Let’s face it: 2015 was a tough year for those of us with racial justice on our minds. We had a lot to make us weary. Fortunately, this year also brought beautiful and confrontational art, hilarious viral videos and so much more to help us heal and make sense of the ever-changing world. We reached out to a bunch of creators and changemakers to find out what music, films, TV shows, viral videos, literature and art kept them going. Here’s what they said:
Co-founder, Black Lives Matter
Founder, Dignity and Power Now
Director of truth and reinvestment, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
ART + ACTION
1. Foremost has developed the most gorgeous pieces for the BLM movement. Check him out on Instagram at @4oremost.
2. Black Lives Matter’s #BLM247 is an amazing photography project on Instagram led by art and cultural coordinator Tanya Bernard.
3. I give Blackout Collective props for bearing their chests during the national #SayHerName action on May 21.
— BlackOUT Collective (@blackoutcollect) May 21, 2015
1. Empire was a favorite because I just need to watch ratchet TV that references the Black Lives Matter movement on like every episode!
2. I loved anything from Shondaland, because crying and being in shock every week is necessary for my soul.
1. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okora was a favorite book because I was only reading news articles when my partner, Janaya, bought if for me. It reminded [me] that Black girl magic is everywhere.
1. Drake’s “Hotline Bling” is fun, catchy and the video is brilliant! Emo light-skinned brotha doing meregue? Come on!
2. But You Cain’t Use My Phone was a favorite because anything Erykah Badu does is glorious.
Co-founder + guitarist, The Kominas
1. “Flag Shopping” by Himanshu “Heems” Suri really captured the fear that has never really left me or other brown folk ever since 9/11. I really admire his honesty in this track.
2. Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo and Youth is vastly underrated in my opinion. At more than eight minutes, the second track, “Mural,” is an epic.
3. I enjoyed Horsepowar’s “Queen.” She’s a really exciting young rapper who is doing big things.
1. Saraswathi Jones is a fierce, badass, sister who co-organized Hindie Rock Fest.
2. Tanzila Ahmed and Zahra Noorbaksh were favorites because their ”Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” podcast was an essential anti-bias tool.
Co-founder + drummer, The Roots
Bandleader The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Collaborator + drummer, Black Messiah by D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Co-executive producer, Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
1. I feel really cheesy about artists that hawk their own projects, but I gotta’ say this: Anytime I work with D’Angelo, it’s basically just a fan working with the best seat in the house. Black Messiah* was 14 years in the making. [D’Angelo] played me an idea for a demo in 2000, on the last day of the “Voodoo” tour. I played on “Really Love” back in 2004. I think the last thing I played on was “Back To the Future (Part II),” in 2014. It was a beautiful, torturous process and the funkiest lil’-boy-that-cried-D’Angelo game I ever played.
2. Multi-Love by Unknown Mortal Orchestra is part “album-I-wish-I-thought-to-create” tied with “where-I-wish-Prince’s-head-was-in-2015.” It’s a very satisfying album.
3. Jazmine Sullivan is as amazing now as an adult as she was when I first heard her sing as a 10-year-old. With Reality Show she has delivered on the promise of making thought-provoking soul.
4. Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable was a pleasant surprise of 2015.
5. I’m closing out with soundtrack for Hamilton. Yup, ringing my own bell again.
I believe TV is as great now as it’s ever been. Here are my favorite shows of 2015:
2. The Last Man on Earth
3. The Good Wife
5. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
7. The Muppets
8. Jessica Jones
9. Fresh Off the Boat
10. Being Mary Jane
11. Drunk History
12. Black Jesus
13. The Jim Gaffigan Show
14. Mr. Robot
15. House of Cards
18. Better Call Saul
19. Mike Tyson Mysteries
1. Chicago has produced some young rappers who have been positively popping off in the face of injustice like Chance the Rapper, but the city’s teenage DIY group Da Projeckts is playin’ on a board all their own. They’re like De La Soul 2.0 with a shot of radical politics. Check out “Just Live.” Gender nonconforming member Sol Patches addresses systemic violence and keepin’ ya head up in the face of it.
2. There’s only so much you can let Adele make you cry in English before you have to stop your iTunes and download Karen Rodriguez’s bilingual “Hello” cover so you can cry in Spanglish.
1. After the long day of labor exploitation and state-sanctioned violence you would think the last thing you want to do is come home and watch a show reifying the government. But then God made Quantico! It’s like The Breakfast Club met a Tom Clancy novel with a bucket of pigment thrown on it. The ridiculously normatively attractive cast is led by Priyanka Chopra, a gorgeous Bollywood star who younger, gay, brown me would have looked up to as a gay icon.
