The events of 2016 galvanised a generation of young Americans to speak out — we spotlight the activists organising for real change in the second of a three part series
Part of Dazed's Activism Week, focusing on a new generation of creatives rising up in a post-Trump world
When President Trump won the 45th US Presidential election in 2016, the New York Times declared it “a stunning repudiation of the establishment.” And yet for many on the afternoon of November 8, it felt like progress had suddenly been set in reverse. Many of Trump’s native New Yorkers took to the streets with banners and flaming effigies — symbols of resilience and revolt in the face of impending doom.
As protests continue to ignite across America this year, we platform a young generation taking charge of their nation’s future — from protecting trans rights in the prison system, to standing in the way of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In his teens, as socially conscious hip-hop collective Pro Era started taking off, crew member Kirlan Labarrie suddenly changed his name to Kirk Knight. In interviews, he jokingly tells people it’s a nod to Curren$y’s breezy boom-bap tune “Michael Knight” – but actually, his reasons are far more personal. Born and raised in the neglected Brooklyn province of Flatbush, Knight has long suffered from insomnia and does much of his beatmaking by night. Over a cracked phone-line from New York, listening to his thoughts on a broken American society and a generation unable to rip their eyes from the glare of a post-truth internet, you start to understand why this mindful young artist struggles with sleep. “For the people (complaining) that Trump is in office – yeah, that’s bad, but it’s actually about understanding the situation that put him there,” he says. “There’s a lack of education, knowledge. People get confused and angry about things they don’t understand.”
Since forming in 2011, Pro Era have become the poster boys of sensitive, politically engaged rap: even Malia Obama has been spotted wearing one of the group’s t-shirts. But talking to Knight, it’s clear he feels uneasy about the types of rallies many of his peers – and no doubt fans – attend. “How many years have people protested? Obviously, it’s not the answer,” he observes. “There’s always going to be that one person in a protest that takes it overboard, that kills a cop, hits a cop – and that just gives them a reason to start blasting everybody. To kill us all off.”
This year, Knight will release an instrumental hip-hop album called Black Noise, and will produce on AABA, the fourth LP from Joey Bada$$, Pro Era’s breakout star. Besides that, he’ll be hitting the history books, mining the annals of black culture in the US. “Self-education and self-expression is the best thing in the world,” he says. “It’s the one thing that gives the people something to start bringing things down with.”
“People would rather just follow something that’s easier to understand – like if you put peanut butter on a pill, it’s easier for people to swallow,” Knight continues. “Then there are the people who actually want to assert themselves... The freedom fighters.” – JM
“Every time I make the choice to do something where my name and face are visible, it’s usually followed by a period of regret and uncertainty,” Grace Dunham admits. While using their social capital to highlight under-supported causes could feel powerful, these days the 25-year-old writer and activist prefers more direct strategies. Raised in New York City, Dunham recently relocated to Los Angeles to focus their energy on Support.fm, a new crowdfunding platform set to help queer and trans people navigating jail, prison and detention centres. The site will offer a secure online platform for people seeking to raise bail money, a service prohibited on other crowdfunding platforms. “It’s time to really focus on how people’s lives will be changed (by Trump), and what work we can do to protect people and reduce harm,” says Dunham.
Support.fm plans to work with pre-existing organisations doing related prison-justice work like Familia: TQLM and Trans Queer Pueblo. “There are rich histories of movements that have been in place for hundreds of years, resisting racism and colonialism and capitalism,” says Dunham, whose work over the past few years has included writing for The New Yorker, collaborating with trans activist Reina Gossett, publishing a digital poetry book (The Fool), and appearing in the film Happy Birthday, Marsha!, about transgender activists Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. “Being in a political dialogue with yourself and your community is a lifelong process and it’s not something we’ll ever complete. You need to learn, research and think about the ways you can use the resources at your disposal, without ignoring the fact that there are dynamic movements (already) in play that we need to follow the lead of and support.”
By ‘resources’, Dunham means more than just money. “A lot of the privileges that we have are networked... Think about your family, your friends, your job, the institutions or companies you’re tied to. How can you communicate with these people to urge them to make different choices about how money is both saved and spent? What are the resources that you have – whether it’s money, time, a legal degree or a car – that could be in the service of these movements that are already doing such amazing work? People have more resources than they’re taught to locate.” – LP
INDIA MENUEZ AND SHISHI ROSE
“There is a certain gratitude I hold for every villain, (because only by) having evils identified, and bigots self-outing, can we can clarify a direction for progress,” says India Menuez, contemplating Trump’s 2016 election victory. The Brooklyn-based multihyphenate has spent much of her adult life side-eying the patriarchy, be it through her fierce activism and community work, or her rebel-minded TV and film roles. In the 2012 French drama Something in the Air, she played a furious student rioter; fast-forward to this year, and the actor-activist stars in I Love Dick, a TV adaptation of Chris Kraus’s cult novel about a couple who fall for the same college lecturer (the namesake Dick, played by Kevin Bacon). The show was directed by Transparent creator Jill Soloway, and sensitively explores love and sex through the lens of creeping obsession. “I feel so much gratitude for getting to work on I Love Dick through a year that was so fucked up,” says Menuez. “The show works on every level to address intersectional issues of injustice.”
