It was only fitting that The Weeknd opened the 2020 Video Music Awards, considering he’d end up taking home the Video of the Year Award for what might be 2020's biggest hit, “Blinding Lights.” For his performance, he chose to perch himself on a rooftop 1,100 feet above Manhattan. The Canadian singer even dressed the part, hands squeezed into some black latex gloves, torso strapped into a crimson blazer, face beaten and bloodied, as if he’d just returned from an all-night bender in Sin City.
The getup was a nod to the song’s music video, of course, in which the singer does go on a bender in a city of so-called angels. But when he accepted the award, he decided to put a dimmer on the theatre of it all. We didn’t see the electrified, dizzied character from the video and the earlier performance. Instead, the artist was earnest. First came the customary thank yous, to La Mar Taylor and Anton Tammi, who put the video together. Then came his somber calls to action.
“It’s really hard for me to celebrate right now and enjoy this moment,” he said. “So, I’m just going to say, justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor.”
Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times in the back by police officers in Kenosha, Wisc., in front of his three young sons, and was subsequently paralyzed from the waist down. Up until Friday, he was still in the hospital, handcuffed to his bed. The officer responsible has yet to face any recourse; in response, protests broke out in Wisconsin, as well as in sports leagues where players refused to play until justice was reached.
Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who police shot to death in her own bed, after forcibly entering her home on a “no-knock” warrant in March. None of the officers involved are facing criminal charges. One was fired; the other two were placed on administrative reassignment.
Over the last couple of months, The Weeknd has been showing this same sombre, politically engaged spirit. Since June, he’s quietly donated more than $2 million to various charities, including Global Aid for Lebanon and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.
But he’s also made a point of donating to causes around the Black Lives Matter movement. In total, the singer gave about $500,000 to racial justice non-profits. And on June 2, he implored his followers to do the same. “Keep supporting our brothers and sisters out there risking everything to push for actual change for our black lives,” he wrote. “Urging everyone with big pockets to give and give big and if you have less please give what you can even if it’s a small amount.”
And the singer’s charity work isn’t a new juncture. Back in 2016, he was doing the same thing. After donating $250,000 to Black Lives Matter that July, he tweeted, “Enough is enough. It’s time to stand up for this. We can either sit and watch, or do something about it. The time is now.”
The rest of the Video Music Awards wasn’t apolitical, either. Aside from The Weeknd, several other artists took pains to address racial inequality, police brutality and the urgency of voting in the upcoming US election.
Keke Palmer set the tone for the night when she kicked the show off with a rousing speech about Black Lives Matter.
“Enough is enough. What we just witnessed in Kenosha, Wisconsin is yet another devastating reminder that we can’t stop. That we can never tolerate police brutality. Or any injustice,” she said. “We must continue the fight to end systemic racism. The leaders of that movement are you — us. It’s our time to be the change we want to see.”
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