BEST OF 2015

15 from '15: Amanda's picks from Kendrick to Chronixx

My end-of-year list for 2015 is dedicated to 15 artists whose works pushed for that transformative change. These artists called for action, for healing, for mourning, for protest and for moments of reflection at a time that I believe will go down as a turning point in history.

The host of Exhibitionists chooses the works that moved her from the year in culture

American rapper Kendrick Lamar performs at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark on July 3, 2015. (Simon Laessoee/Scanpix Denmark/Reuters)

Art has always been the channel through which I connect to things. I majored in political science for my undergraduate degree but to be honest, the theories, the dates, the names, the ideologies…they're all a bit of a blur. Instead, what has stayed in my permanent memory are the novels I read, the movies I watched and the poetry I dissected.

That said, one thing I do recall from my university classes is that dictators almost always follow a particular formula when it comes to silencing dissent: first they target the students, and then they come for the artists.

Dictators almost always follow a particular formula when it comes to silencing dissent: first they target the students, and then they come for the artists.

Those two groups remain some of the most powerful conduits for transformative change. From the student-led "Umbrella Revolution" strikes that brought Hong Kong to a standstill in late 2014 to the University of Missouri (a.k.a. Mizzou) student protests earlier this year, to the more recent demonstrations led by students across South Africa that forced the government to withdraw proposals for tuition hikes, young people are often the first to make the courageous decision to take a stand. Artists are the ones who document the movement, as well as educate and inspire their audiences.

My end-of-year list for 2015 is dedicated to 15 artists whose works pushed for that transformative change. These artists called for action, for healing, for mourning, for protest and for moments of reflection at a time that I believe will go down as a turning point in history.

Kendrick Lamar – "Alright" video​

Tears came to my eyes when I first watched this music video. A visually stunning homage to the bodies so often targeted by police brutality, the video is a perfect partner to a song that is simultaneously a mournful reprieve, a rallying cry and an unapologetic affirmation of life. It is no coincidence that it became the chant of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protestors repeated the hook over and over in streets across the U.S. and in Canada yelling at the top of their lungs "We gon' be alright! We gon' be alright!" Such a simple statement, yet for some, to say — to scream — and to hear it, are still necessary.


 

Buffy Sainte Marie – Power in the Blood

The 2015 Polaris Music Prize–winning album came from a 74-year old legend in the game. Power in the Blood is Buffy Sainte Marie's 22nd album and it defies any particular genre categorization, moving through country, folk, electronic and rock. The content of the songs similarly traverses a number of areas, touching on themes such as colonialism, GMOs, the tar sands, love, loss, resistance and magic. It is an epic journey that could only be told by a woman who has lived as many lives as Sainte-Marie.


 

Talwst – Minimized Histories: Marginalization and Unrest Exhibit

Earlier this year, the Art Gallery of Mississauga curated an exhibit featuring the work of Toronto-based artist Talwst. His tiny dioramas housed in antique ring boxes have inspired imaginations across the country, but this recent exhibit focused on his more politically charged work. Featuring scenes of Frida Kahlo meeting 43 missing protestors in Mexico, the stories of missing and murdered indigenous women and the scene of Eric Garner's murder at the hands of the police, these narratives are inserted into scenes inspired by art history. Check out our segment with Talwst on Exhibitionists.

Curtis “Talwst” Santiago, was a promising young musician when he began making art on the side as way to combat the rainy Vancouver blues. After experimenting with various painting techniques, a friend handed him a small jewelry box and challenged him to do something with it. His first art show featured a series of paintings and a small collection of tiny dioramas built inside jewelry boxes. The ring boxes stole the show. Now based in Toronto, Talwst has since exploded on the art scene, particularly after images of his dioramas went viral, earning him a large following not only online, but also in the art world. 6:42

 

Terence Nance – 18 Black Girls Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and are Thus Spiritual Machines: $1 in an edition of $97 quadrillion

Yeah, I know — longest title ever.  But filmmaker Terence Nance, most popularly known for his experimental films and his 2012 critically acclaimed feature An Oversimplification of her Beauty, created this performance piece that is incredibly poignant in its simplicity. Nance Googles the phrase "1 year old black girl" and continues ascending in age until he gets to 18. He allows Google's "popular searches" algorithm to predict what comes after each prompt and then clicks on the results. What comes up is scary, beautiful, heartbreaking, celebratory and for better or worse, undeniably powerful.


