22 People Who Showed Us Where Culture Is Going In 2016
2016 was full of reasons to lose hope, but these new heroes gave us some faith for the future.
After eight years of political disquiet, congressional gridlock, and what felt like a stream of black death, Michelle Obama chose to take the high road in one of her final acts as First Lady. “When crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other,” she said in a speech at the Democratic National Convention in July. “No, we listen to each other, we lean on each other, because we are always stronger together.” Centerstage, Obama soothed, reassured, and challenged a nation on the verge of making history yet again. For what must have been the thousandth time, she implored us to be our very best selves — a quality she has always been able to identify in us, even when we couldn’t. Obama has tirelessly given us herself since entering public life in 2008. It’s part of what made the first black First Lady not just remarkable, but real.
“Let’s get to work,” she said, before concluding that DNC speech. It wasn’t the first time Obama had asked us to roll up our sleeves and get a little dirty. But even after all those years, her faith in us only seemed stronger, more emboldened by the task ahead. It’s true that the next four years will require an unforgiving doggedness; it will ask more of us than ever before. Which is why, with Donald Trump’s America dawning on the horizon, we would do well to take a cue from Michelle Obama: in the face of hate and division, we stay our course, ever committed to doing what must be done. — JASON PARHAM
In the days after she stood on stage with her husband at the Democratic National Convention in July, there was mounting pressure on Ghazala Khan to speak. I didn’t understand why. Hadn’t her sullen and grave face, its own canvas of pain, said enough? She was a Pakistani Muslim woman whose son, Humayun, had been killed in the 2004 Iraq War. Twelve years later, his face still plunged her into agony.
Perhaps I felt especially territorial because Khan reminded me of my own mother. After all, there are precious few aging South Asian women who have permeated mainstream consciousness. Witnessing Khan become the emissary of a particularly lazy, color-blind fantasy of patriotism — one that refuses to interrogate the political lapses that killed Humayun in the first place — was like seeing my own mom unknowingly walk into a world that would exploit her.
Maybe, with Trump’s win we’ve reached a precipice. It’s my hope we will do away with the solipsistic strain of liberalism that made Khan into a symbol when she didn’t ask to be one. It’s no longer a sustainable model of solidarity; it’s disingenuous. We’re facing a presidency that will compromise Khan’s life — she is brown, Muslim, immigrant, and a woman, making her among our most vulnerable. And that requires stringent, not performative, allyship. In an interview a month after the DNC appearance, Khan gave the people what they wanted: she spoke. She talked about how handsome Humayun was and began to cry mid-sentence. Though the camera panned away, you could still hear her soft, muffled sobs. But only if you listened. — MAYUKH SEN
In the proudly insular world of skateboarding, Brian Anderson had been a legend for years. The rest of us first heard of him in September. That’s when VICE dropped a compact documentary short titled, simply enough, “Brian Anderson On Being a Gay Professional Skateboarder.” It’s a lovely thing, lit with the warm glow of his friends’ and collaborators’ professional admiration — of his style, his power, his daringness — and personal love. (In just the way they say his nickname, BA, there is a happy twinge.) And as Anderson talks, carefully choosing his words, we come to understand the uniqueness of his biography.
He was never attracted to fellow skateboarders, he explains at one point, saying his type is burlier men, the kind that often end up in law enforcement. “I was more looking at the cops that would kick us out of spots,” he cracks. “Everybody hated getting kicked out … I’d be like, ‘yaaaay, I get to check somebody out.’” In the very next scene, he undercuts his own levity: “Hearing faggot all the time at a young age made me think that it was really dangerous to talk about.”
