Future Aesthetics 2.0

The World Has Changed

Roberta Uno

In January I had the privilege to attend the Future Aesthetics 2.0 retreat, co-organized by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, director of Performing Arts of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and James Kass, executive director of Youth Speaks. Participating were twenty-three performance-based artists, Helicon Collaborative partners Holly Sidford and Alexis Frasz, and Cheryl Ikemiya from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which funded the project through its Fund for National Projects. The retreat “bookended” an effort I piloted at the Ford Foundation in 2003, in partnership with the La Peña Cultural Center. The 2003 Future Aesthetics project — an artists’ retreat, a major convening at the Ford Foundation, and a grantmaking pilot focused on hip-hop-based arts and generational leadership — was part of Imagine the Future: The Arts in a Changing America, a Ford Foundation initiative that examined how changing demographics are affecting aesthetics, cultural organizing, and communities. Future Aesthetics built on two prior funder briefings, initially supported by the Open Society Institute, in San Francisco and New York City, with the goal of bringing to light hip-hop activism. 1 Margaret Rea in the GIA Reader (Summer 2003) described hip-hop activism as “a framework for activism” in which “youth have embraced Hip Hop as a culturally relevant tool to address a broad range of community concerns: youth organizing, youth development, popular education, and civic injustices.” Whether hip-hop has failed its political and cultural potential is an open debate, but it is undeniable that it has permeated the marketplace, entered elite spaces, and in some places, particularly in the global context, persisted on the ground as a voice of dissent.

When I originally coined the term “Future Aesthetics,” it was to acknowledge a profound cultural and social impact, without restricting artists in their inquiries and discoveries. Bamuthi explained the impulse to renew the Future Aesthetics conversation: “James and I were among a slew of hip-hop generation creatives who entered the performing arts field with an understanding that our function was to do more than illuminate the value of hip-hop aesthetics and pedagogy, but to also advocate for the normalization of hip-hop elements in the administration of the field as well.” As young artists and organizers they had envisioned redefining the center of the arts-based nonprofit sector. He continued, “A decade later, feeling more comfortable in speaking ‘from’ the center rather than in opposition to it, it’s imperative to re-engage with both the processes and goals of cultural agitation vis-à-vis hip-hop aesthetics.”

Bamuthi and a visible number of his hip-hop generation artist peers — including Universes, Rennie Harris, Danny Hoch, Sarah Jones, Will Power, Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio, Daniel Beatty, Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, Kamilah Forbes, Holly Bass, and Teo Castellanos — have received commissions, productions, and presentations at prestigious venues nationally and abroad. Their presence on prominent award lists, including those of Creative Capital, the Guggenheim, United States Artists, and the Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards, is no longer novel but indicative of recognized artistic achievement and of a still larger number of talented artists meriting notice. Beyond the performance hall, a constellation of hip-hop generation peers now inhabits positions of institutional influence across the country. Some are now tenure track professors and lead forward-looking university programs, such as Jeff Chang, director of Stanford University’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, and Clyde Valentin, director of the Arts and Urbanism Initiative at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. Others, like Bamuthi, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Carlton Turner, executive director of Alternate Roots, have provided fresh leadership and relevance for national organizations with established histories. Some have strategically managed to scale up organizations they helped start, as has James Kass, at Youth Speaks, and Kamilah Forbes, artistic director of Hi-ARTS (formerly the Hip-Hop Theater Festival). And some are even entering arts philanthropy, like cultural critic Elizabeth Mendez Berry, program officer at the Surdna Foundation. Noting this paradigm shift, Bamuthi queried, “Have we fulfilled our function in the field or missed the mark altogether? Was our purpose to meld into the center and transition the lexicon and look of arts leadership, or is it more important to establish a different ‘center’ altogether, as was implicit in the promise of New WORLD Theater among others? These questions of leadership are particularly poignant within the discourse of hip-hop, a culture that thrives on energetic reciprocity, and demands within its cyclical nature a practice of anticipating what’s next, and facilitating a pathway for the future.” Kass concurred, succinctly summarizing, “The world has changed.”