 

Banksy – Dismaland

Arguably the world's most notorious artist, in August of this year Banksy unveiled his first-ever theme park. In true Banksy style, Dismaland defied every convention of the typical theme park formula — housed in the often cold and rainy seaside town of Somerset, England, built only for a temporary existence, and rooted in dystopian themes. The exhibit brought together 58 artists (including Canadian artist Maskull Lasserre) and featured 10 new works from Banksy himself, exploring themes from capitalism and  consumerism to policing and even celebrity obsession. You know Banksy. He always has something to say.


 

Erykah Badu – Feel Better World

Songstress, actor and overall infinite goddess of cool, Erykah Badu released a mixtape in the summer with one goal: encouraging people around the world to take care of themselves. Urging those who are fighting for freedom to remember to take care of themselves and their souls, this curated list is a reminder that contemporary activism is taking note and learning from the mistakes of the past. Self-care is paramount in order to stay on this path.


 

Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me

I read Between the World and Me, structured as a long letter to Coates' teenaged son, in a week. It would have been shorter if I didn't need to take so many moments for tears, sighs, reflections and conversations with my partner about what it will mean if we ever bring life into this world. I continue to think about the fear that already lives with us before life has even been introduced. I was not the only one so deeply affected. Compared to James Baldwin — by none other than Toni MorrisonCoates won The National Book Award for his work and was a recipient this year of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.


 

Chronixx and the Reggae Revival

In August of this year, Toronto reggae promoters iRemember brought one of the most exciting new artists to come out of Jamaica to the city for a concert unlike any other I have ever attended. Chronixx is one the most well-known artists emerging out of a Jamaican movement that has been dubbed the Reggae Revival; a shift away from the dancehall sound that has dominated the island for the past decade and a return to the roots sound that emphasizes live bands, poetic lyricism and content that addresses the issues relevant and pertinent to their listeners. It's a fitting soundtrack to the era we're living in, where young people are protesting and rising up on streets and connecting across borders thanks to technology. At this concert I saw old and young swaying, singing and raising lighters in the air, caught up in an energy that was new, yet familiar. I heard elders whispering that Chronixx is the new Bob for this generation.


 

Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis – This Changes Everything

This inspiring couple created a book and film with a shared title, which aimed to document, educate and inspire the public about one of the most urgent issues of our time: climate change. The book serves as a political and educational treatise, while the film captures the human and emotional impact behind the facts and figures. The two works also document the incredible global movement that is fighting tooth and nail to shift the world from the course we are careening towards. Check out our Exhibitionists segment with both Klein and Lewis.

Husband and wife duo Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein are vocal social activists leaving their mark in more ways than one. Klein is the author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Lewis is a longtime journalist and director of the documentary version of This Changes Everything, which was made concurrently as Klein wrote the book. 3:09

 

George Amponsah – The Hard Stop

To call this documentary timely is an understatement. I watched it at this year's Toronto International Film Festival and saw my cousin, my friends and my students in the young men at the center of the film. The British documentary explores the life and death of Mark Duggan. He was killed by police in 2011 and his death sparked riots first in Tottenham that spread across London and other English cities. In the film, the experience and its aftermath are explored primarily through two of Mark's best friends, who deal with not only the legal implications of the murder and riots but also with the emotional weight and trauma. Listening to these young men (whose slang and speech are so similar to Toronto-speak, it reminded me that quite often we have more in common with our neighbours across the pond than those south of the border) brought to life the intense and often tangible pain that comes with the experience of injustice.


