colin Kaepernick
The quarterback has refused to stand during the US national anthem before football games several times, as a protest against racism. He is not currently signed to a team, which some have interpreted as an unfair punishment for his protests.
The president signed a memo making the ban official on Friday.
Confederate general
General Robert E. Lee led the Confederate army during the US Civil War. He surrendered in 1865.

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