The doc showed us: even in 2016, even in an ostensibly subversive culture like skateboarding, coming out is still really hard, still really scary, and somehow still expected. And as America suddenly seems a whole lot less accepting of LGBTQ rights, BA points a way forward. — AMOS BARSHAD
It became crystal clear in 2016 that Americans are fed up with government, and maybe even democracy itself. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were extremely vocal about our broken system, sometimes so much that we were like, Alright guys, we get it. But if we’re gonna have a shake-up in this country, then we need Bernie’s kind of shake-up — one that’s closer to socialism, love, and legislation that protects America’s most vulnerable. When Bernie swallowed his pride post-primary and campaigned hard for Hillary, he showed the kind of solidarity we need desperately in this country. I’m reluctant to canonize Bernie, not because I’m tired of his platitudinous tweets, but because, socialism aside, he’s still of the old guard. That said, his passion lit a fire under his followers, and the momentum for change he inspired is very much alive. And perhaps if we make it past the Trump years, there might be a bright-eyed, Bernie-inspired political upstart on the other side, one with a full heart and eyes on the right kind of prize: equality. — LEAH MANDEL
Arianna Gil is a founding member of the Brujas, a crew of Latina women skateboarders based in the Bronx. Beyond tearing up New York on wheels, Gil and co. are also tearing up the system. This year, they created a line of streetwear to raise money for Fight To Live, a running bail fund to support people facing time in the prison system. The clothing features depictions of prison uprisings, emblazoned with the fighting words of Angela Davis, Neal Shirley, and the FTTTP periodical. Gil and her team also keep a sharp eye on their community — holding memorials for missing women and hosting self-defense workshops, for instance.
Alongside all that, they also helped elevate skateboarding’s inherent politics — the way it challenges ideas of private property, gentrification, and the limits of public spaces — and made it for everyone. And they’ll continue to do just that. In an interview with The FADER in September, Gil said, “We are out here for women and for femmes but [the] gender binary is becoming increasingly absolute. It's time to start having conversations beyond just feminism from a binary perspective.” By maintaining their fiery, stick-together and stick-it-to-the-man ethos and expanding it with determination, Gil and the Brujas are champions of the kind of political activism that might actually get us somewhere. — LEAH MANDEL
Amy Goodman’s independent news show Democracy Now!, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2016, is produced by its own nonprofit and funded entirely by donations from viewers and fellow nonprofits — no ads, corporate underwriting, or government funding. Its investigative reporting is uncompromising by design, making the show both politically relevant and morally justifiable in a year when outlets from The New York Times to NPR openly failed on a presidential scale.
Democracy Now!, with new episodes streaming for free every weekday at 8 a.m., has given voice to anti-oppression experts and activists countless times in 2016, though perhaps never so visibly or fearlessly as with their coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Goodman’s reporting in North Dakota not only led to a viral video showing company dogs attacking Native American water protectors, but also to her own arrest — first for misdemeanor trespassing, and then for the felony charge of rioting.
Goodman was arrested in the course of reporting at least once before, outside the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Back then, she and two other producers sued the cops and the Secret Service, and were awarded a $100,000 settlement, plus they got the city’s police department to start a training program to educate officers about First Amendment rights of the press. Her DAPL coverage, made all the more urgent by her arrest (charges were eventually dropped), has been similarly productive, taking up a story that wasn’t being covered elsewhere and leading it into a national conversation. A principled, effective reporter, Amy Goodman is just the kind of cultural leader we need more of. — DUNCAN COOPER
In a story for FADER 104, an issue that celebrated offline pursuits, the novelist Yaa Gyasi said something that’s stuck with me all year: “I think we have the tendency today to look at our ancestors with this idea that we are somehow smarter or more moral people … which is a really romantic way of looking at yourself and an unfair way of looking at people in the past.” This is the brilliant, explicit intent of Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, which has become one of the most talked about books of 2016: each chapter connects African and African-American history through the rupture of slavery and its bifurcated aftermath.
I’ve been thinking about Gyasi’s book, and what she said, because the need to invoke history as an active force amidst our political, social, and digital reality feels incredibly urgent. Gyasi’s comment is a subtle reminder that for all of the critical work many young people do, as activists, politicos, writers, and tweeters, we are not more (or less) enlightened than our parents who took risks through integration, or marching, or immigration — and especially those before, who pushed back in ways that were more micro, circumstantial, and undocumented. Retreating into our avatars, our ideological cocoons, and romanticizing modern morality reduces our “thinking” to a kind of performance to be seen and heard, disengaged from the complexities of life. This is far from a suggestion to give up; instead I think Gyasi is advocating for us to, occasionally, log off. Nothing feels more necessary as we move into 2017. — ANUPA MISTRY
In a year characterized by the words and actions of polarizing figures, Colin Kaepernick emerged as the unlikeliest. At a preseason game in August, the 49ers quarterback — once a star, then a backup — sat out the national anthem to protest police brutality and other forms of state-sanctioned oppression against people of color.