 

Rashaad Newsome's King of Arms

The always-visionary multi-disciplinary artist Rashaad Newsome celebrated the third instalment of his King of Arms Ball earlier this year. Honouring the 25th anniversary of the release of Paris is Burning (the documentary that helped bring vogueing and ballroom culture into mainstream consciousness), Newsome's King of Arms created an otherworldly marriage between the ballroom scene and the art world. There was a costume contest inspired by the works of visual artists Nick Cave and El Anatsui, and a well-curated space that brought together Black, Latino, transgender and queer bodies in ways that the art world is rarely able to. The event raised money for the transgender wing of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Newsome even brought the show on the road earlier this month, depositing a parade of bold, brilliant and unapologetic blackness smack in the middle of Miami's Art Basel art show.


 

Rupi Kaur – Milk and Honey

Rupi Kaur's self-published poetry collection Milk and Honey sold so many copies that Andrews McNeel publishing offered to republish it this past fall along with 20 new works. Despite resistance from the public that included threats to her own life and censorship on Instagram, Kaur's work continues to courageously touch on difficult themes such as sexual abuse, ideas of femininity, beauty, migration and diasporic identity. Catch our segment with her on Exhibitionists.

Meet the 23-year old poet and artist from Brampton, Ontario who caused a revolution on Instagram with one photograph. 5:43

 

Noisey's feature on OTA Live

Okay, you might be wondering why an article documenting the history of a Toronto hip-hop radio show is on this list. What does this have to do with art and social change? Two reasons: First, as a descendant of a culture who had their language, literature, spirituality art and history stolen from them, I have learned that documentation and archiving is in itself a form of activism. If we don't know where we've been, we will never know where to go; Second, this article highlighted the importance not only of the creation of art, but also the channels that share that art with us.

The unceremonious gutting of OTA Live's parent station, Flow 93.5FM, in 2011 and subsequent shut down of one of the most important hip-hop radio shows in the country left Canadian rap artists looking to get their music on the airwaves lost in the abyss. This inevitably led to less exposure, a lack of cultural knowledge, a hyper-emphasis on American styles and sounds, limited sales and more and more artists leaving the country in an attempt to generate some buzz. At a time when the most well-known contemporary music acts in Canada emerge out of the urban arena, this article was a wake-up call to radio stations in Toronto and across Canada: stop shunning hip-hop culture.
 

Amandla Stenberg – NIOBE: She Is Life

The cover of issue #1 of NIOBE: She Is Life, co-written by actor Amandla Stenberg. (Stranger Comics)

One of my favourite teen celebs is musician and actress Amandla Stenberg who has, among other things, been schooling the not-so-well-informed members of the Hollywood community about cultural appropriation. Last month marked the release of a new comic book co-authored by Stenberg called NIOBE: She is Life. It chronicles the adventures of the titular character who is a half-elf, half-human warrior as well as an orphan, on her quest to save the world. In doing so, Stenberg has helped to create one of the first comic books to star a black girl, written by a black girl and illustrated by a black girl (Ashley Woods).

For all the black girls out there who loved Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, but who longed for a major character that looked like them, search no further. In a recent interview with Comic Book Resources, Stenberg had a message for her audience: "What I want to say with this project is that black girls should never be afraid of being too loud and too big."

M.I.A. – "Borders" video

The always bold and unapologetic artist M.I.A. released a beautifully poignant music video last month. Premiering on Nov. 27 — which is the date of Maaveerar Naal, a remembrance day for Tamil people to honour all those who fought for freedom and all that has been lost including land, artifacts, culture, history and lives — M.I.A.'s video was a strong visual illustration of the people and bodies who are forced to flee their homes in times of war. Although it's currently a hot topic due to the influx of Syrian refugees to Canada and elsewhere, the ongoing state of war and conflict throughout the world is not new, and neither is the refugee crisis. It's just that governments and media choose when to focus on these issues, and engage with them.
 

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