Alongside I Love Dick, Menuez spent much of last year working with the pressure group NoDAPL, which aims to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “We called senators, the army corps, the president, congressmen,” she recalls. “We urged them to stop the abuses being made on the natives gathered in prayer (not protest), and to push to stop the pipeline.” Menuez is experienced at organising people in the name of social and political dissent. At 15 (she’s 23 now), she co-founded Luck You, a now-disbanded co-op uniting the city’s DIY art scene. These days, if she’s not modelling for Eckhaus Latta, she’s helping out at not-for-profit artist networking space 8-Ball Community.
One of Menuez’s regular collaborators, New York activist Shishi Rose, also uses Instagram to offer support for marginalised people. “The best tool any of us have is our voices,” says Rose. “We are in a time when there is so much information at our fingertips. We just need to utilise it, and spend each day not apologising for the privileges we have, but using them for the better of others.” Looking to the year ahead, Menuez is resilient. “Maintaining hope in harmony with your criticality is what I believe can keep us moving forward,” she says. “There are endless ways in which people can use their platform for good. In terms of how I use (mine), I recite a mantra that my mother always told me: ‘Sharing is caring.’” – JM
I don’t set resolutions for myself, but maybe my all-time resolution is that I want to manifest the space between my fears,” says Jamal Lewis, a community organiser and filmmaker from Atlanta now living in New York City. “Especially in the age of Trump. But even before Trump, I couldn’t say that America had not been a fearful place. Because people are taught to fear. That’s often how leaders influence people. Especially in the realm of politics and religion. They teach people how to fear them, but also how to fear themselves.”
By day, Lewis can be found organising communications and messaging in the midtown Manhattan office of the Audre Lorde Project, a community organisation for queer and trans people of colour (QTPOC) in New York City. Outside the office, the work continues. Lewis is currently writing and directing the film No Fats, No Femmes, which will offer a lens on the politics of desire. The documentary, whose title plays on a phrase that can often be found on queer dating website profiles, features personal narratives from QTPOC, fat, femme and disabled people. “It’s (about) investigating and exploring how one maps desire, and how that has a large impact on the entire world,” Lewis explains. “So much of how people move and excel in the world is contingent on desire.”
Lewis began organising at Morehouse College in Atlanta, helping to bring back the school’s gender and sexual diversity collective, and later moved to New York for a masters degree at The New School. There, the budding filmmaker became involved in Black Lives Matter. “I was showing up to a lot of community spaces, and eventually started doing work around gender and racial justice. The rate at which black people were being killed that year was really high.” “When you grow up in the US education system, so much of what you have to endure is people telling you who you should be,” Lewis continues. “Who you should not be. What you should fear. At some point, you deeply internalise it. I deeply internalised so much fear – so much second-hand fear. I say second-hand, because it was always fear that other people projected on to my body. And that still happens today... I think about holding fast to dreams, and working at them every day. And not allowing fear to consume how I live my life.” – LP
“When given the space to dream out loud to the public, we’ve always stated that we had political intentions,” says Arianna Gil. “Now they are coming to fruition through projects like 1971.” A founding member of BRUJAS, Gil is referring to the skate collective’s limited-edition streetwear line which benefits people targeted by the prison system. BRUJAS, who self-define as a “freeform, urban revolutionary feminist collective that expresses community through skateboarding and political organising”, started with a series of informal parties and skate meet-ups a few summers ago – but it has always meant much more, embedded in a belief system and vision for the world they want to live in.
The BRUJAS × 1971 line was dreamed up by Gil and Izzy Nastasia, an editor at Mask Magazine who has been working on anti-racist, anti- state efforts for the past 11 years. The two wanted to raise awareness of last year’s US prison strike, so they schemed ways they could get people to move some of the money they would spend around the holidays towards their friends’ prisoner support projects like Freedom 2 Live (F2L). “1971 is an exemplary media-driven project entirely produced by BRUJAS,” says Gil, pictured here with another of the collective’s founding members, Robin Giordani. “We should be defined by the things we create, not what people create about us.”
“I grew up skating downtown around the skate teams and creative directors of brands that dictated what was cool to youth,” continues Gil, whose 2017 plans include the #deathtoallmalelineups project (which calls attention to the cis-male monopoly on the music scene) and collabs with BRUJAS and the NYC party GHE20G0TH1K, as well as dropping some rap records that Gil helped produce. “All of these people were men, and most had a political, misogynist messaging. Inserting our ethos into a medium that has a lot of hegemony is a smart way of inspiring critical dialogue about our institutional enemies, i.e. prisons and the state.”
Nastasia adds: “To me, giving direct and material support to people behind bars and people who are being hit with criminal charges is one of the most important things we can do with our time, energy and resources. It’s the only thing short of tearing down the walls that makes sense to me.” – LP
Make up and grooming Ingeborg using Surratt Beauty and Leonor Greyl Haircare, set design Jonathan Gillen, photographic assistants Kohei Kawashima, Eduardo Silva, styling assistants Ioana Ivan, Shawn Lakin, Nina Perlman