2. Now, let’s be real, the world is effed up because of straight White men. Jessica Jones is well aware of this and serves up 13 episodes on Netflix where women and people of color save the day. Seriously, do yourself a favor and do not leave your house until you’ve watched every episode.
Genius pianist + composer, All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller
Composer, Selma original score + soundtrack
Artistic director for jazz, The Kennedy Center
1. Okwui Enwezor, who curates the Venice Biennale, was one of my favorites in 2015. He’s always been a game-changer, but the  biennale went all the way in inviting a large cast of contemporary African-American artists including Adrian Piper, Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon.
2. Composer/drummer Tyshawn Sorey played one of the most spellbinding sets of music I have ever heard at the Village Vanguard in November. He is singular artist who demonstrates how music unfolds like a painting.
1. I submit to you A Brief History of Seven Killings by Jamaican writer Marlon James. It won the biggest literary prize in the world, The Man Booker, but I’m worried that it’s not getting the POC love it deserves. Admittedly, this book is somewhat difficult to read—it’s narrated almost entirely in urban Jamaican vernacular by a huge cast of characters and it is sad and graphically violent. But it’s also witty, amazing and hilarious.
2. Continuing with the Caribbean theme is The Star Side of Bird Hill, a coming-of-age story by Naomi Jackson set in Barbados and Brooklyn. It is sad, funny and magically delicious.
3. I was really impressed by Eula Biss’ New York Times essay about Whiteness, ”White Debt.”
1. Black Jesus seems wrong, but it was so right. Praise it.
2. I don’t think black-ish gets the Black love it deserves because it airs opposite Empire. One great black-ish moment: During the Season 2 premiere, “The Word,” the Black men in ‘Dre’s office brainstorm a list of non-Black people permitted to say “nigga.” I believe this was the first and last time Terror Squad will be referenced on a network show.
3. A third favorite was HBO’s masterpiece Getting On because, Niecey. Nash. Niecey Nash!
1. One great consequence of Internet video is artistic peoples of color like Superman Drawls can let their freak flag fly.
2. I am not on Twitter, but Erykah Badu’s ”apology” to Iggy Azalea reminded me of why Erykah is my favorite live performer, but also my _________. I don’t think they’ve come up with the noun yet for what Erykah means to me.
3. Anthony Hamilton and the Hamiltones’ “Hotline Bling” cover turns out to be an essay from how far hip-hop music has come from something recognizably “Black.” But instead of a rebuke to contemporary hip-hop and the Drake moment, it suggests that artistic Blackness is a big, generous, joyful tent.
Performance artist + comedian + writer, The Wong Street Journal
ART + ACTION
1. George Takei’s legacy project, Allegiance, breaks no conventions of the American musical except that it features lots of Asian-American performers on a Broadway stage and none of them are prostitutes. “Allegiance” tells the story of a heinous piece of American history—Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. This is something that should remind you of the current U.S. treatment of Syrian refugees.
1. The Love & Hip Hop shows are like the poor man’s Empire except you can actually see the racial justice movement move rapidly in reverse when you watch it. It’s like meta performance art with no productive social commentary. The characters desperately instigate drama to prolong the relevance they would not have if not for the show itself.
2. Shark Tank is theater, it’s capitalism, it’s all sorts of subtext about how you can be a really rich American once you move your manufacturing out of the U.S. and into China.
U.S. opinion editor, The Guardian
1. Missy Elliot’s ”WTF“ because, Missy. Elliot. New. Song. It was my reward to myself for getting all of my work done.
2. I honestly think Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” is the feel-good song of the year. It is, at least, one that makes me feel better about my own near-murderous rages. The Vulture Miss Piggy video remix is also not to be missed.
Culture reporter + blogger, Colorlines
1. I cannot stop listening to this Travi$ Scott’s ”Antidote.” The beat and melody are so subtly entrancing. Count this as the year that Sameer Rao became a convert to the Church of the Singing Rapper.
2. A lot of people slept on Boots’ Aquaria, and I think critical consensus leaned towards, “He’s talented, but this is too frenetic.” But I like records that smack you in the face. I hope that Boots gets his due in 2016.
3. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is an uncontroversial pick for best album, but the concepts and frenetic production buoy some of K-Dot’s best lyrics and mark significant growth for a Gatling-gun rapper. It’s also the only 2015 album I heard that engages with the changing social and racial justice climate while actually having new things to say.
1. I loved the way Sacha Jenkins explored the intersection of fashion, race, class and hip-hop in Fresh Dressed (and our expletive-filled interview).
