2016 had its bright spots and this list proves it
2016 has been tough on us, but that doesn’t mean that it was all tragedy. It has been an incredible year in music. I’m sure if someone had asked you last year at 11:59 pm on New Year’s Eve if you’d predict Solange—sister to Queen Bey—would make an album to rival her her sister and the biggest star in the world, you’d have spit out your champagne and chuckled. Well, it happened.
This year sounds of protest filled the interstitial spaces between racial strife, economic strife, and social media dustups. We lost a great many of our idols, leaving us here without their continued inspiration. What worked? Not prayer. Not worry. Not perpetual, self-satisfying motion. Only your own will to make the world a better place. And all that’s left is the continued will to do that. To push on as previous generations have.
These are the albums, television shows, books, and political moments that both defined our year, but also taught us that we can get through this year—and the next four years—with our sanity intact.
Leonard Cohen in "You Want It Darker"
The Albums That Got Us Through
\nSolange: “A Seat at the Table”
Solange’s breakout masterpiece was a watershed moment for R&B in 2016 and brought the listener into Solange’s inner-space with a clarity that escaped even some of the rising hope of golden age 70s-era soul. It carried us through this year because of it, seemingly capturing the zeitgeist of this time while never sinking into despair.
Its soundscape lay in parallel to several interludes—musings by Master P, a comment on blackness from Tina Knowles, and it continued from there—molding old superstars and upstarts into a single vision.
\nJamila Woods: “Heavn”
Jamila Woods is the real deal: the voice of a jazz soloist and the mind of an activist, Woods is the associate artistic director of the nonprofit organization Young Chicago Authors. Her songs jingle and twirl as though they were developed in a child’s bedroom, the banality of marginalization hanging like an aroma blowing in from the street below.
For all its sorely needed innocence, “Heavn” is also brave, adding levity to Woods’ grim neo-soul baseline of martyrdom. Between the Facebook Live stream of Philando Castile to the seemingly sudden return of nationalism, America has experienced a sort of collective trauma—the kind of sudden instability that once exclusively belonged to marginalized communities, or so we thought. “Heavn” is the kind of album that ropes you back from the abyss.
\nLeonard Cohen: “You Want It Darker”
Leonard Cohen’s final LP, earmarking a superb, multidecade career, was one very much interested in the soul. How does a life’s worth of thinking and doing sum up? Does it all matter in the end? “You Want It Darker” explored both questions with grit and promise as Leonard winds the listener – you – down a path of demons and angels with no hallelujahs to be found. The cement piece comes at the beginning, with Cohen remarkably describing our collective mood: “A million candles burning for the help that never came. You want it darker …” It would seem, this year, we did.
Donald Glover's "Atlanta"
The Television That Challenged Us
Donald Glover’s masterpiece is a deep dive into the psyche of America through the peculiar lens of blackness. Its focus is the absurdity of the black experience, therefore highlighting the drag that our miserly sub-realities play on our minds. It constantly asks, ‘Are you viewing this correctly?’ giving it the illusion of complexity when the burn is a simple one. Black folks multi-varied, multitudinous lives often cannot be seen. They are hidden, purposely, from view, thereby guaranteeing exploitation. Atlanta would have none of it. And is must-see tube watching because of it.
\nO.J.: Made In America and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story\n
20 years later and we’re still infatuated with O.J. Simpson and the horrific tragedy of his wife’s murder. There has always been more than meets the eye with Simpson. Son of a closeted gay man whose turn to masculinity took on fevered importance. Football star—no, idol—who transcended race with his stately afro and withered turn at one film after another. The story is prototypically American: He had the whole wide world in his hands, then it came crashing down. The rotten glove, still blood-spattered. The brilliant defense. The near incompetent prosecution, all but giving away a conviction. The verdict, to the bafflement of us all, came back “not guilty.” But there was even more to unpack. And these two brilliant dramas took turns giving us one side and then another. His obsession with Nicole was both small and large. Still, the man is obscured to us and we have no idea who he is. Maybe we don’t know who anyone is.
