The VMAs Were the Racist Sprinkles on a Horrible Summer for Racial Justice

Isabelle Nastasia Aug 27, 2013

From the racist “faux pas” committed by celebrities, to major legislative repeals like the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, to the Zimmerman trial verdict, to the recent Reuters poll on interracial friendships, this has been a long and upsetting summer for racial justice. More so, the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) were not a breath of fresh air from what Aura Bogado calls the “white times” (not dark times) of June, July and August.

You might be wondering, what do the VMAs have to do with the Zimmerman trial or any of the landmark, racist political decisions that this summer will be remembered for?Everything.

MTV handed over awards to some of the most problematic people you’ll lay eyes on, doing some of the most problematic things you can think of:

1) Macklemore won best hip hop music video for his popular single ‘Can’t Hold Us’ over Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky among others. He also won best song with a social message for ‘Same Love’, a ballad in support of same-sex marriage that reflects on the relationship between his queer uncles. And yes, while ‘Same Love’ is beautiful, it has received attention and sold albums mainly because Macklemore is a white dude. Many young, queer women who are artists of color—like Angel Haze and Azealia Banks—have stepped into the spotlight over the past couple years. It’s difficult to shine when you’re in always in the white, heterosexual man’s shadow.

2) Miley Cyrus’s minstrel show ‘Can’t Stop’ filled the room with the sounds and sights of the cultural appropriation of working class Black culture. Her music video, which has been criticized for using Black women’s bodies (her backup dancers) as accessories for white profit by major culture blogs on the internet, proves once again that she needs a racial justice consultant. She finished her on-stage performance by triggering me (and from the looks of it, the Smith family) by “dancing” with rape anthemist, Robin Thicke.

3) Justin Timberlake, who has been busy whitewashing R&B for over a decade, walked away from the VMAs with the Michael Jackson Vanguard Video Award as well as the top honor of the evening, best video of the year for ‘Mirrors’. After the 2004 Super Bowl, when Timberlake pulled down Janet Jackson’s shirt in front of the stadium and viewers at home, the idea of him receiving an award intended to honor her family is repulsive. As’s Jamilah King said,

…after making a public apology on CBS — to easily revert back in the public’s imagination to the wholesome white boy who made pop songs for teenage girls. And that’s what becomes tricky with Justin, that his whiteness acts as both an entryway into a popular culture and a buffer against its criticisms. Janet’s career, on the other hand, stagnated.

Enough said.

4) Drake performed his hit ‘Started from the Bottom’ — a classist song that seems to be confused over the patently false idea that Drake’s stint as a child star on a hit Canadian TV teen drama is “the bottom”. Ahem, according to whom? Check your privilege.

Watching Miley Cyrus’ cringeworthy twerking as well as Justin Timberlake and Macklemore clean sweeps of the award winnings as white artists in traditionally Black music genres like Hip Hop and R&B, I sat with my head in my hands. The biggest culture makers in the world were sitting in that room at the VMAs — and whether they were pleased or horrified with the results — we all need to take part in stepping up to the plate in these moments to change the standard of what is deemed acceptable as entertainment.

To be clear, not everybody was horrified by Miley’s act, some people rejoiced that Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ won, believing his win to signal some kind of cultural shift in which queer relationships are legitimized. Here’s the thing: the vast majority of us consume mass media and the images that we consume via music, television and movies are controlled by major media conglomerates owned by a very small number of wealthy, white men like the Koch brothers. This small group of wealthy, white men are also the behind efforts to push for racially-biased legislation like ‘Stand Your Ground’ in key states across the United States. Culture precipitates politics and visa versa. The media moguls control what sells and have been profiting from the misrepresentation of people of color, the appropriation of Black and Native culture by whites, as well as the policies being put forward at the state and federal level that increasingly harm communities of color. After the summer we’ve all had, we are more than ready for a new cultural and political era. And it’s within our grasp.

As consumers of media, we have the power to hold media-makers accountable and influence culture; it’s an expression of our collective imaginations. Start by ignoring the appropriators. If we can’t see them, if they aren’t in the public eye, they lose the cultural power which enables them to appropriate. Why not listen to music that doesn’t just “sound Black” but is Black? ‘Blurred Lines’ is an insult to the Marvin Gaye classic ‘Got to Give it Up’ which Thicke whitewashed and rebranded as a rape anthem. Good television is out there, too. Find the real culture creators and let’s pay attention to them instead, and no doubt the politics will follow.    

—Edited by Muna Mire. First published at

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