t’s 2009, and the crowd at the MTV VMAs is a little confused. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys are wrapping up a powerful finale performance of “Empire State of Mind” as Lady Liberty soars behind them on the big screen. All of a sudden and without reason, young rapper Lil Mama appears on stage beside them for the final chorus. She is absolutely vibing, literally forcing Jay-Z to move out of the way of her enthusiastic bouncing. She throws her arms in the air. The song concludes. She poses with her arms crossed beside Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, inching toward the pair like the hypewoman they didn’t know they had or needed. Jay-Z slings his arm around Keys and leans all the way away from Lil Mama on his right during their bow, shielding Keys from the intruder like you might your small child from an R-rated movie scene. It’s truly 29 seconds of high art—an interruption to remember, surely. But did you remember it?
So, this is the 2009 VMAs. What do you remember? In the canon of collective pop culture consciousness, there is only one moment from the 2009 VMAs that anyone remembers. And that’s Kanye West taking the mic from a young Taylor Swift, giving his now-infamous “Imma let you finish” tirade. It’s a moment that would ignite a bitter, years long feud that would have ripple effects throughout the next decade of popular culture. But what we are here to reminisce about today is the deeper cut interruption of the night: when Lil Mama was feeling Alicia Keys and Jay-Z’s rendition of “New York State of Mind” so goddamn hard she just absolutely couldn’t help getting up on that stage herself and rocking out with them. It’s a moment that with the hindsight of more than a decade is an entirely harmless and even fun moment of pop culture history. And it’s also one that feels so rare in 2020—a year of pre-recorded Zoom events that lack in any sort of spontaneity. Now is the time to relive, and cherish, Lil Mama’s energy in 2009. What we all wouldn’t give today to feel something as hard as what she felt that night…
At the time, Lil Mama’s interruption seemed like a big deal, even amid the West-Swift drama of the night. She was unfairly and mercilessly mocked on Twitter and in the media following her little guest appearance on stage that fateful evening. And she went on MTV News the following day to discuss the incident. So, Lil Mama, why exactly did you do it?
“Well, I’m sitting in my seat, two rows away from the stage, and Jay-Z is walking through this tunnel, and there’s this whole adrenaline rush that’s just pumping, he comes onstage and he’s singing [she sings] ‘New Yorkkkk’. And you know, Alicia Keys is like [she sings again] ‘big lights will inspire you’ and really, I got emotional. I actually got emotional, and I was like, yeah! New York! Jay! And I started to feel him, started to feel myself, and I just felt the energy. And I got up and I started walking towards the stage, and I got up there, and I was just rooting him on, as a champion, picking up my brother.”
In the interview, she goes on to apologize if either Jay or Alicia were offended by the surprise appearance, and emphasizes that the last thing she’d want is for either of them to feel disrespected. She also says she believed that Jay-Z was feeling her in the moment, too. But then…she went home and watched the clip back. And noticed him backing away from her instead of reciprocating her vibes. She also recalled, after the fact, that Jay had muttered “Oh, you’re gonna T-Pain it, huh,” while she was on stage with him–a jab referencing an incident in which T-Pain had joined Jay-Z onstage uninvited earlier in the summer. (And just like that, we have arrived at our third 2009 musical interruption reference. What a year!)
Either way, Lil Mama was sorry. She only meant to honor and respect the Holy Trinity: Jay-Z, Alicia, and the Empire State. But Jay-Z and Alicia Keys were, uh, not pleased. On the Today show two days later, Alicia Keys absolutely shut down any possible conversation about the event. At one point, Hoda Kotb says “We love Lil Mama, too!” and Keys retorts “That’s nice!” in the most devastatingly syrupy tone I have ever heard. It’s some serious Regina George shit.
As for Jay: “To interrupt that moment for us, I don’t think that was the right thing to do,” he said on Angie Martinez’s Hot 97 radio show in New York City a few weeks after the incident. “It was a lot of planning that went into that performance. To disrupt that was out of line.” But he wasn’t about to take any action. “What imma do, fight Lil Mama?” he asked.
While pop culture moved on and history focused, instead, on Swift and West, Lil Mama lived with the reaction to her on-stage interruption. In 2015, Lil Mama revealed to Complex the profound and devastating impact the incident had on her. “A lot of people felt like they didn’t want to take a chance on me with certain things because it might have made Jay-Z or Alicia Keys not want to work with them,” she said. “I went through a tough time. I did it to myself, because I’m the one who went up there. But them not saying anything or even caring about the backlash…it taught me to be stronger and understand this is a business. That no one is here to protect you. It took a lot of mental strength, spiritual strength, and physical strength, not to want to hurt others, not to want to hurt myself. A person could be damn near suicidal.”
It is truly horrible that a woman’s mental health suffered because of an amusing 29 seconds during an award show that exists to produce exactly these types of moments. The entire trajectory of her career changed. And now, 11 years later, all anyone remembers is the inception of the fabled Kanye/Taylor beef, anyway.
But Lil Mama rebounded. She played Left Eye in 2013 biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story to rave reviews. She released an absolutely fire music video “Sausage” in 2015 in response to the viral “Sausage Movement” (a YouTube rabbit hole I would highly recommend). And “Lip Gloss” will always be a 2000’s Hall of Fame anthem. No one can take that away from Lil Mama.
As Andy says in The Office finale, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” Unfortunately, there is no easy way to interrupt a pre-recorded VMA performance on Zoom. So tonight, we celebrate what Lil Mama did that evening. And may we all, one day in the future, have the opportunity to vibe as hard as she did in 2009 during a live music performance again.
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