This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 03, which highlights the unexpected artists moving culture forward today.
What was once an ideology synonymous with a generation is now a vibe permeating culture. Like the original Beat movement, today’s beat is anchored in angst, intellectualism, antimaterialism, and a deep search for meaning. But this time around, Jack Kerouac it ain’t. Women, people of color, and the power of digital are modernizing the movement’s voice and reach.
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Making Lemonade Out of Lemons
Beyoncé’s album Lemonade was a cultural flash point, exploring issues of race, feminism, and politics, and topping millennials’ and Gen Zs’ list’s as the most powerful and culturally relevant album of 2016. One of the elements that made it so incredibly powerful was the way in which the music was interwoven with spoken-word interstitials adapted from the work of Warsan Shire, a 28-year-old Kenya-born Somali-British poet. Shire’s reputation was largely built online, where she uses Tumblr and Twitter like an open notebook. She’s known for fitting profound prose about her experiences as an immigrant and as a female into 140 characters or less. Lemonade catapulted Shire to pop-culture celebrity, and fans from around the world now repost lines from her poems across social media. One of her most-quoted poems is “Difficult Names,” which includes the lines: “Give your daughters difficult names. / Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. / My name makes you want to tell me the truth. / My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.” As a New Yorker profile of Shire noted, anyone who doesn’t believe that poetry still occupies an important space in our culture simply isn’t looking in the right places. 87% of millennials and Gen Zs agree, stating, “Poetry is making a comeback.”
Society looks to poets for answers as a guiding light through all of this worry and anxiety and lack of hope in the world. There’s definitely a new reach for poetry, specifically through Tumblr, YouTube, and other social media.Gabriel, 22, New York City
The original subculture of anti-conformist beatniks was all about angst, intellectualism, spiritualism, and the arts. The same values are prevalent today, although not just among a single generation or a youthful cohort: They’re pervading the entire cultural landscape. “We feel so educated and angsty,” says Lauren, 26, of New Orleans. And while the Beat generation of the 1940s and ’50s was primarily lead by white men, today’s nouveau beat movement is powered by women and people of color.
Shire is just one among a slew of young intellectual voices that are rising up and resonating in the digital age. Consider “It” girl Cleo Wade. Born in New Orleans to a Caucasian chef mother and a black photographer father, she has the look and the pedigree of a timeless fashion icon and does, in fact, model for brands including UGG and Armani. But that’s not what she’s known for. Less than two years ago, Wade started posting handwritten poems on her Instagram account. “Love yourself enough to love your neighbor” reads one. Another states: “The future of feminism is only as powerful as the future of antifeminism.” Today, Wade has more than 225,000 followers—including Lena Dunham, Jenna Lyons, and Bella Hadid, all of whom have reposted her work—and she’s widely celebrated as a top Instagram poet. Mahogany L. Browne is another black female poet who has risen to prominence thanks in part to social media, where performances of her socially and politically conscious poetry have gone viral.
There has never been a moment when America didn’t think black culture was cool. They might not have put our face on it—Elvis had to sing it—but with social media, we can kind of point that out.Victoria, 26, Memphis
Pod Save the World
The nouveau beat phenomenon isn’t just tied to the written word—or to the scrolling screen—and it’s not only manifesting itself in the form of poetry. We all know that podcasting has exploded during the last few years: It’s projected to be a $500-million-a-year industry by 2020, according to Edison Research, and 60% of 13- to 39-year-olds report they are actively listening to one or more podcasts right now. But while the medium of radio has always been associated with truth, intellectualism, and sincerity, it often seems trapped in the white male oeuvre, whether it be “NPR voice” (thank you, Ira Glass!) or shock jock (hello, Howard Stern).
Podcasting has broken the mold and brought diverse voices and points of view front and center. One of the most-talked-about podcasts of the moment is 2 Dope Queens. Cohosted by Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, it makes a point of featuring female, nonwhite, and LGBTQ+ comedians in an effort to represent people from various backgrounds—landing it on the must-listen lists of the New York Times, Bitch magazine, and the Huffington Post, among others. One of the show’s most popular segments was a discussion about what it’s like to attend a Billy Joel concert—while black.
Another standout podcast from the last year is Another Round, on BuzzFeed, which focuses on race, gender, and pop culture. Its black female cohosts, Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, had a breakout moment this year when they not only landed an interview with Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign but also grilled her on tough issues such as Black Lives Matter, reparations, and mass incarceration.
While it may sound weird to call Warsan Shire, Phoebe Robinson, and Heben Nigatu the Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs of our time, theirs are the voices that are exploring the issues of today. Beat poets of the last century celebrated sexual liberation and the new frontier of homosexuality; today’s nouveau beat is at the front lines of identity liberation and gender fluidity. Old Beat came together on the streets of San Francisco; new beat finds one another on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and iTunes. Both movements are characterized by articulate, insightful, and irreverent voices.