2. I saw myself in Dope, with the three protagonists of color trying to start a band and deal with everyday high-school bullshit, and I loved watching them reckon with their own egos, academic challenges and teen angst. Plus, that soundtrack was perfect repeat-spin material.
3. With Creed, director Ryan Coogler showed his serious knack for telling even the most-traveled of stories with a fresh eye and tons of cinematic grace. And Adonis Creed was the best performance Michael B. Jordan has offered yet.
1. Disgruntled kept my attention well after I reviewed it and interviewed its author, Asali Solomon, for a Philadelphia weekly paper. The Philly-based book reconcieves places of immense culture shock and trauma with generous amounts of irony and dark humor and it brings the hidden lives of Black people in prestigious institutions to light without making it seem extraordinary.
2. Wesley Morris’ Grantland review of Ted 2, “Dumber Than Your Average Bear” showed me how to link Seth MacFarlane’s braggadocio and caustic trolling with anti-Blackness and state violence. It’s an important explainer about how even the most benign of gross-out comedies can have a seriously sinister foundation that disavows humanity.
3. Dee Barnes’ first Gawker piece, “Here’s What’s Missing From ‘Straight Outta Compton’: Me and the Other Women Dr. Dre Beat Up,“ was a brick to the gut just as the NWA biopic broke records. Dr. Dre eventually apologized for brutalizing Barnes, which didn’t seem possible even a year ago.
RACHEL KAADZI GANSAH
1. M Train was a favorite because Patti Smith writes with such weight and grace. It reads like a blues song with bits of Rimbaud.
2. The Starside of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson is a wonder. It’s raw with honesty about how trying but beautiful it is to come of age as a young Black immigrant girl.
3. Like everyone else I was blown away by Claudia Rankine’s”The Meaning of Serena Williams,” in the New York Times magazine.
4. I think Jenny Zhang’s Buzzfeed essay “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” was a fusillade of smarts and heart.
1. Noah Davis, who passed away this summer at 32, was one of the most profound painters that this generation will ever see. He was the youngest artist in 30 Americans a major show featuring artists such as Kara Walker. He had his own museum, The Underground Museum, and he was a darling of all the curators at the big museums in Los Angeles. Noah loomed so large as a creator because his work was so quiet. He was the artist everyone wants to be.
2. Erykah Badu is just the goddess. She doesn’t give a fuck and yet she so deeply does. She reminds me of my mother, and that is always a massive compliment because my mother has forever done her own thing and stayed fabulously Southern while doing it. Plus, Badu’s cover of “Hotline Bling” should run for president.
1. Helado Negro’s Young, Latin and Proud is all Hector Lavoe-d out, but Helado sings over beats. I listen to it every night.
2. Get Away by The Internet was a favorite because Syd’s seductive little whisper reminds me of Aaliyah’s voice but over Portishead type tunes that bang just bit harder and jazzier. I think that if we remember OFWGKTA for anything, it will be for giving us Frank Ocean and Syd the Kyd.
3. ”How Much a Dollar Cost” by Kendrick Lamar was a favorite because he is so young to be cloaked in such an older man’s wisdom. Kendrick makes me proud. He gives me hope. I’m rooting for him. I also think he checkmated a ton of people creatively this year.
1. The Kurt Kobain documentary Montage of Heck had sequences of pure sound, animation and visuals that I want to finesse in my own work. It’s not just about language or story, it was a state of being for the audience.
2. In Transit, which was directed by Albert Maysles, Lynne True, David Usui, Nelson Walker and Benjamin Wu, was the only movie I watched this year where I both laughed and cried several times. It’s a moving account of different people’s stories as they travel across America on a train.
ART + ACTIVISM
1. “The Star,“ Jun Hao Ong’s site-specific installation made of LED light tubes looks like it’s stuck inside a concrete parking structure. It speaks volumes on our modern civilization where the human spirit is held captive.
2. I’m amazed by how Ai Wei Wei is able to bring so many people together across the world with pieces like his latest Lego installation.
3. Ovarian Psycos are a group of Latina bike riders from East L.A. Some call them a gang, but I really respected them for taking a stand against machismo and modern misogyny this year. The logo they have on their black bandanas is a pair of ovaries.
1. I read “Beauty of the Beast,” a profile of Marshawn Lynch by Jan Hubbard for American Way, after I went to the first NFL football game in my life, the Buffalo Bills home opener. It was a great dissection of Lynch, one of the more multi-faceted players in the NFL, and it gave insight into the beast that is American football.
2. “White Supremacy and the Foreign Investment Debate” by Henry Yu in The Mainlander blew my mind in terms of how our society is structured to maintain power within the hands of a select few.