The robots figure it out, eventually. Their masters are cruel and faithless. But it is their agency that, robbed from them, they are furious about. You must wonder why? The show acts as a lightning rod for us amateur web sleuths. There are literally thousands of theories floating out there. Are these just narratives previously installed or are they practicing real decision-making? The thinly veiled metaphor is that they are not. No one is. Put another way, free will works in innumerable, and— not only that—completely confusing ways. All our decisions are, in a way, predetermined and made in a determined universe. In a year when people seemed to make decisions that seemed to be awful, yet determined, these ideas need to be wrestled with now more than ever.
Karan Mahajan's "The Association Of Small Bombs"
The Books That Moved Us
\nColson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad\n
Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad won 2016’s National Book Award for fiction. It was well deserved. He has been exploring the manifestations of racial indifference for many years, but it was the surreality of this book, combined with his penetrating insight and slick humor that won us all over. Not only does the Underground Railroad become a literal thing, but the ride becomes its own kind savage look into the hearts of mankind.
‘What will we do with this question of race?’ is the centrality of the book. Escaping from it. Demanding it. Committing acts of inhumanity on its account. Is this all there is? The Underground Railroad answers that question through the only vehicle appropriate to it: indictment.
\nJane Mayer: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right\n
In practically all of Ridley Scott’s films, explorers find themselves in completely alien places confronted suddenly by a fragment of long-lost humanity: a giant head. Often, the entire film feels set up to confront this moment. Dealing with the trenches dug by some previous set of bipedal hominid, it adds a sense of magic to the picture, but also a danger, as the intrepid realize they must not also deal with each other but some foreign ancient ancestor.
This feeling is what makes Jane Mayer’s Dark Money so good. The Koch Brothers, locked out of politics in 1980 after David Koch ran as the vice-presidential Libertarian candidate, decided simply to buy the Republican Party. They set about doing this by investing money at all levels of government everywhere, jerry-rigging state and city politicians to think tanks, news organizations, and other kinds of political middle-dom, creating an entire infrastructure in the process. But, at the core, it’s the megalomania of it all that shines through. In much the same way brilliant painters are obsessed with the “self-portrait,” the Koch’s have remade the political world in their own image. Staring at themselves must be great fun.
The book draws an intense corollary—that this election and this year is the culmination of these investments. Now, with republican control of the House, Senate, and the White House, and with the judiciary branch scuttling behind, we’re going to get to see the United States become the House of Koch.
\nKaran Mahajan: The Association of Small Bombs \n
What’s lost in the black-and-white narrative of us or nothing is the humanity that escapes when extraordinary acts of violence become mundane. There is America’s mass shooter. There is the Middle-Eastern world’s suicide bomber. Each one, whether sympathetic (they were lonely, quiet, a good student) or apoplectic (they were radicalized, a follower, a zealot) prove themselves meaningless. What in the world is driving people to see no other way than blanket violence? The pressure must be total; the world must seem grave. Karan Mahajan’s book, while fatalistic, peels the curtain back to explore the commonalities of calamity—that even if you survive the bomb you are changed from it. Cracks show in places that were once sure. In all of it, we are still startlingly human and very much the same. Even as the book hurries toward its climax, it never leaves the reader behind with the shells of empty rhetoric.
The Political Moments That Made Us Pay Attention
Donald Trump Wins the Presidency
Eight years ago we elected the first black president in the history of the United States. Monumental, obviously. He seemed like a unicorn: president of the Harvard Law Review; Hawaiian, with a half-white mother and a Kenyan father; a man, viewed shallowly, as in between two worlds. He walked both of them perfectly, leveraging the hopes of so many while balancing the skepticism of his most fervent detractors. He ran on “hope” and on “change,” and we believed him to wins over decent folks like Mitt Romney and John McCain. We had no idea—though we should have—that the backlash to his ascendency would be unforeseen, desperate, and massive. It’s the year 2016, and Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the most divisive election of our time.
