MTV VMAs: Kendrick Lamar wins big in politically charged ceremony

Katy Perry is a skit-heavy host in ceremony aimed at promoting unity, including an appearance from the mother of Heather Heyer

Impassioned pleas for acceptance and inclusivity dominated this year’s MTV video music awards, a ceremony traditionally associated with flashier water cooler moments.

Artists including Jared Leto, Pink, Kesha and Logic all used their time on stage as a platform to shed light on issues that included suicide awareness, mental health and body image. The night also featured an appearance from Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed in Charlottesville.

Kendrick Lamar kicked off the night, playing news footage of a police brutality report interspersed with Fox News commentary before delivering an audacious, high-energy set, including stunt performers crawling up and down a wall filled with fire. The rapper, who led the night with eight nominations, won for best video, best hip-hop video, best art direction, best visual effects, best cinematography and best direction.

He lost out on the award for best artist of the year to Ed Sheeran. Following in the footsteps of MTV’s movie and TV awards this year, the night did away with gendered categories, with male and female performers up for the same prize.

Katy Perry in a Game of Thrones skit
Katy Perry in a Game of Thrones skit. Photograph: John Shearer/Getty Images for MTV

“You know what brings us together and finally unites us? Music,” said the host, Katy Perry, while taking a light-hearted stab at the state of affairs in the US under the new president. “Even in the apocalypse, we deserve good music,” she joked.

But many of Perry’s skits failed to create much of a reaction, including a belated Fyre festival sketch, a fake “social media baby” vomiting over her dress and a pre-filmed segment involving Fred Armisen as a musical guru. An appearance from Billy on the Street’s Billy Eichner, harassing Perry outside of her trailer, was somewhat more successful. “Blink twice if you’re really JonBenet Ramsay,” he asked, referring to a bizarre online theory.

The night’s most powerful moment came when Robert Wright Lee, a pastor and descendant of the confederate general Robert E Lee, appeared on stage. “It is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin,” he said, while bemoaning the use of his great-great-uncle as a symbol of hatred and white supremacy. He then introduced Susan Bro.

Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother.
Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother. Photograph: Frederick M Brown/Getty Images

“Only 15 days ago my daughter was killed as she protested racism,” she said. “I miss her but I know she’s here tonight. I’ve been deeply moved to see people across the world find inspiration in her courage.”

She then used her moment to announce the Heather Heyer Foundation, a non-profit organization that will help fund scholarships to help people fight against hatred. “I want people to know that Heather never marched alone,” she said. “She was always followed by people from every race and every background in this country.”

There was a similar plea for acceptance from Paris Jackson, Michael Jackson’s daughter, as she presented the award for best pop video to Fifth Harmony. “If we were all able to stand up united as one, our impact would be huge,” she said. “And that’s not fake news.” While discussing white supremacists, she went on to state that people should have “zero tolerance for their violence, their hatred and their discrimination”.

Leto delivered a tribute to the Linkin Park singer, Chester Bennington, who died last month. “Chester was my friend as he was to so many and witnessing his life taught me important things, especially about working relentlessly, pursuing dreams and being kind and caring while doing it,” he said.

He went on to stress the importance of seeking help for viewers struggling with depression. “You are not alone,” he said. “There is always a way forward”.

A similar note was struck in a performance by the rapper Logic with Khalid, who won for best new artist, and the best dance video winner, Alessia Cara. The song 1-800-273-8255, named after the US suicide hotline, was introduced by Kesha. “We all have struggles and as long as you never give up on yourself, light will break through the darkness,” she said to great applause.

The three performers were surrounded by tearful suicide attempt survivors. “I believe that we are all born equal but we are not treated equal,” Logic told the audience at the end.

This year’s Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, a lifetime achievement of sorts, was handed to Pink, who performed a medley of tracks while on a car that “flew” through the audience and drove past a series of nude models dancing with chainsaws. Her outfit was also adorned with a slogan reading: “Wake the fuck up.”

During her speech, she told a story about her six-year-old daughter telling her she thought she was ugly and looked like a boy. The singer then used a PowerPoint presentation showing androgynous rock stars and artists who “live their truth” to teach her the importance of being different. “We don’t change, we take the gravel and the shell and we create a pearl,” she said. “We help other people to change so that they can see more kinds of beauty.”

MTV also invited transgender military members to the event after Donald Trump announced that they would no longer be permitted to serve. “Any patriot who is putting their own life at risk to fight for our freedom and stand for equality is a hero at MTV, and to young people everywhere,” said the MTV president, Chris McCarthy.

Other winners included Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik, who won best collaboration for their 50 Shades Darker duet. Swift also premiered the video for her new single Look What You Made Me Do. The visuals see the singer take on a variety of roles, including a zombie and a bank robber, as she provides a commentary about her earnest image. Earlier rumors suggested that Swift would perform with Perry in a show of reconciliation but she remained absent, and Perry did not introduce the video.


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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