This year, the MTV Video Music Awards introduced Best Fight Against the System, a revamped category for music videos with timely social messages. Previously titled Best Video With a Social Message and part of the VMAs from 2011 to 2015, the category was rebranded to make a more proactive statement: that both the system and those who fight against it — especially the young people at the forefront of the progressive movement — are driving the conversation in 2017.
Nominees in this category include John Legend's tale of young star-crossed lovers ("Surefire"), The Hamilton Mixtape's timely immigrant anthem ("Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)"), Alessia Cara's body-positivity bop ("Scars To Your Beautiful"), Black-Eyed Peas' Taboo and actress Shailene Woodley's song for native Standing Rock activists ("Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL"), Big Sean's condemnation of senseless violence ("Light"), and Logic's lyrical take on historically white cultural figures ("Black SpiderMan"). It's their corresponding music videos, however, that truly strike a nerve, tackling issues from xenophobia to police brutality through powerful visuals.
For "Light" director Lawrence Lamont, Best Fight Against the System evokes images of activism and people taking a stand for the better cause. "This category is as important as Video of the Year," he told MTV News over the phone.
"Who knew 2017 would be what it is? It's important for artists and storytellers to use our platform to tell stories that have things to do with what's happening in today's world, whether it's racism or homophobia or Islamophobia," he added. "It's a way for artists to protest."
Lamont came up with the concept for the "Light" visual late last summer after a string of black men were shot and killed by police. "I felt a sense of urgency," he said. "Even though I didn't have a video or an artist in mind, I wrote a treatment. I even sent it to Def Jam, like, 'Listen, this has to be told.'"
He eventually contacted his friend and frequent collaborator Big Sean, who was overseas on tour at the time, and together they decided to produce the visual for one of the rapper's unreleased tracks. The original concept for the video focused primarily on police brutality, but Lamont and Sean decided to broaden their scope after President Trump announced his controversial Muslim ban.
The video depicts three acts of fatal violence: a young girl caught in the middle of a shootout between rival gangs, two black teenagers shot by police after toy guns fall out of their pockets, and a Muslim woman in a hijab stabbed on the street. After each death, a bright light emanates from the victims, and the rapper appears as an angelic figure who tenderly walks them to his white van. The message is surprisingly hopeful: "No matter what, they can't take away your light," Lamont said.
"Sometimes it's so hard to articulate stuff," he said. "This is my way to articulate how I'm feeling. I just want to put a mirror in front of it and say, 'This is happening.' I want my videos to reflect how people are treating other people, whether it's set in a church or in a strip club."
Director Tomás Whitmore found inspiration for the VMA-nominated "Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)" in the words of philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky. "The history of humanity is the history of migration," Whitmore recalled reading. From there, a striking visual concept was born.
The video — starring performers K’naan, Snow tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente — was framed around the idea that "the whole history of human connection is based upon movement," so Whitmore used the train car as a metaphor for diaspora. The camera eventually pans out at the end of the video to reveal a multitude of train cars moving around the world, carrying all of human existence.
It was important for Whitmore that the visual not only reclaimed the word "immigrant," which had been soiled by political rhetoric, but also that it transcended time. "It took the issue that's happening in current day, the xenophobia and immigrant narrative, and put it within a context of something that has existed throughout time," Whitmore said. "This particular chapter that we're in right now is exactly that, a chapter within a greater story. These issues, whatever they are, there are centuries of elements at play."
The politically charged nature of "Immigrants," which samples "Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)" from Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, is part of the song's very DNA. But Whitmore said he just wanted to translate the human experience into something relatable, and more importantly, he wanted to put a "prideful spotlight" on the immigrant population.
"Being able to use the artform for the greater good and social change, and representation, that's the most important and special part of this for me," he said.
Humanity is a running theme throughout all of this year's Best Fight Against the System nominees. Cole Wiley, director of "Surefire," said that he never intended to make a music video about immigration but that Legend's song just fit the narrative he had envisioned. "Surefire" follows a young interracial couple, Roberto (an illegal Mexican immigrant) and Jamila (a Muslim immigrant), who are separated when Roberto is deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. After, Jamila travels south across the border to find her love.
Wiley intended to demonstrate how love is the "most powerful force in the universe." However, in 2017, it's hard to ignore the symbolism of a young couple facing adversity only to reunite at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"It was set against a backdrop that is an unfortunate reality in the society that we're in right now, given some of the policies that are being instituted by our government," he said. "Setting that love story against that backdrop is what elevates the drama and adds these layers and textures to make it more relevant to this particular time and place."
For Wiley, the timing of MTV's decision to introduce the newly rebranded Best Fight Against the System category is no coincidence.
"People are tired of bullshit. They want to be real about a lot of the issues and systemic problems that we are facing in our country and in our communities," he said. "To have a category like Best Fight Against the System, you almost wish that the category didn't have to exist."
The category's open language of "The System" reflects how these days, everyone has a reason for challenging the establishment — and not all of those reasons are the same. Earlier this year, congresswoman Maxine Waters presented the cast of Hidden Figures with the Golden Popcorn for Best Fight Against the System at the MTV Movie & TV Awards, proving that the award can transcend genre. (Not to mention, sometimes the system is Hollywood itself.) These diverse narratives aren't built on stereotypes, and as such, they also boast people of color playing active roles in front of and behind the camera.
"You've got these systemic issues of how people are represented, whether they're people of color, or women, or people of different religions, or the LGBT community," Wiley said. "Everyone just wants to be represented authentically." He then recalled how one Muslim actor in his video thanked him for casting him as someone other than a terrorist. "He said he was tired of getting blown up."
It also speaks to how important these issues are to young people. Ultimately, Best Fight Against the System reclaims the narrative that young people are politically apathetic and uninterested. If a category like this proves anything, it's that young people are more engaged than ever.