Long ago, America’s sanctified pro athletes were eclipsed by other cultural figures as the de facto spokespeople of the country. In the NFL, our most popular, most corporate league, that silence felt all the more loud. As social issues like domestic violence plagued — and continue to plague — the NFL, most stayed silent.
So when Kaepernick used a simple gesture to make a resonant statement, he magnified the national divide that would later play out in the polls. Some rallied around him as a folk hero; to others, he was an unholy scourge. Though his politics proved imperfect, Kaepernick came to represent what many hoped would follow from recent years of social media activism: taking protest into so-called “real life,” remaining steadfast in the face of threats to livelihood and reputation, and galvanizing strangers into following suit. As the season went on, his actions would be replicated and ripple, first through the NFL, then down to plucky high school kids from Aurora to Seattle, from Omaha to Oakland, from Camden, New Jersey to Beaumont, Texas. — RAWIYA KAMEIR
Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds
This July, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds used Facebook’s “Live” function to broadcast the moments after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop. There is a rightful criticism that positions such videos as spectacles akin to the images of lynchings once distributed for white pleasure. But they are sometimes useful, if not in guaranteeing justice, at least in gathering public support. Reynolds’s video felt especially significant in large part because she, a regular civilian with a regular life, was compelled not just to record the scene but to broadcast it live. She was not just a witness, not just a social media activist, not just the newly bereaved — in that moment, she became all three. Given the current social and political climate, and the resulting fear and vigilance, the intersection of all of those identities feels especially pertinent. More and more of us are simultaneously witnesses, activists, and mourners. The second-nature instinct for recording, and the co-option of tools like Facebook Live otherwise designed to be “neutral,” sometimes feel like evolutionary, heritable traits for survival. At the very least, they will be identified as the defining qualities of this era. — RAWIYA KAMEIR
During episode three of Chewing Gum, the British comedy created, written by, and starring 29-year-old Michaela Coel, her protagonist Tracy Gordon crashes a party and accidentally takes too much MDMA. Rolling, she meanders home to a council estate in east London that’s suddenly bursting with color. “It’s like a palace,” she enthuses, as neighbors grin and wave.
It’s a joke about how much you’ll love literally anything on a bunch of molly, but it’s also a genuine expression of what Tracy feels about her home. Coel’s smart embrace of working class backgrounds is part of what makes Chewing Gum so unlike anything else on British TV, or even Netflix, where it premiered this year. Plenty of hard-hitting dramas have explored life on a London council estate, but unlike other public housing projects on TV, Coel’s is never grey: instead, like real life, it’s multi-faceted, sometimes sun-lit, and often ridiculous.
Earlier this year, screenwriter Peter Moffat spoke with The Guardian about creating a scene for his show, Undercover, where a black family was at the dinner table eating pasta: “So normal and yet I had never ever, not once, seen that on mainstream TV [in the UK].” But that’s part of Coel’s reality and thus she writes, as she said in a 2015 interview, “so that other people who feel like they are very different to people who live on that estate [recognise] that they are the same.” Season two of Chewing Gum is on its way to the U.K.’s E4 and Netflix for 2017, and Coel is spearheading a significant shift in the narratives of “struggle” carried by black and working class people on British TV — as well as around the world. And at a time when the U.K. feels so divided, it can’t come quickly enough. — AIMEE CLIFF
In 2011 Nura Afia, recently married and a new mom, launched a YouTube channel from her home in Denver, Colorado. Afia’s uploads were typical of up-and-coming beauty vloggers: step-by-step guides to smoky eye makeup, headwrap tutorials, and — what proved to be particularly popular for Afia — confessional internet and vlog-style videos. In her uploads, she’d talk about how hot her husband Asif is, show off her drugstore lipstick collection — “I don’t have any high-end [lipsticks]; that’s ridiculous!” — and share silly moments like her and Asif’s two-year-anniversary date at Chick Fil-A. From the start of her online career, Afia was unconcerned with portraying herself as a demure woman, mother, wife, and Muslim. Five years later she became the first Muslim CoverGirl ambassador and was featured in an accompanying, nation-wide commercial to boot.
