The Hidden Meaning Behind Kayne West’s VMA Performance

Kanye West
Kanye West

Kayne West's performance at last night's MTV Video Music Awards may have been bare bones in its presentation, but the song itself — and the deceptively simple imagery that accompanied it — had a lot more to it than viewers may have realized.

West had previously announced that he would be performing "Black Skinhead" at the VMAs, which had many thinking that his live rendition of the hit single from his new album, "Yeezus," would be a flashy, tech-heavy presentation akin to its music video (and its use in the hyperactive trailer for Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street"). However, West surprised everyone by ditching "Black Skinhead" and instead going from the much darker "Blood on the Leaves," which brought a sense of historical significance — and tragedy — to the awards ceremony.

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"Blood on the Leaves" samples Nina Simone's cover of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," which describes Southern slavery and the lynching of African Americans. It's certainly not a song that inspires a live presentation featuring seizure-inducing lights or pyrotechnics; instead, West performed in silhouette in front of a projected still image of "Lynching Tree," a photograph taken by "Shame" filmmaker Steve McQueen.

The tree, which is located somewhere near New Orleans, was once a gallows for slaves and now serves as a marker for several lynched victims buried underneath it. The piece is currently on display at the Schaulager Museum in Basel, Switzerland.

Kanye West
Kanye West

The image is tied to Steve McQueen's new film, "12 Years a Slave," which tells the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. The film, which co-stars Michael Fassbender as a cruel plantation owner and Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist who befriends Northop, opens on October 18.

Kayne West has certainly never shied from hot button issues in his work, particularly racism — both contemporary and historical. In "New Slaves," which is also featured on the "Yeezus" album, he raps about segregation and how today's corporations seek to control artists via lucrative endorsement deals. And in "Never Let Me Down," from his debut album "The College Dropout" (2004), he describes his own grandparents' experiences with racism.

[Related: Miley Cyrus Snatches Crown for Queen of Obscene at the VMAs]

West's performance of "Blood on the Leaves" was a highlight of last night's ceremony and will no doubt make for one of the most memorable — if not serious — moments in all of VMA history.

West is known for making an (often controversial) impression at the VMAs: In 2007, he was notably upset about being overlooked to open the VMAs in favor of Britney Spears and in 2009 he stormed onto the stage and grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift during her acceptance of the award for Best Female Video (for "You Belong with Me") to proclaim that Beyonce's video for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" was "one of the best videos of all time."

[Related: Kate Winslet Is Downright Terrifying in 'Divergent' Teaser]

Watch '12 Years a Slave' Theatrical Trailer: