Since 2011, the MTV Video Music Awards have had some iteration of the "Best Video with a Message" category, awarding vids with strong narratives about social and political issues. Lady Gaga's empowering anthem "Born This Way" was the inaugural winner, and since then, Demi Lovato's "Skyscraper" and Beyoncé's "Pretty Hurts" have been among the worthy, culture-shaking winners.
This year, six contenders are up for the prize: Janelle Monáe, Jessie Reyez, Drake, Logic, Dej Loaf, and Childish Gambino. Each artist made a video that spoke to fans in gripping, captivating ways that challenged them to see the world a little differently than they did before. To fully understand the significance of those videos, we're breaking down each nominee — with insight from the directors who made them.
Get familiar with the nominated videos below, and find out which one wins when the VMAs air on August 20!
Janelle Monáe – "PYNK"
Monáe's queer-as-hell self-love anthem is an ode to femininity, however you identify with it. The female-centric visual (think neon "Pussy Power" signs, desert dancing, and lots of booties) features a diverse cast, including Tessa Thompson and some female dancers wearing voluminous, vagina-shaped pants. As the video’s description puts it: "'Pynk' is a brash celebration of creation, self love, sexuality, and pussy power!"
"Love and let love!" director Emma Westenberg told MTV News. "Sexual liberation and celebrating womanhood are strong themes throughout."
What the director says:
"'PYNK' is all about female sexuality," Westenberg explained. "The detail shots were particularly important to bring to life the lyrics of the song and make it a visual exploration of female sexuality. Sometimes in a critical way (such as the shot with the underwear that says "sex sells" on it) and show how beautiful womanhood is: sweet, celebratory and funny."
And as for those "vagina pants"? Westenberg said Monáe was inspired by a photo she had of David Bowie wearing something similar. "Everybody on set was rolling over the ground laughing the first time she popped her legs and the movement made the pants come to life. Goosebumps."
How Janelle embodies that message:
"That’s exactly who she is as an artist: She fights for what she believes in, as an artist and as a human," Westenberg said. "She stays true to herself and her beliefs, whilst making the world dance."
Jessie Reyez – "Gatekeeper"
"Gatekeeper" is Reyez's chilling account of an incident in which a high-profile producer tried to force himself on her. She sent director Peter Huang an email detailing what had happened, and he translated it into a video treatment that serves as her direct recollection — some of the dialogue between Reyez and the producer, he said, is word for word. In the video, that confrontation is reenacted to chilling results, shining a light on the sexism and misogyny that pervades the music industry.
"At the time, I was trying to shine light on something that nobody had seen, so it was more like exposing how somebody who has a lot of power can try to manipulate people who think that if they didn't do what they said, that their careers might be over. That was really the overall goal of it: to expose it," Huang told MTV News.
What the director says:
The video was released in April 2017, months before the #MeToo movement went viral. It was serendipitous timing, and it helped give Reyez the courage to out producer Detail as the man who inspired the track. Now, Huang said the reaction he gets the most from people is, "How do we actively work to change this?"
How Jessie embodies that message:
"She's a very, very strong woman," Huang said. "I think it's incredibly brave of her to actually put herself through this whole situation again. I'm not sure if people who are watching it realize that she's kind of reliving something that was really hard on her." He added, "I think she can carry herself in a way that inspires other young women to be bold and to really dig their heels in, in whatever situation comes to them," Huang said.
Drake – "God’s Plan"
Working with director and frequent collaborator Karena Evans, Drizzy distributed the video's nearly million-dollar production budget to people in need around Miami — by paying for strangers' groceries, handing over stacks of cash to struggling families, giving a deserving college student a tuition check, and donating to a women's homeless shelter and a fire department. His current tour with Migos is exciting and all, but this tour of good deeds may be his finest work yet.
The clear message here is that generosity rules, but Drake expanded upon that theme by calling for a "God's Plan" challenge on Instagram. In his call to action, he hoped his do-good message would have a ripple effect so that regular people would follow his lead with acts of kindness. Most of us don't have $1 million to give away, but you don't have to be wealthy to donate kindness and love, as the "God's Plan" challenge proves.