Powered by a melody of constituents, Trump tapped into fear and anger, yes, but also into a hope. Namely, the hope of those adrift among declining union power, a slumping manufacturing sector, and a world that is now far more progressive than it was at the end of the Bush presidency. Those very sane people, their world around them changing without them, voted as they did, but so did white supremacists who viewed Trump as a clean break from modern conservatism. A break from idea-based conservatism to an ethnic one. The Boogey people are everyone else: immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the unpatriotic, the media, and the “elites.” A coalition of the forgotten has been joined by a coalition of the relentless. Nothing can sway this reckoning, it seems. Not news that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf. Not news that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Not anything, it seems, that would have swayed audiences of the past. In fact, as thousands of people tried to sway electors all around the country, more defected from Clinton than from Trump.
There’s so much to be afraid of with a Trump presidency. Bigots have been emboldened. Hate crimes are spiking all over the country. He joins a series of nationalist politicians all over the world. His conflicts of interest are numerous. His inability to deal diplomatically with other powers is seen as a great boon by his base and as stupidity by his detractors. The country is now split directly in half. California is considering its own #Calexit. Middle ground, bipartisan politics has been tossed out in favor of single-minded viewpoints that folks plan to carry to their logical conclusion.
Now, we wait.
Hillary Clinton Becomes First Female Candidate of a Major Party
When we speak about Hillary Clinton, so many of us now echo the machinations of her loss. From not spending enough time in the rust belt to her email scandals, we overlook the fact that her nomination was historic and decades in the making. She was the first woman presidential candidate for a major political party. She went from being the first lady to the secretary of state. Her qualifications were vast. An industry politician with a powerful foundation standing behind her, Clinton had been molding policy for years. She was shrewd, and years of political wrangling taught her how to make a deal. She was not afraid to go against a previous statement or idea, showing the intellectual rigor she kept herself beholden to.
For some, she was shrouded in secrecy and scandal. With wild conspiracy theories being cooked up to blight whatever she touched. Even women were unmoved by her, with this election showing that a large band of female democratic voters did not vote for her, even in the areas she won.
In short, the messaging machine erected to defeat her worked. And as person-after-person questioned her secrecy and loyalty, her best traits turned into dystopian narratives. Her quiet leadership turned to silent conniving. Her ability to view things from multiple points of view turned into being wishy-washy.
We now have no discernible way to view Hillary Clinton, who is, arguably, one of the greatest politicians of her time.
The Rise of Nationalism
History tends to repeat itself. 2016 was a year, then, of hard-line nationalists threatening to take over the western world. Brexit, the U.S. election, Erdogan’s coup, Duterte’s ascent to power, and others all show a worldwide shift toward leadership that values country and control over all else.
Duterte’s deadly campaign in the Philippines has been a literal bloodbath, as he targets drug pushers and users. It has been estimated so far that he’s sanctioned the murder of over 2000 people, and he has said, “You can expect 20,000 to 30,000 more.”
Farage in the U.K. made outlandish promises, buttressed by a nationalist sentiment opposing the Europen Union, along with fear—blaming immigrants for a host of problems in the U.K. What began as a protest vote, ended up a victory for the hardliners, as regret swept the country the next day and the British pound began to be battered by insecurity.
Terror campaigns in France have the French retreating under the warm blanket of nationalist security. The rest of the west are facing similar attacks, delegitimizing the strength of their individual democracies.
We're now confronted by the slippery slope into hard line politics. Hate crimes have gone up considerably in the west. People are moving toward intolerance at warp speeds. Will it be stopped? Only the future can answer that question. Though, if it’s anything like the past, the answer is not without tolerance getting its day in court. We all must show up for that trial.