I first stumbled onto Afia’s channel in 2013, after encountering a vlog of her and Asif shopping and play-fighting at Wal-Mart. “Can’t a girl just have fun?” she says playfully, in a fake British accent. Afia lived in her own world, and though it wasn’t wildly interesting, I was drawn to her refusal to broadcast perfection. She didn’t intend to become controversial, but her approach fed into simultaneous online conversation about the complexity of identity. Perhaps because Afia refused to adhere to the respectability politics of mommy, make-up, and Muslim vloggers — and people took notice. Afia’s vlogs began as a way to live out Kardashian-esque dreams (her uploads are titled “Keeping Up With The Nurazais”) and ended up prompting necessary conversations about what it means to be a Muslim woman online, and how that is received and regulated by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. — AMANI BIN SHIKHAN
Mahershala Ali was already an Emmy-nominated actor prior to 2016, for his work on Netflix’s House of Cards. But this year his memorable acting in two polar opposite roles — as a diabolical baddie in Luke Cage and an empathetic, unlikely father figure in Moonlight — made a lot more people take notice. One of Ali’s earlier entries into the year’s press cycle was a March appearance on the WYNC podcast, Death, Sex & Money, with his wife, Amatus. They spoke about a family tragedy and their relationship, as well as Ali’s conversion to Islam at 25.
It’s not rare for Hollywood stars to talk about how faith informs their work, but it is, for now, still relatively uncommon to encounter a prominent Muslim actor and hear them address this balance from a place of comfort, as opposed to defensiveness. “When I read projects… when things pop up for me that I feel are kind of counterintuitive to what the faith requires of me, I have to figure that out a little bit,” he said. “I don’t do simulated sex scenes, but I also can’t get in the way of the story. It doesn’t mean you can’t be the love interest, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a sexual being.” Ali closed the year with a series of dishy photoshoots, cementing himself as the sex symbol, while also receiving critical acclaim from the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Golden Globes for his tender, unshakable performance in Moonlight. At 42, he’s hit his stride not just through compelling roles but because of an exciting new medium, Netflix. In an era defined by Islamophobia, Mahershala Ali’s successes prove there is a right side of history — whether those in charge are on it or not. — ANUPA MISTRY
In 2015, on the back of inconclusive evidence, Purvi Patel of Indiana became the first woman in U.S. history to be convicted of the seemingly contradictory charges of neglect of a dependent and feticide. Patel had been accused of illegally inducing her own abortion and subsequently birthing a baby that she let die. She was sentenced to a dramatic 20 years in jail. This July, Patel won an appeal; evidence didn’t support that she actually took the abortion pills she’d been researching, or that the baby was alive at the time of birth. But this decision doesn’t erase the spectre of a very worrying trajectory for pregnant people — for all people — who now have cause to fear womb-surveillance and criminalization for miscarriages or stillbirth.
I’ve never had an abortion, but I know many women who have: they span different races, economic classes, education levels, and religious backgrounds. I also know what it’s like to grow up in a culturally conservative community, like Patel’s, where children are often conditioned to deceive — usually out of fear rather than any demonstrable threat (though we can’t negate the existence of abuse). People should know better, sure; but people — women — should also have access to safe abortions if they don’t want to be pregnant. This case exposed the complexity of what it means to be a vulnerable in a system that is, at this point, maniacally intent on policing women’s bodies. Patel didn’t even have the chance for her family to let her down, because the state did that first. And though it is hard to find optimism as we brace for an attack on sexual health resource and abortion providers like Planned Parenthood in the coming months, it would do some good to remember Patel’s appeal — it is a kind of win. — ANUPA MISTRY
There’s a feeling a lot of us have — a tugging sense that if we could work harder, tap into some deeper well of talent, just put it all together — that we could be so much greater. I get the sense that Donald Glover has, despite a decade’s worth of screen and stage successes, struggled with that dread-inducing tug. I also get the feeling that with the subtle grandness of Atlanta, he’s put it to bed. This thing was, fully, his.