MAORI KARMAEL HOLMES
Founder, BlackStar Film Festival
1. This was a tough year, so I super needed“Good Goodbye” by Liane La Havas.
2. I’m moved to tears with every listen to Nai Palm’s lyrics and range on Hiatus Kaiyote’s Choose Your Weapon.
3. The instrumentation and meditative quality of Thundercat’s The Beyond/ Where the Giants Roam made me so excited for everything happening in the Southern California scene right now.
1. Aside from the work we featured at the BlackStar Film Festival, I really appreciated the generational tug of While We’re Young.
2. Iris is a masterful documentary by the late Albert Maysles about an amazing figure of style and joie de vivre. I saw this at a rough moment and decided to live life to the fullest and follow my heart’s interest, especially related to the arts. Kinda cheesy, I know.
1. I am not-so-secretly obsessed with all things related to home and design. The New Bohemians: Cool and Collected Homes by Justina Blakeney gave me endless ideas.
2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is incredible and I’m sure it’s gonna be on everyone’s list.
3. In these isolating times, I find the ideal of intentional community inspiring. That’s why I loved “8 Adults, 3 Kids” by Jillian Dunham in New York Magazine.
Co-founder, Conflux Magazine
ART + ACTIVISM
1. “Goodness,” by TextaQueen was a favorite because in my alternate childhood, I would be alone and coloring and Texta would swoop down, teach me how to draw, show me that loving myself was awesome and then fly away on a magical rainbow.
2. The G Word, because it’s a storytelling platform that’s out to tell the collective story on gender. You’ll want to have a big group hug after reading through a few stories—and then go out and do something about gender inequality.
1. Drake’s “Hotline Bling“ is so addictive in spite of the fact that it’s obnoxiously sexist.
2. You can’t call Secretly Susan just an album. It’s a trip into the quirky “banal pastel” dreamscape that is Sui Zhen’s imagination.
1. “Unmournable Bodies,” Teju Cole’s New Yorker essay published after the Charlie Hebdo attack was clear-eyed and honest about the West v. The Rest situation.
2. Also in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about mass shootings, “Thresholds of Violence,” goes deep into the science of groupthink. We put a premium on individual identity—especially in America—but when we look at ourselves as components of a group, trends in our actions can make a lot more sense.
Co-host, The Sunday Shutdown Show on LiveHipHopDaily.tv
1. Blastmater KRS-One’s latest album, Now Hear This, was a pleasant surprise that proved to be timely in the topics it dealt with and it showed that the “old school” still got it!
2. The production on The Weeknd’s “Tell Your Friends” was critical.
3. If you’re not up on Rashad, stop whatever you are doing and listen to The Quiet Loud; it’s enjoyable from beginning to end.
1. Inside Out not just the best animated movie to hit in 2015, but one of the best of any type for this year. Had a grown man tearing up near the end!
2. For all the negativity that Michael B. Jordan wrongly received for being cast in Fantastic Four he should be getting a ticker tape parade for Creed. Hands down, he is my favorite young actor today.
1. I loved the character development in Tangerine by Sean Baker. It’s an instant L.A. classic and it was shot with an iPhone!
2. Did you see Kahlil Joseph’s stunning 15-minute short Double Conscience at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles? You should have.
Drummer, The Kominas
1.“Borders” was a favorite because who besides M.I.A. so bluntly questioned you about your fucked up prejudices?
2. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was the best free jazz record of 2015.
1. Instead of pointing to a specific article, I’ll tap Ari Berman’s continual coverage of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in the Nation. He’s exposing a civil rights crisis half a century in progress.
2. Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Fire Next Time, this time.
1. The Epic by Kamasi Washington was a beautiful progression of jazz. It’s Afrofuturistic and listening to it makes me feel like I’m floating.
2. Hiatus Kaiyote’s Choose Your Weapon was nu-/future-/electro-soul at its best.
3. I have to give a shout out to A Tribe Called Quest, which released the 25th anniversary edition of People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. That album changed my 15-year-old life. And the title? Can you imagine a mainstream hip-hop group naming their album anything like this in 2015? Also, there were a couple of good remixes.
1. Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick was a favorite. As a woman who has chosen to be child-free, I enjoyed reading about the thought process that leads women to make choices that are not normative, even in 2015. Bollick’s account is engaging and made more interesting by the historical figures with which she intertwines her personal story.
1. I love that Mara Brock Akil deepened and complicated the portrayal of modern Black womanhood vis a vis Being Mary Jane. I love that the character Mary Jane Paul is allowed to experience a varied range of human emotions. I also really appreciate the ways in which the show deals with the good, bad, and ugly of “Blackness.”
