Might a nation deeply divided by us-vs.-them disagreements over race, heritage and immigration find a solution in a group of historically marginalized Native Americans at MTV’s lighthearted Video Music Awards? What do we have to lose?
MTV’s annual worship of pop-culture visuals from Ariana to Zayn, the 2017 VMAs will be televised live Sunday night from the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and include in its star-filled audience Spencer and Zack Battiest, two performers who live and record on the Seminole Tribe of Florida reservation in Hollywood, where they grew up.
The brothers are nominated in a new VMA category — the Best Fight Against the System award — for a video they made with the Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo for a song titled “Stand Up/Stand N Rock #NoDAPL.” The video and song illustrate the plight of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in its months-long protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile “black snake,” and its potential to harm ancient burial grounds and water supplies.
The project brought together top young Native American creatives from across the country, including representatives of the Shoshone, Navajo, Osage, Crow, Plains Cree, Oneida and Cheyenne tribes. Taboo, who is of Shoshone heritage, discovered the Battiest brothers when he was in the front row as they performed last September at the 2016 Native American Music Awards, where Spencer won the Best Pop Recording award for the EP “Stupid in Love.”
“It was at the height of the Dakota Pipeline movement, where all the protesters were at the front line and they were facing major backlash every day and no media really showing what was going on,” says Spencer Battiest, 26. “Tab really had a heart for what was happening there.”
With Taboo backed by a steady-rocking, midtempo hip-hop beat and a “Stand up!” refrain, the video weaves scenes of performers in the studio with footage of the Standing Rock protest and confrontations with police on the Sioux reservation, which spreads across North and South Dakota. The Battiest brothers — Spencer is a singer and Zack, who goes by “Doc,” a rapper — recorded their section of the song at Doc’s home studio on the Seminole reservation and emailed it to Taboo.
Other prominent singers and rappers on the video, directed by Johnny Lee, are PJ Vegas (Soshone/Yaqui), Kahara Hodges (Navajo), Emcee One (Osage/Potawatomi), Drezus (Plains Cree) and Supaman (Crow). Actress Shailene Woodley of “Divergent” provides a spoken-word riff.
"It was just important to acknowledge the originators of this land," Taboo told the Vice music site Noisey. "We don't really have many songs that can cross into international waters. ... Because I'm a Black Eyed Pea, I'm able to speak to Germany and Japan and Mexico. They'll now ask [about] what's going on."
The other nominees in the Best Fight Against the System category form an impressive list: John Legend (“Surefire”), Alessia Cara (“Scars to Your Beautiful”), Logic (“Black SpiderMan”), Big Sean (“Light”) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Immigrants,” from “The Hamilton Mixtape”). The Taboo video, which has more than 600,000 views, is the only nominee created without support from a major label.
“[Taboo] really has a heart to show light through the native emerging artists,” Battiest says. “He wants us to go beyond ourselves and get national recognition. He wants the industry to know that we exist.”
Earlier this month, Battiest performed at National Museum of the American Indian’s Heye Center in New York and was a headliner of the 11th annual Native Sounds showcase in Washington, D.C.
Battiest points out that the video symbolizes one of the most valuable lessons of the Standing Rock protests: The conflict brought together tribes from around the country (there are more than 500 recognized by the federal government), including historic enemies who were able to set aside their differences for a greater good.
“Taboo united … artists from different backgrounds, nations, traditions,” Battiest says. “We all come from the same blood but have our own traditions, practices and culture, and the fact that we’re all on this one song for the first time is genius, and it’s long overdue.”
The MTV Video Music Awards will be broadcast live on MTV at 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 27, with red-carpet coverage beginning at 7 p.m.