Plus, after almost a decade of peak visual culture—in which the most astute ideas are now distilled into five-second GIFs—listening feels fresh: 78% of millennials and Gen Zs say they’ve grown tired of communication being boiled down into GIFs and tweets, and 74% say voices, rather than visuals, are the new frontier of digital communication. Podcasts give us the opportunity to once again lift up our heads—away from our screens.
Breaking Down the Nouveau Beat
Then & Now: OLD and New beat
- Beat downUpbeat
- Sexual liberationGender liberation
- Jack KerouacCleo Wade
- San Franciscoinstagram
We Got the Beat
There’s no doubt that intellectual and artistic voices are trending right now, so the question is: Why?
In Memphis, we met the rapper Marco Pavé, 24, who grew up in the inner city. He hasn’t had the easiest life: In sixth grade, he saw a dead body for the first time. In ninth grade, two of his friends were murdered. Today, he uses rap as a tool for intellectualizing and feeling his way through some of his hardest experiences. “You grow up seeing all this trauma and all this death and injury, and you feel like you can’t do anything,” he says. “We’ve definitely got to push the boundaries and push the envelope about being more intellectual about the world that we have created. The artists are the ones who have to make that happen.” Of course, hip-hop has long been a tool for activism, but Pavé believes it’s extremely urgent and necessary at this moment. His most popular song, “Black Tux,” was written in response to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. “I was sad. I was hurt,” Pavé told us. Moreover, hip-hop—much like Instagram poetry and even podcasts—is a language that allows ideas to spread across marginalized groups, from refugees to gang members to nerds, according to Pavé.
In New Orleans, we encountered a more offbeat (pun intended) iteration of the nouveau beat movement. Nat Turner, a former New York City teacher, is one of the hardest-working intellectuals you’ll ever meet. After leading educational trips to post-Katrina New Orleans, he gave up nearly all his material possessions to launch an educational urban-farm social experiment in the Lower Ninth Ward. Today, Our School at Blair Grocery’s fruits and vegetables pop up from dark soil in a neighborhood otherwise devoid of fresh food. OSBG’s goal is more than slinging eggplants: It’s a grassroots alternative to incarceration for at-risk youth and a beacon of sustainability on one of the city’s most blighted blocks. Two of Turner’s former students from New York, Alex and Sam, followed him to NOLA. These city folks now spend their days herding goats and heaving compost under the hot Louisiana sun, while discussing socialism, education, and the nonprofit industrial complex. It seems to bring them—not quite joy but at least some contentment. Like the original Beat movement, nouveau beat embraces the struggle. The original beatniks put themselves in precarious situations: Hard drugs, free love, the open road, and financial instability were all a part of their antiestablishment vibe. “We’re in the f***ing hoody-hood-hood-hood. I’m talking, like, I live next door to drug dealers,” says Turner, almost as if he’s bragging. According to Pavé, feeling the struggle is a part of reconciling with the adversities of contemporary society: “Even with blues music, people want to experience the struggle,” he says. “Today, people want to be adjacent to the struggle. They want to be close enough where they can say, ‘Yeah, I had a struggle.’”
88% of millennials and Gen Zs say they want to experience the struggle—not just the success.
While the original Beat generation got its moniker from being “beat down,” today’s beat movement is comparably upbeat. Despite the collective anxiety, instability, and insecurity of the socio-political climate, a sense of optimism and empowerment, along with a commitment to social action, runs through beat culture. Regardless of one’s modality of expression—poems, podcasts, rap, songs, or farming—there’s a through line of protest, sermon, cry for help, call to arms, and all that rolled up into one.
Gabriel, 22, of New York City, told us of his current life philosophy: “Listen to your favorite artist. Watch your favorite movie. Read your favorite book. Do what gives you joy. Don’t be blind to what’s going on in this country.” The Memphis rapper Pavé admits, “My art and my dream of making art allowed me to transcend all these factors that could have killed me.” Sheer numbers support this reliance on the arts to get us through tough times: 51% of 13- to 39-year-olds strongly agree the arts and creative expression give them hope in these times. Backing this up, the online poetry platform Poets.org saw its biggest surge in users in the 48 hours following the recent U.S. presidential election. The most shared poem, Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” was passed around more than 50,000 times. Its opening lines couldn’t reflect the zeitgeist more: “You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
80% of millennials and Gen Zs agree that despite a complex sociopolitical climate, they’re upbeat about where culture is headed.
We’ve definitely got to push the boundaries and push the envelope about being more intellectual about the world that we have created. The artists are the ones who have to make that happen.Marco Pavé, 24, Memphis
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