What the director says:
Logic ft. Alessia Cara & Khalid – "1-800-273-8255"
Logic set out with an important mission for "1-800-273-8255," named after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The cinematic video stars Coy Stewart as a young boy who develops a crush on a boy (Noulan Gould) at school, and returns home to an unaccepting father (Don Cheadle). The vid hits its emotional peak when the boy contemplates suicide, but he decides to call someone instead, and the video flashes ahead to him marrying another man and raising a child of his own — while his father looks on proudly.
"1-800-273-8255" encourages people to seek help when they need it and reminds them that they're not alone. The message clearly came through — according to The Chicago Tribune, the Lifeline saw "record numbers in call volume and social media engagement" following the song's premiere.
Director Andy Hines told MTV News, "The message is that of unity and compassion and hopefully leaves the viewer with a sense of empathy for what they've watched. ... Our intention was to show people that feel invisible that we have their voice and best interests at hand and that we would go to bat for them as individuals and as a part of our community."
What the director says:
Hines said that the video's message isn't just for people contemplating suicide — it's also for the people around them who are in a position to help. "The story is meant to connect with a variety of people, from the bully to the parents to the teacher and all of the individual students," he explained. "I wanted to make something that could have the power to change the perspective of a number of people's points of view."
How Logic embodies that message:
"He lives his intentions — his willingness to speak out on the behalf of others is a quality very few, if any, other artists have today," Hines said.
Dej Loaf and Leon Bridges – "Liberated"
In June, just in time for Pride Month, the title track from Loaf's latest album got a joyful video featuring a diverse cast of culture-movers (including co-writer Teddy Geiger) discussing what liberation means to them. To promote the single, Loaf even covered the cost of marriage licenses at New York City Hall on June 8, keeping with the inclusiveness-celebrating theme of the song.
"Liberation is already within you, you just have to be able to recognize it," director Calmatic told MTV News. "It's all within your own power to find your freedom, find your liberation, no matter what circumstances you come from. You can do it."
What the director says
In the video, we see a little girl admiring a group of Black Lives Matter activists, a gay couple getting married, a transgender woman making a dress, a teen celebrating his college acceptance letter, and more. Calmatic says the common thread among all of them is that "they all thought it was impossible, and then once they get a glimpse of possibility, they find their true liberation. When you see the little girl in the window looking at the protestors, it's a sign that the protest is reaching the right person. The fight can continue on."
How Dej embodies that message:
"To see her step out of the box and make a song so personal and so different than the songs we're used to hearing, I just feel like it was pretty brave of her," Calmatic said. "She was all in."
Childish Gambino – "This Is America"
Donald Glover's hip-hop alter ego earned his first No. 1 hit in May with "This Is America." That's largely due to its stunning single-take video, which has racked up a whopping 369 million views since its release. Part of the video's mystique is Glover's insistence on letting the art speak for itself — he told Jimmy Kimmel that he's avoided the internet's reaction to it, saying, "I'm really sensitive. So I was like, 'I’ll just let it be.'" It worked — in the days and weeks following its release, there were countless think pieces from fans and critics dissecting its symbols and debating its meaning.
The consensus is that "This Is America" illustrates metaphors about race and gun violence in America; for much of the clip, Gambino dances in the foreground while chaos erupts behind him.
Guthrie Ramsey, a professor of music history at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview with Time, "The central message is about guns and violence in America and the fact that we deal with them and consume them as part of entertainment on one hand, and on the other hand, is a part of our national conversation. You’re not supposed to feel as if this is the standard fare opulence of the music industry. It’s about a counter-narrative and it really leaves you with chills."
What the director says:
In May, director Hiro Murai, Glover's longtime Atlanta collaborator, spoke to The New York Times about "This Is America," saying that the video boils down to "a really crazy confluence of tone changes — that's the premise of the whole video and the song, in a way." The "harrowing" but "cartoony" violence also plays a huge role: "There's Looney Tunes logic in there somewhere. Obviously we're dealing with very provocative images, so it's a total tightrope walk," Murai said.
The 2018 MTV Video Music Awards will air live from Radio City Music Hall on Monday, August 20 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Voting is now open at vma.mtv.com!