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An Afro-Surrealistic Worldview Looms Over This Year's Video Music Awards

The Carters, Beyonc<a href="https://www.beyonce.com/">é</a> and Jay-Z, are among the top nominees at the 2018 MTV VMAs.
YouTube/screenshot by NPR
The Carters, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, are among the top nominees at the 2018 MTV VMAs.

A couple of years ago, when viral videos of black death were all the rage in America, MTV rolled out one of the blackest Video Music Awards in the show's history.

Comedians Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele co-hosted as faux social media influencers @LizardSheeple and @TheShamester, in sketches parodying the most inane corners of Black Twitter. Rihanna performed a total of four times (not including her artful dodging of Drake's desperate attempt at a kiss while presenting her with the Video Vanguard Award). Seven years after crashing Taylor Swift's acceptance speech, Kanye West got seven uninterrupted minutes to ramble about Hollywood's incestuous web of fame and infamy, while shouting out his old girlfriend Amber Rose, his wife Kim Kardashian and her one-time fling Ray J. A toned Teyana Taylor gave viewers a visual workout in the premiere of Ye's new video for "Fade." Beyoncé took home the most trophies by the night's end, including one for video of the year ("Formation"), after performing a 16-minute medley of songs from her groundbreaking visual album Lemonade. It was one of those rare award shows where all the black artists who were supposed to win did, at a moment when Black America was practically dying to have its humanity acknowledged.

For a cable network whose beginnings were defined by charges of racism before breaking its own color barrier with Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" in 1983, this was peak blackness. "I can't recall a Blacker time," Damon Young of the blog Very Smart Brothas wrote in his VMAs review the following day. "The hosts were Black, the co-hosts were Black, the presenters were (mostly) Black, the performers were (mostly) Black, the winners were (mostly) Black, and even Kanye was (mostly) Black last night." Whether coincidence or consequence, it felt like the show had been programmed in defiance of the times.

Two months earlier, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had become the latest black men whose deaths at the hands of police sparked outrage after being captured on video. The surreal frequency of such videos, showing unsuspecting victims executed without the benefit of judge or jury, had already reached the point of absurdity. That point of view has since taken root in the visual language of music videos suffused with an increasingly Afro-Surrealist bent.

If black folk had relied on mainstream recognition to affirm our existence or accurately reflect our cultural contributions, we might be nearing extinction by now. But award shows, through inclusion and exclusion, offer a useful lens through which to see how pop culture is framing the politics of the day. To be clear, the VMAs have always been the most colorful of the mainstream music awards, the Jheri-curled stepchild of institutions that produce the Grammys and such. And black artists have earned far better recognition at the VMAs — like Kendrick Lamar, who walked away with six wins in 2017 — than any other award shows.

Of the nearly 120 nominations at this year's show, artists of color lead the pack with 30, split between Cardi B, The Carters (Beyoncé and Jay-Z), Childish Gambino and Drake alone. Black artists, in particular, are reveling in a renaissance of the music video as a form of protest and cultural critique. In a year contextualized by the racial divisiveness and gender bigotry that's become a hallmark of Donald Trump's presidency, absurdity truly is the new black.

When MTV launched in 1981 — with the slogan "You'll never look at music the same way again" — videos were virtually an afterthought in the music industry. Even for the VMAs, which started in 1984, videos have always been ancillary to the award show's primary purpose — gathering the biggest names in pop under one rowdy circus tent. Last year's show reportedly drew the lowest TV ratings in VMA history. It's a reminder that music videos don't live on MTV anymore, they live on the Internet, where the award show itself is increasingly streamed by viewers.

Today, artists in hip-hop, R&B and Latin pop owe their collective climb in consumption directly to the world's largest streaming site: YouTube. They've used the free platform in inventive ways to extend both creative depth and commercial reach. This new symbiotic relationship, in which videos are no longer mere conduits for music consumption but an intrinsic part of the content being consumed, is exactly what media critic Marshall McLuhan was referring to over 50 years ago when he said, "The medium is the message."

The most urgent and impactful videos nominated this year are those in which the video release doubled as the surprise debut of the song. Whether it be the vagina pants of Janelle Monáe's "PYNK," the shooting of the church choir in Childish Gambino's "This is America" or the Louvre takeover in The Carters' "Apeshit," these symbols are tied to the identity of these songs and the way we process them. Much of this has to do with a rise in creative risk-taking.

"Just looking at the videos that are up for best hip-hop video, but particularly the other best art direction videos, there is a certain amount of freedom in a lot of them," says Miles Mullin, who is nominated for best art direction for his work on J. Cole's "ATM." The video, like Cole's album KOD, satirizes the infatuation with material things and self-medication central to certain segments of rap. To symbolize the insanity, Mullin made oversize objects including a seven-foot bottle of cough syrup.