His writers’ room was all-black, and nearly all industry virgins; his director was a music-video veteran who had never worked in TV. Also: the room wasn’t a room, but in fact a house in Hollywood, where Glover would record music at night. And from there, he and his friends got to a place where they could chuck out all conventions like ice from a truck-stop fountain soda on the open road. And ultimately we got a show that, within the faithful hopes and ugly cynicism of rap music, reflected a world similarly, endlessly choosing between the two.
Certainly, we have had TV auteurs before. But in 2016, Glover's success made one thing clear: the auteurs will keep coming. — AMOS BARSHAD
Daniel Alarcón & Carolina Guerrero
This election cycle provided us with many lessons about the institutions and people of this country, but perhaps most telling was the loss of trust in mainstream media. Now, more than ever, there is an urgency for real representation in media. And that’s where Radio Ambulante comes in.
Created by the writer Daniel Alarcón and the media entrepreneur Carolina Guerrero, the NPR-distributed podcast tells real stories of Latin America’s people and diaspora. Through longform audio journalism, the show zooms in: we get Cuban death metal one episode, encounters with Colombia’s guerrilla soldiers the next.
The project is critical in both giving us voice and embodying the “by us, for us” model that is so pertinent to true media representation. As the Latinx population grows in this country, every outlet should be looking towards Radio Ambulante as a show with a sustainable approach. Alarcón and Guerrero’s project reminds us: if you want true representation, you have tell our stories right; if you want us to pay attention, you have to listen to us first. — LUNA OLAVARRIA GALLEGOS
The Seattle-bred, Brooklyn-based organizer Tsige Tafesse creates healing spaces where people can learn and activate together. An active member of New York City’s Black Lives Matter chapter, she’s also a co-producer of the Prismatic podcast (an “archive of knowledges”) and a co-founder of BUFU (By Us For Us), a decentralized discourse on the Black-Asian political relationship. Within the collaborative programming that Tafesse creates, we can learn to stay intentional and soft — to act gently with ourselves without selling our resistance movements. Through centering Black femmes and remaining critical, Tafesse is helping us prepare for whatever is about to come next.
Although having been a core activist in many of New York City’s vigils and protests, Tafesse is not interested in the immediacy of reactive spaces. She calls what she does “slow feminism.” That means working within a framework of love and education to carve out communities for femmes and queer people of color — the stuff that takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work. — LUNA OLAVARRIA GALLEGOS
In the hours following November’s general election results, stock in private prisons began to surge wildly. The assumption was that a maverick politico like Trump would commence to make good on his promise: he would restore “order” by hammering down on undocumented immigrants, reverse Obama’s decision to end private contract work with the Bureau of Prisons facilities, and grant more leeway to controversial law enforcement tactics like stop-and-frisk. In the days and weeks that followed that development, there was a swell of hate crimes reported across the country. The nation was beginning to completely spiral out of control. A new, unchecked order seemed to be taking hold. It was the beginning of something dangerous and tangible — the terror was wholly self-evident. “Such harassment occurred throughout Trump’s campaign, but now appears to have taken on a new boldness, empowered by the election of a Ku Klux Klan-endorsed candidate who has denigrated women and racial and religious minorities,” Alexis Okeowo confirmed in The New Yorker.
Throughout the next four years, it will sometimes be hard to be hopeful. But Kamala Harris, the former California Attorney General, presents a beam of optimism. In November, she became the first Indian-American and the second black woman elected to serve in the U.S. Senate. Sitting on four key committees — Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Intelligence, Environment and Public Works, and Budget — she will be a fierce and formidable counter to a right-wing Congress. “At a time when so many Californians and Americans are uncertain about our future, I will aggressively fight for our families and the ideals of our nation,” Harris recently said in a statement. Hope. Ever and always. — JASON PARHAM
Bobbi Jean Three Legs
In early 2016, Bobbi Jean Three Legs — a 24-year-old Oceti Sakowin Youth & Allies leader, Rezpect Our Water founder, and mother — heard at a Standing Rock Sioux district meeting that the Dakota Access Pipeline was building a crude oil pipeline less than a mile from the reservation. She immediately turned to action, educating youth in her community about DAPL, and organizing an 11-mile relay run from Wakpala to Mobridge, South Dakota, in March to raise awareness of the environmental issue. Then in April, after the first prayer camp — the Sacred Stone Camp — was established in Cannonball, South Dakota, Three Legs and others orchestrated a 500-mile relay race from there to Omaha, Nebraska to deliver a petition against the pipeline to their U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regional headquarters. When officials declined to meet with the Indigenous youth once they reached Omaha, Three Legs organized a 2,000-mile relay race from Sacred Stone to Washington, D.C., delivering the same petition to the Army Corps Capitol Hill headquarters on August 5.
