The 2016 VMAs Beautifully Blended Energy And Activism
MTV used its platform to promote positive change.
The MTV Video Music Awards serves as a platform for many of pop culture’s biggest moments. However, considering the hazy hue which has blanketed the globe throughout the year due to racial, societal and political uneasiness, the 2016 ceremony and pre-show entertainment served to stimulate and inspire the minds of their main demographic, while also staying true to their unpredictable, captivating schtick.
“It's gotta be a fun night, but it's gotta be a meaningful night,” Executive Producer of Music/Events Strategy & Development for the broadcast Eric Flannigan said during a pre-show junket at Madison Square Garden. “You don't want to be too preachy, too serious. It can't feel like homework. But, to act like that isn't what's going on in the world today would just be tone deaf.”
Considering the state of the country in 2016, MTV using the awards to incite a positive change in viewers could not have happened at a better time. However, let’s not forget that last year’s VMA ceremony was extremely ill-natured, which prompts me to believe that the positive changes were not only for the network to serve as social activists, but to reverse the issues caused during the show in 2015. During last year’s ceremony, host Miley Cyrus spent almost the entire night appropriating black culture, an off-key anti-police joke by Rebel Wilson was said before the “Best Hip-Hop Video” award featuring all black nominees, and a poorly thought out “White Squad” commercial was played, which in summary, promoted the idea of having an on-call group of white friends, which could help minorities avoid being racially profiled.
I believe that the awards was more or less doing damage control this year during the events leading up to the show and the show itself. However, the fact that said damage control was done in such a substantial way is why this year’s show was so powerful. During a time in the United States where people need to come together regardless of differences, MTV used their platform to their advantage by collaborating with social and political organizations and making sure that conscious, thought-provoking moments and performances were highlighted.
In the past, the VMAs have come under fire for not including artists of color in the nominations. Just last year, Nicki Minaj sent out a call-to-action for the network to include black female artists in their nominations after being “snubbed” for the Video Of The Year. In a 1997 piece in The New Yorker entitled “The New Negro,” then-rap novice Missy Elliott was overheard by her makeup artist Billy B. While on the phone with her mother, where she told her not to come to the VMAs even though Missy was nominated. Why?
“‘…it’s the white people’s awards, Ma. Very important.’”
This year, black artists have been pushing the boundaries of music and have been recognized in the best ways. The deeper meaning behind their work has also been heard loud and clear, as a few musicians brought attention to the issues head on during the show in order to inform and educate each viewer and attendee.
In her performance of songs from her ground-breaking visual effort, Lemonade, Beyonce was able to focus on the idea of black pride, especially in black woman, while also paying homage to Trayvon Martin, as a figure dressed in a black hoodie appears behind her during her rendition of “Pray You Catch Me.”
“I think when we see unjust moments captured on TV, on video and whatnot, it breaks our hearts,” Hot 97’s Nessa said on MTV’s white carpet. “This [police brutality] needs to be addressed so this country can become a better place to live.” Beyonce also invited the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Oscar Grant to Madison Square Garden, bringing attention to the devastating effects of police brutality and racial intolerance.
A sentiment that likely went unnoticed by Kanye West during his four-minute speech was the fact that just last week, 22 people were murdered in Chicago, which he followed up with thoughts on how to enjoy all life has to offer before it’s too late. Flannigan notes that in conversing with the stars who were slated to present at the show, much of their discussions dealt with seizing the moment of being in front of so many people, and using the state to raise awareness about issues.
“This is your moment, this is your soapbox, so I think you'll feel those thematics throughout the night,” he said.
The network also aimed to bring awareness to the importance of voting. A concert was held Aug. 26 at New York’s popular music venue, Terminal 5 in Hell’s Kitchen. In partnership with MTV’s election initiative “Elect This,” the event featured an on-the-ground voting activation booth, giving the attendees the opportunity to register to vote for this year’s presidential election. “Elect This” wouldn’t be the first example of the network’s involvement in political activism. In 1992, MTV’s Choose Or Lose aimed to encourage up to 20 million young people to register to vote, while the the non-profit organization Rock The Vote partnered with MTV and saw a huge celebrity following, as stars like Diddy and Madonna publicly supported the movement.
Flannigan assured that one of the goals of the pre-show was to inspire millennials to find their way to the polls in November.
“It definitely was no accident that the show falls between post-conventions and pre-debates,” he explained. “There will be a few moments [during the show] that'll feel politically-driven. Is there a better opportunity to talk to young America before the election at the VMAs?”
Proceeds from the Flo Rida and Cash Cash-led show benefitted GLAAD, the world's leading LGBTQ media advocacy organization. After the horrifying events that transpired this past June at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, showing support to the members of the LGBTQ community was something pressing to acknowledge, and SiriusXM radio host Taylor Strecker believes that being able to bring awareness to differences helps people better understand how to be tolerant of them.
“I think the issue with people being anti-gay rights is that they don’t understand the story behind it,” she explained of why people may have reservations against the gay community. “When I came out on the show [“Wake Up With Taylor”], I had a bunch of my listeners reach out and say ‘You’ve become my friend these eight years, and I realized that I have to have acceptance for that. You’re a person, and I just want you to have love like everybody else.’ So for me, I think for people to hear other people’s stories, it all becomes very humanized.”
During the live show, which also fell on the 53rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, singer Alicia Keys shared a poem about tolerance, peace and equality for all which sums up what I believe MTV was trying to promote for the past few days.
“Maybe we could love somebody…” she sang to the crowd of thousands. “…maybe we could care a little more, maybe we could love somebody instead of polishing the bombs of holy war.”