Demographer Daniel T. Lichter writes about this changed world in what is being termed the nation’s “Third Demographic Transition”: “As racial and ethnic diversity unfolds from the bottom up — beginning with children — America may be challenged as never before.” 2 Today, more than half of Americans under five are people of color, and the US Census Bureau has projected that the shift to “majority minority” will occur in 2023 for children under eighteen, as has already happened with the general population in states like California and Texas and in cities like New York. And while this transformation is often viewed in terms of its challenges, the arts provide a unique opportunity to shift the paradigm to an asset-based perspective. The arts and culture sector is being transformed by a wider range of aesthetics and languages, innovative networks and modes of organizing, new technologies, increased interdisciplinarity, a proliferation of emergent arts and hybrid organizations, and an energized generation of arts visionaries. Cross-sector efforts like creative placemaking are promoting the relevance of the arts to other fields, like community and economic development, that have potential for deep impact within transforming communities. And leading voices in social movements point to the potential of new generational cultural leadership as America changes. Marielena Hincapié of the National Immigration Law Center emphasizes the role of arts and culture in reaching hearts and minds and changing how people interact with each other. She cites the immigrant “dreamers” as an example of young people “who are growing up bi-cultural, who are growing up in a more trans-national world, with a much more cosmopolitan view of the world.” 3 This asset-based perspective is not blind to the realities of postrecession austerity and fierce competition in the arts and culture field, nor to the pressing need for new strategies to address the viability of an ever-expanding nonprofit arts sector. But it offers a different lens through which to view cultural equity and how philanthropy might be responsive as we learn how this diversity is unfolding “from the bottom up.”

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Evidence of the changing world: March 2014, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Hi-ARTS, and partners produced a twentieth-anniversary concert of Nas’s album Illmatic, as part of the One Mic festival, the largest hip-hop program on its stages and throughout Washington, D.C. It was just the third hip-hop concert I’ve been to in my life — and a landmark event bringing together Nas and the National Symphony Orchestra. I remember my anxiety as a parent twenty years before, holding the Illmatic tape cassette in my hand with its glaring parental advisory label. I anguished whether I should buy it for my twelve-year-old, who had placed it at the top of his holiday wish list. My son is now thirty-two, a trans-Atlantic historian at the College of William and Mary, and at the concert I listen to him rapping along with the rest of the audience — and turning to tell me what lyrics have been revised to delete homophobic and other regressive commentary. Between numbers, Nas reflects on his personal evolution and context — how now, as a father of a daughter, he regards women, and what guns symbolized in the violence of his neighborhood then and now. His extraordinary artistic journey has been captured in the new documentary Time Illmatic by Eric Parker and One9, selected to open the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. I wonder if Nas at seventeen, when he made the Illmatic album, could have imagined his lyrics against the backdrop of a symphony orchestra in the nation’s capitol. His younger self’s inspired declaration “If I ruled the world, I’d free all my sons. Imagine that” took on new meaning, reverberating from America’s political center.

This imagining of a different world is the urgent call of the Future Aesthetics 2.0 project. As the demographic shift occurs, it not only challenges the ways in which philanthropy can be more responsive, but compels us to ask how it can be informed by models of art making and organizing located at the center of this change. For example, the Future Aesthetics 2.0 retreat drove the content discussion with creativity from the perspective of artists. It flipped the conventional arts meeting structure where artists are absent or marginally present at arts policy discussions. It transformed the normal philanthropy planning model where the people who will be most affected in the future, young people today, aren’t present in the room or are brought in only to perform and inspire. And instead of artists being present only as recipients of support, they were designers of the agenda and facilitators of the conversation. Thus, the issues covered — ranging from pathways for new artists, to hybrid roles of arts administrators/educators/artists, to development models, to scale productions — were also engaged through creative modes, including reading “The River,” an excerpt from Kindred by Octavia Butler, responding to writing prompts, conducting a peer oral history/interview, and asking questions that evoked open-ended responses. One round of questions was, “Looking back ten years, what advice would you have given your younger self? And conversely, what advice would that young self give to who you are now?” The answers to those questions gave greater insight into the arts ecology — its best practice and gaps — than any line of direct questioning or SurveyMonkey could have revealed.

