As The Urchins evolve, so too does what we want to recognise. This year, for what would be our seventh annual Urchie Awards, we are excited to announce a re-imagined awards that highlight notable things from the past year that align with our commitment to news, the arts, and culture. While 2015 left a bit to be desired across artistic mediums, it was a hugely significant year for global social and political movements. At times, those movements and the arts crossed paths in beautiful, powerful ways. Below are our picks for the events, people, and art that most significantly contributed to shaping our world.
Publication of the Year
The Atlantic has constantly evolved over its 159 year history to be at the forefront of journalism, moving from a solely print publication to a dynamic web presence, from monthly to ten times yearly magazines, and from paid access to free. In the past year they consistently produced well-written long form articles essential to both instigating and informing public discourse around critical political, social, and cultural issues. As things like the Black Lives Matter movement and the European refugee crisis unfolded, The Atlantic provided forward-thinking perspectives and in-depth analysis all while maintaining an eloquent writing style. As such, The Atlantic has become an important resource for those seeking to be engaged persons.
The Atlantic has also been instrumental in helping long form journalism flourish and gain a significant and successful place in modern media, a real feat considering the internet age reader’s ever-dwindling attention span.
We have to note, however, that this award is specifically being granted for The Atlantic’s past year of work. This distinction must be made due to a change in their content over the past few months to titles that read like clickbait for the educated elite instead of the important pieces they’re capable of. Internet journalism has a tendency towards dumbed down share-fodder, and we sincerely hope the The Atlantic doesn’t go the way of valuing high article turnover over quality content.
We are also disappointed in The Atlantic’s mainstream media-aligned coverage of the US presidential campaign thus far, as they seem to be towing the Democratic party line and devoting the majority of their Democratic coverage to Hillary Clinton, treating her eventual candidacy as a foregone conclusion. This is a particular travesty given the essential discourse Bernie Sanders is adding to American politics.
Global Issue of the Year
The Refugee Crisis
1.2 million refugees have entered Europe since January 2015, 48%of them fleeing war-torn Syria. This compares with 280,000 refugee and migrant arrivals in all of 2014. And escaping the dangers at home doesn’t mean they’re safe. Last year alone a reported 3,770 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Those figures also refer only to those entering Europe. An additional 4 million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.
The effects of this mass migration on the refugees’ home countries, the countries to which they are fleeing, the people of both places, and the migrants themselves will forever change our world. Cultures and politics will be altered and how European countries decide to handle this crisis will be hugely influential in the evolution of Europe. This crisis affects an enormous number of people with immediacy and urgency and, from an American standpoint, is one of the most underreported of our time.
Domestic Issue of the Year
Black Lives Matter/Flint Water Crisis
The black community has known far too much about police brutality for a long, long time, but it wasn’t until 2015 that several high profile cases raised the issue to a national level. The proliferation of smartphones and the pervasiveness of media in our daily lives has allowed “the other side” to at last be heard. To further illustrate the inequalities many African Americans continue to face, the Flint Water Crisis showcased the systemic prejudices and inequalities they live with on a daily basis. We believe the #BlackLivesMatter Movement will continue to transcend racial barriers through 2016 and compel others to demand change. This is the beginning of a revolution that has been a long time coming. (And revolutions, we will note, are hard to come by in our complacent American society.)
Artistic Statement of the Year
Beyoncé’s Formation song, video, and Super Bowl performance
We imagine that Beyoncé has a lot of people telling her to just be a pop star. Don’t be political. Don’t be controversial. Instead of listening to them, she made this song, wherein she sings:
My daddy Alabama, mama Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama
I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros
I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils
Then she made the accompanying video where she evokes Katrina, Ferguson, police brutality, slavery, and so much more. Then she performed it at the Super Bowl, where she and her dancers’ choreography included the iconic Black Power raised fist.