For Ernie Gilbert, who's up for best editing on Gambino's "This is America," the tonal shift in music video production is being fueled in part by a change in the music's messaging. "We're in an interesting place with music videos," he says. Gilbert has worked in the medium for eight years and also works with with the video's director, Hiro Murai, as an editor on Donald Glover's Atlanta. "We've come to a place where it seems like the old gimmicks don't work anymore, in terms of getting people excited about a video — like, how many beautiful houses and awesome cars can we be in?" But creating content intent on conveying a message doesn't mean sacrificing creativity. "It goes back to that idea that audiences are more savvy, the world is a little bit more dialed in," he says. "You want to think about the messages, what you're conveying and how you're doing it, so that you walk that fine line between something being cheesy [like] a PSA or something being unnecessarily inflammatory. In our crazy news cycle with everything that's going on, how do you keep your message kind of true and authentic? It's not easy and it's something that hopefully people are thinking about as they are working on stuff. I know I am."

He credits Gambino and Murai with creating an explosive video that quite literally "danced around some really hard subjects in a nuanced way, in a way that I think really encouraged discussion."

Likewise, Janelle Monáe's "PYNK" became an instant conversation piece when it premiered online this past April. Nominated in several categories, including video with a message, the visual's provocative vagina pants, worn by Monáe and her accompanying dancers, speak volumes in the wake of President Trump's admitted predilection for grabbing private parts. "If you try to grab my pussycat / This pussy grab you back," as Monáe sings on Dirty Computer's "I Got The Juice." But it's Monáe's self-declaration — revealing in an interview with Rolling Stone this year that she identifies as pansexual — characterized by the creative play between Monáe and the cast of women, including actress and friend Tessa Thompson, that bridges the link between black queendom and queerdom.

"In personal ways, she opened up about things that she didn't before," says Emma Westenberg, the video's director, raised in the Netherlands, who collaborated extensively with Monae and her team on the making of "PYNK." "She saw that people came out to their own families because of that video and because of her being open. That is the best possible outcome you can have as a maker — to encourage and inspire people." For Westenberg, it also served as an opportunity to revel in her own womanhood as a director. "I'm so happy that I can be following my interests and developing myself as a person without people saying, 'Wait, aren't you supposed to be married by now? Aren't you supposed to have kids by now?' The role of a woman in society has grown so much broader. My mom and my grandma are so jealous. "

As pop's personification of black excellence, Beyoncé and Jay-Z flaunted their status by taking over the Louvre in "APES***." But the video, released in tandem with The Carters' surprise album drop of Everything Is Love in June, also offers a pointed critique of the white gaze. Even the title, "APES***," works as an intentional subversion of the historically racist trope likening black people to primates. The visual power of "APES***" lies in the extreme juxtaposition of black bodies filling up a classically white, colonialist-curated space with unadulterated movement and representation. Bey and Jay frame themselves against the backdrop of the Mona Lisa; dancers in every shade of black wind their hips in front of the painting of Emperor Napoleon and Empress Joséphine; Beyoncé thrashes wildly in front of the frozen sculpture of the winged greek goddess Nike.

"We just wanted to act a fool in such a beautiful space," says choreographer JaQuel Knight, who's consistently worked with Beyoncé since "Single Ladies," the video that ironically lost to Taylor Swift's "You Belong with Me" in the category of best female video at the VMAs in 2009. "Black culture is the new art, it's the new voice of now. From music to how we dance — the vibe and energy — everyone kind of wants a piece of it."

Filmed after-hours while preparing for the European leg of the On The Run II tour, the video's director, Ricky Saiz, only had two nights in the Louvre to pull it off. Knight collaborated with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, artistic director of Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium, to create the video's choreography, or "vibe pieces," as Knight prefers to call them. "I just kind of make sure everything stays as black and cultural and funky and fun and relevant and cool [as it should be]," he says.

"To see the contrast of these beautiful black people in such a white space — that's art right there. The beauty of just being there was so strong, so it really didn't take much as far as absorbing the space. The art speaks for itself. Bey and Jay, they're modern-day Mona Lisas. The dancers, their bodies and the shapes of these beautiful black women; it's just wow. It was like a homerun, you knew it was gonna win."

No matter who the big winners are at the 2018 VMAs, it's becoming impossible to ignore the chorus of voices and images collectively screaming out how much black lives and black culture and black liberation matter. But it's not entirely new, and VMA recognition is far from exhaustive, even for 2018. "I think that black artists have always been making huge visual statements," Westenberg says. The difference, she adds, is it feels like "people are finally listening, or seeing, or appreciating it. Because of the political systems and people that are in power right now, it's easier to see the problems of society. [People], especially in Hollywood, want to present themselves differently to the world than their president. They want to give people other opportunities and show more diversity."

In that sense, the Bey and Jay takeover of the Louvre is a cultural metaphor that's been a long time coming. "Yeah, it's a takeover," Knight says, "But it's also just: We're here to stay. You can't play us anymore. It's like we're here. Not even a takeover; we've done that part already and now: Boom! This is it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.