Another question was, “What was your most memorable Future Aesthetics work and why?” Hearing artists name the performances they felt had been the most imaginative, influential, and artistically successful provided an invaluable description of genre aesthetics and standards of excellence. Works named included Rennie Harris’s Facing Mekka and March of the Antmen; Danny Hoch’s Some People, Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop, and Taking Over; Universes’ Slanguage and Ameriville, Sekou Sundiata’s Blessing the Boats, Cristal Chanelle Truscott’s Peaches, Lemon Andersen’s County of Kings, Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Word Becomes Flesh and Red, Black, and Green, Chinaka Hodge’s Mirrors in Every Corner, and Olive Dance Theatre’s Swift Solos and Brotherly Love. Collectively, the larger list gave evidence of an impressive expansion of the performance canon. Equally valuable was the trajectory of development of various play case studies. The artistic works wove a web among production spaces that range from those with close collaborative ties to others with no collaborative relationship, and that differ widely in budget size and audience profiles. The artists were revealed as interlocutors; their works embodied a larger dialogue that has yet to be fully realized between institutions of different scale.

Future Aesthetics 2.0 is also being convened at a time when Youth Speaks is poised to scale up its presence nationally; two California donors have stepped forward with $6 million dollars to help them launch a new multiyear initiative. Since 2002 Youth Speak’s Brave New Voices network and annual summit have grown from a half dozen loosely related organizations to now more than seventy-five affiliates nationally, reaching 250,000 youth participants annually. These young artists and their artist mentors come from urban centers, towns, suburbs, Native American reservations, and the Deep South, spanning forty-seven states. They were the subject of a seven-part HBO series that followed youth participants throughout the country to the Brave New Voices festival in Washington, D.C., on the eve of the last presidential election, creating a youth platform for expression of their concerns and ideas. Now Youth Speaks is strategically building a new generation of arts leadership that is connecting more deeply to communities by providing technical assistance, challenge grants, and artistic mentoring as they evolve an informal movement into a sustainable field. As Youth Speaks reimagines itself in a new national role, it is also questioning institutional categories. Is it a producing and presenting arts organization? Is it a network? Is it a service organization? Is it a regranting entity? In some ways, this moment recalls the pioneering efforts of Dance Theater Workshop and the creation of the National Performance Network, which resulted in standards for performing artists’ touring fees, and commissioning, touring, and presenting residencies among alternative and community-based spaces across the country. Youth Speaks begins with racial diversity deeply embedded from inception, an impressive youth constituency, an explicit social change vision, and artists, as opposed to spaces, that tie the work to communities. With the Future Aesthetics 2.0 project, they are reaching out to whom they consider the next generation of artists and cultural organizers, perhaps accelerating and reshaping leadership processes and the capacities of emerging artists. Of interest is how these evolving diverse artist networks, including Alternate Roots, the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, First Peoples Fund, the National Performance Network, and others, will connect and intersect their networks to achieve even greater geographic and demographic reach and impact.

Future Aesthetics 2.0 is an effort to advance understanding of the demographic sea change in those artists and communities on its leading edge. A full report is forthcoming from Helicon in the fall. A generation has emerged and is speaking.


  1. “Move The Crowd: The Emergence of Hip-Hop Activism,” a funder briefing initiated by Alvin Starks and organized by Jeff Chang, was supported by and took place at the Open Society Institute (now Open Society Foundations), New York City, on July 19, 2002. This was followed by a second funder briefing, “Constant Elevation: The Rise of Bay Area Hip Hop Activism,” organized by Jeff Chang and Amanda Berger, which occurred at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, on March 6, 2003, with support from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and the San Francisco Foundation, with the Northern California Grantmakers, the Tides Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation.
  2. Daniel T. Lichter, “Integration or Fragmentation? Racial Diversity and the American Future,” Demography 50 (2013): 359–91.
  3. Marielena Hincapié, “Migration,” seminar, Ideas and Issues Seminar, Ford Foundation, New York City, January 14, 2014.