All this took place over the course of a week or so, making it feel more immediate, like a statement should. But behind the scenes Beyoncé has also been putting her money and her body where her voice is. Back in 2013, after Trayvon Martin’s death and the not guilty verdict for his murderer that arguably planted the seeds of the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé and Jay Z attended a rally for him in New York City. Last year, they reportedly anonymously donated tens of thousands of dollars to help Jay Z & Beyoncé Reportedly Helped Anonymously Bail Out Protesters in Baltimore, Ferguson in Baltimore and Ferguson. And last month they donated $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter. Formation, in all its iterations, is Beyoncé’s artistic statement to accompany an ethos she lives every day, an anthem and so much more.
Artist of the Year
Kendrick Lamar is steadily becoming a household name, and not just in houses that blast hip hop. It’s the direct result of the kind of year Lamar has had: on his way to a pop ubiquity propelled almost entirely by his artistry, not an easy feat considering the two rap rivals with whom he is in direct competition, Kanye West and Drake, both take advantage of the popularity of their persona to bolster the popularity of their music, and both do so with success.
Lamar, however, admittedly “not very good at [social media],” prefers to correlate his recent success with hard work almost exclusively. (Lamar does have an official Twitter account, but it’s the kind that seems to be run by his PR team and not himself.) It’s not a hard thing to believe; the evidence is there in the form of To Pimp a Butterfly, a groundbreaking hip hop pastiche that, at times, feels more like immersive theatre than a hip hop LP. This developing sound, which blends jazz and funk sensibilities with the multi-narrative approach that brought him initial success on his previous album good kid, m.A.A.d city, came with the inherent risk of being too out there for fans of more commercial hip hop; instead, his collaborations with jazz musician Kamasi Washington, r&b vocalists Bilal and Anna Wise, and his trusted production team at Top Dawg Entertainment engineered a work of art that transcended expectations, won Grammys, and raised the bar just like he promised he would.
Political Artist of the Year
Chinese political dissident artist Ai Weiwei is currently exhibiting at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Leading up to the exhibit, he placed a bulk order from Lego to construct one of his major installations. But Lego refused the order, saying they ‘cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.’ The timing of their refusal, however, suspiciously coincides with the toymaker’s expansion of their presence in China. According to The Guardian, the company recently reported that Asia provided their highest regional growth rate as the US market slowed.
Following a huge outpouring of public support and offers to donate Lego blocks, Ai Weiwei took to Instagram, posting, ‘In response to Lego’s refusal and the overwhelming public response, Ai Weiwei has now decided to make a new work to defend freedom of speech and “political art”. Ai Weiwei Studio will announce the project description and Lego collection points in different cities.’
In the end, Ai Weiwei was not only able to successfully create his exhibit, but also continue his mission as an artist committed to furthering essential political discourse.
Artist to Watch
From rags to riches to redefining the face of American ballet, Misty Copeland literally and figuratively stole the spotlight in 2015. And by “stole” we mean she busted her ass to overcome centuries-old racial barriers and unbelievable financial obstacles to become the first African American female Principal with the American Ballet Theatre. For as long as anyone can remember, ballet has been defined by pale, waifish dancers floating weightlessly across the stage, especially in the title role of Odette/Odile, a princess transformed into a white swan, in Tchaikovsky’s classic Swan Lake. When Misty began her ballet career, she was thirteen years old living in a motel with her mother and five siblings. Her natural talent lead her to professional performances within a year. In 2012 she performed the title role in Firebird, and in 2014 she danced as “Clara” in The Nutcracker. But in 2015 she made national news with her promotion to Principal with the American Ballet Theatre. She now hopes to encourage other “misfits” – muscular women, women of color, and other underrepresented dancers – to follow their dreams of becoming professional ballerinas.
