The MTV VMAs are often more political than the average TV awards, and considering this year has seen America grappling with racist police brutality, struggling to fight a pandemic and steeling itself for a contentious presidential election, there was no way the 2020 VMAs on Sunday (Aug. 30) could pass by without a few moments of protest.
The pandemic, naturally, had the most visible effect on the ceremony, forcing all the artists to perform outside, often in masks, and accept their awards either remotely or on a stage solo. Still, no one got political about the President’s maligned response to the pandemic; the closest thing to a pointed moment was Lady Gaga – who deployed a veritable fleet of fashion-forward masks during the broadcast – urging everyone to mask-up to protect lives: “Wear a mask; it’s a sign of respect,” she stated.
The pain, anger and frustration over the ongoing police violence that disproportionately affects Black Americans was front and center at the VMAs, though. Host Keke Palmer provided firm, hopeful words on Black Lives Matter during her opening monologue, pointing to the movement as one ray of light in an otherwise dark year. “With the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve seen our generation step up, take to the streets and make sure our voices are heard,” Palmer said. “Enough is enough. What we just witnessed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is another devastating reminder that we can’t stop. We can never tolerate police brutality or any injustice. We must continue the fight to end systemic racism. The leaders of that movement are you, us, the people watching tonight. It’s our time to be the change we want to see. We need to come together.”
The Weeknd, while accepting Moon Person awards for best R&B and video of the year (both for “Blinding Lights”), was succinct and straightforward: “It’s hard for me to celebrate right now and enjoy this moment so I just wanna say justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor,” he said after receiving the former; for the latter honor, he simply said, “Again, hard to celebrate so I’m going to say, justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor.”
DaBaby continued to pair his music with timely visuals tipping to strained relations between Black Americans and the police: He rapped part of his medley from the backseat of a police car in handcuffs and included CGI imagery of a cityscape on fire. A sign that read “stop killing us” was part of his performance, which concluded with him flashing the peace sign. Even the Black Eyed Peas, at the close of their good times anthem “I Gotta Feeling,” unequivocally declared, “Black Lives Matter.”
As for the presidential election, while Sofia Carson urged viewers to register to vote during the broadcast, the majority of election content came during the commercials, with Joe Biden’s campaign debuting two new ads during the 2020 VMAs, one of which featured a hip-hop-flavored soundtrack courtesy producer Kosine and footage of his vice president pick Kamala Harris at a Pride rally.