From the very first prize presented Sunday, and even before the show began, politics took a starring role in MTV’s Video Music Awards.
Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the violence earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia, appeared during the ceremony to present the Best Fight Against the System, a category created this year to recognize music videos that embody activism and social justice.
She was introduced by the Rev. Robert Wright Lee, who said he was a descendent of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The planned removal of a statue of Lee prompted the Charlottesville demonstration.
The younger Lee called racism “America’s original sin.” He said was working to “answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy” and sought inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement, participants in January’s Women’s March and Heyer’s bravery for standing up for her beliefs.
“Only 15 days ago, my daughter Heather was killed as she protested racism,” Bro told the VMA audience. “I miss her, but I know she’s here tonight. I’ve been deeply moved to see people across the world — the whole world — find inspiration in her courage.”
Bro took her time on the stage to announce the Heather Heyer Foundation, a nonprofit organization that will provide scholarships “to help more people join Heather’s fight against hatred.”
She also presented the Best Fight Against the System award, declaring all six nominees winners.
“I look forward to the important work that they and all of you will do together to make the world a better, kinder place,” Bro said.
Earlier that afternoon, Bro said it would “please my daughter tremendously” to know that she was bringing her message to the VMA stage.
“I’m just so deeply pleased. This is like a magnifying of Heather’s voice, a magnification of what she would have done,” Bro told The Associated Press as she made her way to into the Forum in Inglewood, California.
“I’m here to speak for my child,” Bro said. “She’s not allowed to speak now except through me, so I’m going to speak for social justice; I’m going to speak for being outraged and paying attention; I’m going to speak for positive action.”
Paris Jackson was the first presenter during the ceremony, and the first thing she did was decry hate.
“We must show these Nazi white supremacist jerks in Charlottesville, and all over the country, that as a nation with liberty as our slogan, we have zero tolerance for their violence and their hatred and their discrimination,” Michael Jackson’s eldest daughter said before presenting the best pop video award to Fifth Harmony. “We must resist.”
Jack Antonoff wasn’t shy about sharing his political views as he walked the red carpet before the show. The singer-songwriter posed for photos with transgender military service members, saying it would be “absolutely insane not to” support them.
He called President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender service members “the most transphobic, disgusting thing.”
Trump on Friday directed the Pentagon to extend a ban on transgender individuals joining the military but gave the Pentagon the authority to decide the future of openly transgender people already serving.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking; a massive step backward, as is every day with Trump,” Antonoff said. “All we can do is survive his presidency.”
Six transgender soldiers and veterans walked the VMA carpet to “tell our stories and help people to realize that trans people are serving in the military just like everyone else,” said Jennifer Peace, an Army captain. “The only thing we’re asking for is to be treated just like everyone else in the military and be discriminated against only based on our performance.”
She said that despite the president’s efforts to ban transgender people from service, morale among the troops is high.
“Our unity is high because we know we’re been doing this job, we know we’re capable of doing the job… Our record stands for itself,” Peace said. “We have trans service members in combat right now, asking, ‘How can I be non-deployable when I’m openly serving as trans when I’m in Afghanistan today?’”
“Catfish” host Nev Schulman also made a statement on the red carpet: He pinned a yellow Star of David to his suit, just as Billy Joel did last week during a concert performance in New York.