Exemplary Human Being
It is a mistake on our part, the Urchin Awards committee, that Bernie Sanders was not named Exemplary Human Being many years ago, as Bernie Sanders the Presidential Candidate is the same man as the influential Vermont Senator and mayor of Burlington, VT. But it wasn’t until this train wreck of a campaign season that the Democratic-Socialist became a household name and made the most important political issues of today a national conversation: income and wealth inequality, the need for campaign finance reform, and the moral obligation we all share to battling climate change. These issues have been boiling to a head over the last decade and at last there is a presidential candidate with a long history of fighting for these causes running for office. Bernie is feared, naturally, by the establishment: major news outlets, the Democratic National Committee, and Wall Street. He has been stymied at every turn, but his message is strong enough to overcome all of this and attract tens of thousands to his speaking engagements, rally volunteers, and raise incredible sums of money from small donations rather than the SuperPACS that fund every other candidate’s campaign. If nothing else, Bernie Sanders has reshaped the conversation of the Democratic presidential campaign and the people will demand progressive issues be priorities in the general election.
Hope for the Future
Post-presidency Barack Obama
President Obama started the last year of his presidency by saying, ‘I’m going to leave it all out on the field. Every battle I’ve had with Congress over the last five years has been uphill, and we keep on surprising you by getting stuff done. And I plan on doing everything I can with every minute of every day that I have left as president to deliver on behalf of the American people.’ And with the past seven years as evidence, he is not messing around.
In The Nation He Built, Michael Grunwald ‘review[s]…Barack Obama’s domestic policy legacy—and the changes he made while nobody was paying attention.’
Some brief highlights from Grunwald’s opus (though we highly encourage reading the entire fascinating piece) include the following:
‘Despite a Congress that attempted to block his every effort, Obama managed to enact massive student loan reforms, stop the Keystone XL pipeline, crack down on exploitative for-product colleges, double fuel-efficiency standards for cars, extend Medicare’s long-term solvency by 13 years, and ensure medical coverage for around 18 million uninsured Americans.
Thanks to Obamacare, insurers can’t deny cover due to pre-existing conditions and there are no longer co-payments for quit-smoking programs, birth control pills, certain cancer screenings and other preventive care.
Gay Americans can now get married and serve openly in the military, Federal contractors can no longer discriminate against gays, and women can now serve in combat.
Solar energy installations are up nearly 2,000 percent. Behind the scenes, Obama quietly pushed through a series of lower-profile efficiency mandates for appliances.Just one of those rules, for commercial air conditioners, will singlehandedly reduce US energy use by 1 percent.
His Climate Action Plan aims to eliminate 6 billion metric tons of carbon through 2030. His carbon rule for power plants alone aims to slash power-sector emissions by 32 percent. An energy efficiency effort known as ‘appliance and equipment standards’ is on track to slash 3 billion tons of emissions by 2030 – the equivalent of taking every car off America’s roads for two years, or shutting down every power plant for a year and a half.’
When the Republicans took the Senate in 2015, Obama told his staffers to take a minute to mope and then get back to work, saying, ‘We still run the largest organization on the planet, with the largest capacity to do good.’
And that is the crux of Obama as a president and as a person. He recognises that things must change and is committed to creating a better, more just world through tangible action. At only 54 years old, his capacity to continue impacting the world for many years to come is massive. We cannot wait to see how he chooses to do so come next year.
Comic Relief Award
Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live seems to be turning a corner for the better, which is saying a lot considering the 41-year-and-counting comedy institution had been pronounced all but dead (and certainly unfunny) ever since head writer Tina Fey left her post back in 2006. But SNL has recently started to turn out smarter and edgier comedy. Sure, the show is still very much hit-and-miss (conducive, it would seem, to its live format), but some of this past year’s sketches and skits were not only funny to watch but daring. Be it social commentary (“The Day Beyonce Turned Black“), topical humour (“Hillary Campaign Ad“), or straightforward parody (“Calvin Klein Ad“), it’s refreshing that such a longstanding institution still deems it important to comment on issues in its own capacity.