To be honest, I don’t get the MTV Video Music Awards (VMA) anymore. Which may be because I’m two decades older than their target audience. I don’t recognize the artistes, a lot of the music sounds like noise, and most songs don’t even have lyrics. And the hosts can be as unimpressive as the hosts of our million and one film award shows. As Katy Perry proved this year around. But not a year goes by that the VMA doesn’t remind me of how a pop culture event and platform can be so much more than just song and dance.
This year, thankfully, was no different. Paris Jackson kicked off the show as its first presenter by stating, “We must resist", and calling out white supremacist Nazis. Jared Leto and others spoke up about suicide prevention and body shaming. But what was most impressive was that all awards were made gender-neutral. There was no Best Male Artist and Best Female Artist, but a Best Artist of the Year category. The “Moonman" trophy is now the “Moon Person" trophy, which seemed a little forced terminology, but at least it made its point.
The VMA has now started resembling the Filmfare Awards, in the sense that it seems unending and you really don’t care who wins at the end. Yet, what amazed me and made me realise that we will never see anything similar in India, ever, was when the “Best Video with a Social Message" award, which is now called the “Best Fight Against the System Award", was to be announced. On stage was a young man, who was introduced as Reverend Robert Wright Lee IV, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s descendant, who said, “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin. Today, I call on all of us, with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville."
Following which he introduced Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed in Charlottesville. Bro said, without rancour or bursting into tears (both of which would be understandable after her daughter’s murder), “Only 15 days ago, my daughter Heather was killed as she protested racism. I miss her, but I know she is here tonight. I have been deeply moved to see people across the world—the whole world—find inspiration in her courage. I want people to know that Heather never marched alone. She was always joined by people from every race and every background in this country." She asked viewers to “make Heather’s death count" by visiting the website for the newly formed Heather Heyer Foundation.
Lee and Bro then gave the “Fight Against the System" award to all six nominees, including John Legend for Surefire, Taboo featuring Shailene Woodley for the #NoDAPL protest song Stand Up/Stand N Rock and The Hamilton Mixtape’s Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).
To see Robert E. Lee’s descendant and Heather Heyer’s mother standing on that stage side-by-side, exhorting people to end racism and stand up against supremacists, is what one hopes pop culture stands for. Not just entertainment, not just fun and games, but also a catalyst for change.
In India, we will never use Bollywood award shows to make a political statement. Because neither the sponsors nor the hosts will risk it. Also, it’s just easier to crack puerile gay jokes and make smart alec comments on nepotism and Kangana Ranaut instead.
But at least we can look to the West to see how pop culture can be used for good, while throwing in some entertainment into the mix. I’d watch the rerun of the VMA (or at least fast forward an hour or two) just to watch Lee and Bro standing shoulder to shoulder and tell us to keep fighting racism, again