There wasn’t much to this year’s MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs). The show was just another awards show, one that used to be good, but one that this time suffered a blatantly low celebrity attendance, and not-so-funny interludes that were meant to keep a host-less evening lively. But then enter Beyoncé, and for 15-odd minutes, the show became something else.
Her performance, a medley of five songs from her long-form visual album ‘Lemonade’ reiterated that the year truly belonged to her. When the album first released earlier this year in April, the most immediate responses concerned themselves with the most easily accessible issue that she sang about: her own alleged marital strife and her husband Jay Z’s infidelity. But as her audiences really heard her, they realized that the album was about so much more. It included spoken word poetry by London-based Somali poet Warsan Shire that Queen Bey had interspersed through the album. It spoke of the struggle of being a black woman, and the power of a black woman’s love. The album also made her political stance and continued support to the Black Lives Matter cause very clear, if it wasn’t already, when it featured arresting visuals of the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, black men killed in police shootings in the US.
Just before the 2016 VMAs began, Beyoncé walked the red carpet with her 4-year old daughter Blue Ivy, and later went on to pose for pictures with guests who she invited. This included Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden-Head; Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson; Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr; and Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. If this was her first strong political statement for the night, the singer also went on to start off her 15 minute visual minefield of a performance with backup dancers in ‘Pray You Catch Me’, dressed as angels in robes and popular African-American hairdos like dreadlocks and Bantu knots being shot down, one by one, with a stream of laser-red light. Before this song segued into the next, a hooded man stepped out behind a Beyoncé lit up by a bright spotlight, and walked behind her, as if propelling her forward. With this, the singer’s reference to racial profiling, as in the case of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, who was shot down for wearing a hoodie, was made amply clear.
Earlier in July at Glasgow, Beyoncé paused one of the shows in her Formation World Tour, to ask her audiences for a moment of silence. As she did this, the huge screen behind her flashed the names of many African Americans, “and countless others" killed by the US police.
A performance by Beyoncé was not on the official VMA schedule that MTV had released. But in the lead up to the event, rumours of a surprise act were rife. At the show, it was seven-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams who introduced Beyoncé’s set. Williams is one of the many powerful black women who appeared in ‘Lemonade’ along with the likes of Winnie Harlow (a black model with vitiligo), and Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest person to be ever nominated for an Oscar).
The set went on to include the songs ‘Hold Up’, ‘Sorry’, and ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, and ended with ‘Formation’, a song whose lyrics ruffled many feathers when it first released.
At this year’s awards, Beyoncé was nominated in 11 categories. She went on to win 8 of these, including Breakthrough Long Form Video for ‘Lemonade’, Video of the Year for ‘Formation’.