MTV has announced its 2017 Video Music Award nominations, which are dominated by Kendrick Lamar’s eight nods for “HUMBLE.” But just as notable as the names up for awards this year is what those awards are named — in particular the VMAs’ newly rebranded social awareness category.
Debuting during this year’s ceremonies on August 27, the VMAs’ newly named “Best Fight Against the System” category features prominent artists like R&B singer John Legend, pop sensation Alessia Cara, and rapper Big Sean. The Hamilton Mixtape, Black-Eyed Peas’ Taboo, and rapper Logic round out the list, in a year when both the system and those who challenge it are as formidable as ever.
But while the name and nominees may be new in 2017, the category itself is less so.
Previously titled “Best Video With a Social Message,” the category was first introduced at the 2011 VMAs and kept its original name through 2015, before disappearing altogether from the 2016 nomination list. That absence was brief, however. The category has since been revived and rebranded for 2017 in what MTV sees as “a natural progression of that previous iteration.”
“The addition of the ‘Best Fight Against the System’ category was added to the 2017 MTV VMAs to continue reflecting the audience’s passion and activism around social justice issues such as environmental justice, immigration, LGBTQ equality, and racial justice,” an MTV spokesperson told me.
The renaming of the category is in line with other recent changes made to the network’s two high-profile US awards events. The category shares its name with one introduced during the 2017 MTV Movie and TV Awards earlier this year, when the awards’ long-running “Best Fight” category was also rebranded as “Best Fight Against the System.” (Hidden Figures took home that honor, which was presented by California Rep. Maxine Waters.)
The VMAs have also dropped gender-specific categories this year, doing away with the Best Male Artist and Best Female Artist categories in favor of the more egalitarian Artist of the Year category, in which Ariana Grande and Lorde are nominated alongside Lamar, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, and the Weeknd.
The 2017 Best Fight Against the System nominees represent specific movements and timely social justice issues
In past years, the Best Video with a Social Message nominations have included videos from Top 40 goliaths like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Lil Wayne, Taylor Swift, Macklemore, and Demi Lovato. Social activist rockers Rise Against and pansexual rapper Angel Haze have also been among the list of 28 artists who received recognition for their music videos’ social messages. Many of those emotionally driven messages — from Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” to Macklemore’s “Same Love” and Avicii’s “Hey Brother” — covered broad, feel-good concepts that encouraged empowerment and acceptance.
But while the idea behind the Best Fight Against the System category may be the same as those earlier awards, the 2017 nominees tend to be more definitive in their messaging, speaking to either a specific social movement (#NoDAPL and Black Lives Matter) or a broader, timely social justice issue.
R&B chart topper John Legend’s video for “Surefire” is a visual ballad about a young Muslim woman and her Latino boyfriend struggling to preserve their relationship despite cultural barriers.
Rapper Big Sean — who won 2015’s Social Message award for his track “One Man Can Change the World” — was nominated this year for the video for “Light,” off his 2017 album I Decided, which focuses on the promise of America’s black youth in spite of the daily discrimination and discouragement they face.
The message of Logic’s “Black Spiderman,” whose music video is an inspiring and colorful pastel musical, is right in its title. The nearly six-minute visual experience speaks to the continuous debate over certain cultural figures — Jesus, Santa Claus, and Spiderman — and whether they are or should remain white.
Taboo — who is of Mexican and Native American ancestry — honors American Indian communities and Standing Rock activists in his video for “Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL.” The video features footage from the Standing Rock site as well as Native activists, Native musicians, and actress Shailene Woodley.
Alessia Cara’s pop hit “Scars to Your Beautiful” is perhaps the most well-known of this year’s crop — it’s also nominated for VMA Video of the Year — but its mainstream popularity should take away nothing from its role as an anthem for body positivity and female empowerment.
The most unsurprising nomination, however, goes to what can be characterized as both an immigrant and American anthem. In a political climate that’s challenging the very notions of what it means to be American, there’s perhaps no better fit for this particular category than The Hamilton Mixtape’s “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).”
The 2017 MTV Video Music Awards are held August 27. You can see the full list of nominees and their videos here.