Today, she is considered one of the most important Indigenous activists responsible for the magnitude of Standing Rock’s fight for clean water. The #NoDAPL movement wouldn’t be what it is today — a historical gathering of Indigenous nations and allies to protect the earth, water, and Native sovereignty of this country — without the tireless efforts of Three Legs and the other Oceti Sakowin youth who laid the groundwork. Though many people celebrated the December 4 Army Corps easement denial, the victory is only a temporary block, which DAPL’s parent company, Energy Transfer, has said will not discourage them from continuing on the proposed path. In the continual fight for Indigenous rights, leaders like Bobbi Jean Three Legs show us that collective action can empower even the most historically marginalized communities. — BRAUDIE BLAIS-BILLIE
Sadie Switchblade of G.L.O.S.S.
When the great Olympia punk band G.L.O.S.S. (“Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit”) turned down a record deal and then disbanded at the height of their cult popularity, they explained their reasoning in a statement: “The punk we care about isn’t supposed to be about getting big or becoming famous, it’s supposed to be about challenging ourselves and each other to be better people.” The band’s trans frontperson Sadie Switchblade summarized the philosophy on Up Against The Bricks, her second solo record of jangly, country-leaning punk under the Dyke Drama alias. The joyful-sounding third track begins with a howl: “Fuck the music industry!” As a songwriter, Sadie represents a cultural shift towards unfiltered honesty; she’s working to build a place where the oppressed can scream at the top of their lungs — and the privileged are forced to listen.
Sadie has made clear that her music is not made for the cis gaze any more than it is made for the music industry. As she explained in an interview with Bust, “I’m currently more interested in being part of a social movement than I really am in playing hardcore music...I want [Up Against The Bricks] to be a record that feels healing and cathartic to listen to for people who have been harmed by institutionalized oppression.” Sadie’s music-making is far from a narcissistic exercise; she’s a songwriter who truly only cares about processing her trauma, and helping others heal too. What could be more radical, or essential, come 2017? — AIMEE CLIFF
If streaming services are built like amusement parks — places that charge admission to spend all day enjoying their best attractions — then Larry Jackson might be Apple Music's Walt Disney. As Apple Music's head of original content, Jackson works alongside influential execs Jimmy Iovine, Eddy Cue, and Bozoma Saint John to make sure their service has the most exclusive releases. Apple Music has doubled its subscriber base this year by relying on Jackson’s A&R instincts and marketing strategy. In 2015, Jackson set the table by lining up deals with established stars like Drake and The Weeknd. But this year, he was able to do more than just ink industry-changing contracts: he was instrumental in turning Travis Scott into a chart fixture, he co-wrote Drake's Please Forgive Me short film, and he had a hand in Apple Music's viral TV commercials, which feature some of his star “signees” doing ridiculous things. It’s all spectacle and fireworks worth sticking around for. — MYLES TANZER
The rise of Young M.A this year was both refreshing and a true mark of what “the culture” needs: not just your standard “real” rapper but one who represents something new. While #RapTwitter argued about how to save New York rap, nobody was ready for the hero to be a young woman from Brooklyn with several connotations for the word “strap.” In an interview with The FADER this past summer, M.A said: “It was always the female rappers that looked like female rappers and it was the guys. That's what I grew up to see, so in my mind I [thought] that's how it’s supposed to be. Until I got to a point where I had to find myself.” But Young M.A isn’t a mere symbol of change. She doesn’t intend to transform rap by being the “first” openly gay female rapper. She’s simply herself, and she’s telling her own story. And after a year where we were lied to so much, I can’t think of anything more hopeful and forward-looking than the uncategorized truth. — JUDNICK MAYARD