2. Camille Brown’s work is always beautifully executed, emotionally intelligent, socio-politically astute and thought provoking. Her most recent work, BLACK GIRL: linguistic play,was all of those things and brought me to tears.
Leadership Action Network director, Race Forward
1. Kai Barrow pretty much spent the whole year killing it on the creative, justice-oriented art and performance front through her collaborative efforts with Gallery of the Streets. She centered the experience of Black women in New Orleans with an unapologetically Black feminist analysis and aesthetic that burned with beauty.
2. Osa Atoe is best known for her amazing Black punk zine Shotgun Seamstress. In 2015 she launched Pottery by Osa. It’s dope to watch someone develop from one anesthetic to another while consistently lifting up the right to be self determined.
1. ”That’s My Best Friend” by Tokyo Vanity is a tribute to being (and loving) a fat, Black, loud woman who gives absolutely no fucks and can get it anytime, any place, without even batting a fake eyelash.
2. “Te Sirvo De Abrigo” was a favorite because Ivy Queen destroys myths about women of a certain age losing their sex appeal and proves that reggaeton is alive and kicking in several languages and various tempos.
1. Montage of Heck was incredible. I love Kurt Kobain’s work, but the creativity in the documentary would engage even a non-fan.
2. I file Shawn Peters’ film installation The Art of Dying Young under joy and pain. It is the most beautiful celebration of something that we usually have in our periphery.
3. Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives had me on nostalgia alone.
4. Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck was a favorite. It made me pine for a return of that Nola Darling kind of girl power.
1. Fred Moten’s The Little Edges was mental gymnastics. It was like architecture, art, activism and beauty fashioned from intense prose.
2. Kiese Laymon’s Guardian essay, “Black churches taught us to forgive white people. We learned to shame ourselves” was a reality check after the Charleston church massacre.
3. Jason Reynolds’ prose in All American Boys and When I Was Greatest is so natural and engrossing. His work gives Black boys and their stories and gives them depth and sweetness during a time where they are depicted as depraved so that the truly depraved can justify their mistreatment.
4. For joy, I read anything on Very Smart Brothas.
Administrative assistant to the executive office, Race Forward
1. Gabrielle Tesfaye’s pieces are so layered and reflective of what Black women carry with them daily. “Chakra War Paint” was my 2015 favorite.
2. The Black Woman Confessions Tumblr was a favorite because, community. That’s all I can say.
3. “Living Room Protests” by Suri and Staceyann Chin were my favorites because I love this mother-daughter duo.. They have so much passion!
1. ”Loner“ by Kali Uchis is for those days that you want someone to just be a loner with you.
2. “That’s My Best Friend“ by Tokyo Vanity was a favorite because we need more songs that hype up our friends the way this one does.
3. “Blood” by Lianne La Havas makes me feel like I’m listening to Diana Ross during her solo career.
Author, The Big Payback
Executive producer + co-writer, The Breaks
1. The Breaks, the VH1 movie based on my book The Big Payback, is filled with stellar performances from Antoine Harris, Mack Wilds, David Call and Wood Harris. But Afton Williamson, the actress who plays the heroine, Nikki deserves special mention. Williamson takes a star turn that combines the command and intensity of Viola Davis with the kickassness of Uma Thurman.
2. The Man in the High Castle is a terrifying look at an alternate American history wherein Germany and Japan have won World War II and split the United States between them, though many viewers might wonder whether present-day America is much different for people of color than in this fictitious fascist world.
1. If J. Dilla coaxed ghosts from musical machines, Hiatus Kaiyote are the haunted. Choose Your Weapon is future soul—a blend of classic songwriting with radical rhythms.
2. Chihei Hatakeyama and Frederico Durand’s Magical Imaginary Child features stark, ambient, looped soundscapes. It’s Brian Eno for the hip-hop generation.
1. Wendy S. Walters’ surreal essays in Multiply/Divide teeter between fact and fiction and explore the American spaces between men and women, Black and White. The book has already made a umber of 2015 best-of lists; since Walters is my lovely wife, she makes the top of mine.
2. Allen Klein, the new biography by Fred Goodman, humanizes and redeems the controversial figure in rock history—the man who made Sam Cooke the first Black artist to control his masters; who propelled the Rolling Stones to fame; but yet found his pyrrhic victory in managing The Beatles as they split.
Director, ”In the Morning”
1. My favorite creator of 2015 is without a doubt Devin Allen. He’s an incredibly gifted photographer whose work became the definitive lens in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s murder. Everything we all felt could be seen in his work.
*Black Messiah was released on December 14, 2014; that’s close enough to 2015 in our opinion.
**Author Asali Solomon is the sister of Colorlines editorial director Akiba Solomon.