Youths of the year
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
Darcy Miller and Ayra Matondang contributed reporting to this article.
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The Bigger Picture (London) — Whether producing, performing or writing music, taking photographs, writing articles and literature, protesting on the streets, or creating video content, young people across the globe did some beautiful, deeply meaningful, beneficial things this year. There were so many such youths that it was difficult to narrow them down to this shortlist; there were many who will go unrecognized in this list, but who deserve to be on here equally as much as anyone else included on the shortlist itself. Indeed, this is why we set up The Bigger Picture in the first place.
But we’ve done our best, and thus we present The Bigger Picture’s Youths of the Year.
Image courtesy of Wikiquotes.
16-year-old Greta Thunberg has become one of the most prominent young people in the world through her environmental activism. Since deciding to forego attending school in favour of standing outside the Swedish Riksdag, the country’s Parliament, in mid-2018, to pressure the government into honouring its commitments under the Paris Climate Change Accords, Thunberg has since inspired a massive #FridaysforFuture movement that spread like wildfire this year. It went from just herself standing alone outside the Riksdag to millions of students participating in thousands of strikes across hundreds of countries on several Fridays throughout the year. In September’s strikes, four million attended, the largest climate strike ever. Strikes in March and November also attracted well over a million.
Thunberg has been suddenly thrust into the spotlight, accumulating millions of followers on her various social media platforms, and has also had to deal with conspiracy theories spread by right-wing trolls and even more serious journalists like Tiana Lowe of the Washington Examiner and the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, who claim, with no factual evidence, that Thunberg is suffering from “child abuse", in attempts to discredit her and the youth environmentalist movement. It is something we have come to expect from the mainstream media in regards to their portrayal of prominent youth figures.
On a more uplifting note, Greta’s speech at the UN Climate Summit was fiery, moving, and eloquent, in which she declared world leaders have “stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words”, adding that she “shouldn't be up here... I should be back at school on the other side of the ocean… yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”. Those words spread across the globe, filling newspapers, and will linger in the minds of the public for years to come.
Image courtesy of Refinery29.
Billie Eilish, the 18-year-old alternative pop superstar, has been producing beautiful music since the Soundcloud release of her single Ocean Eyes back in 2016 (which was arguably her best), but 2019 was the year in which she really shot to prominence. Her debut studio album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was released earlier in the year, charting at number one in the UK, Canada, and Australia. Fourteen tracks from the album hit the US Hot 100, with smash-hit Bad Guy storming to No.1 and racking up more than a billion streams on Spotify. Eilish was the first artist born in the 2000s to have an album hit No.1 on the charts in the US.
Billie Eilish finished the year with 6 grammy nominations, 52m monthly Spotify listeners (8th most in the entire world), and single Everything I Wanted (click here to read our review). She is on top of the world, “the most talked about teen on the planet” as NME penned.
In addition to her music, she is also combating body shaming and dismantling gender stereotypes, and the status quo view of beauty standards. She has become well-known for wearing baggy clothing, commenting that "Nobody can be like, 'She's slim-thick,' 'she's not slim-thick,' 'she's got a flat ass,' 'she's got a fat ass.' Nobody can say any of that because they don't know."
Image courtesy of PopSugar.
Lil Nas X
Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.
Lil Nas X, a 20-year-old rapper from Georgia, is another young artist who shot to global prominence this year. In December last year, he was struggling, his parents dismissive of his music dreams, recently dropped out of college, close to getting kicked out of his sister’s house where he lived. But after buying a $30 beat and recording for a day in a cheap Atlanta studio, he released the single Old Town Road. The country trap, infectiously catchy track would go on to become the longest charting US No.1 song ever after going viral on TikTok through the #Yeehaw challenge. It also topped charts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Lil Nas X also came out as gay in June, the only artist to have done so while having a number-one record. It was a culturally significant move as the country and hip-hop genre generally struggles with queer and LGBT representation; along with Frank Ocean Lil Nas X is now one of the most prominent gay musicians in the hip-hop scene. He released a series of Old Town Road remixes which included country music icon Billy Ray Cyrus, and massive youth artists RM of BTS and Young Thug. His debut EP, 7, released in June 2019, showing that Lil Nas X was not just a one-hit-wonder; a commercial success, with another single Panini hitting No.2 on the US Rolling Stone Top 100, it features Cardi B and Travis Barker, with country-twang verses spilling over hard-hitting trap beats.
Image courtesy of Nightmedia.
Jimmy Donaldson, better known as Mr. Beast, has steadily rose through the ranks over the past two years or so to become one of the biggest creators on YouTube at 21 years of age. The American became initially famous with ridiculous, outlandish videos like “Counting to 100,000”, “Spinning A Fidget Spinner for 24 Hours Straight”, “Watching It’s Everyday Bro for 10 Hours Straight”, and “Reading The Entire Dictionary In One Sitting”. As his channel grew to where it is now, at 28.2m subscribers and 4.2 billion total video views, his videos have come to involve large sums of money, such as a recent video in which he gave $1,000,000 to someone who successfully completed one of his challenges.
His videos are now generally philanthropic. While one could certainly criticize him for so indiscreetly publicizing these acts of generosity - his videos will always exceed 10m views, usually more than 20m, ridiculous numbers - it appears that Donaldson has a genuine desire to actively improve the lives of people, and is more authentic and morally heartfelt than most other creators on the platform. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to homeless shelters and tens of thousands to children’s hospitals and veteran programmes. In a recent fundraising scheme he raised $20,000,000 to plant 20m trees, putting in hundreds of thousands of his own money and attracting large donations from the likes of Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke, Elon Musk, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Alan Walker; these trees will absorb around 1.6m tons of carbon and remove 116,000 tons of air pollution from the atmosphere, a direct action to improve the environment. Donaldson certainly deserves to be named as a youth of the year by any rate.
Image courtesy of British GQ.
Bangtan Seonyondan ( 방탄소년단) better known as BTS is a seven-piece boy group hailing from South Korea under BigHit Entertainment. They debuted in 2013 with the album 2 Cool 4 Skool, with the title song No More Dream. The song highlights how society's expectations ofter perpetuates dreams of the youth, and how they should fight back and make their own choices. Over the course of their career, BTS has been vocal on multiple social issues through their songs, lyrical artistry, visual aides (music videos, photoshoots, etc.) and public appearances (events, endorsements and speeches). 2019 has been a great run for BTS, with multiple awards, international recognition, sold out tour shows, a comeback and a list of firsts. However, the BTS ARMY (what a BTS fan calls themselves) claims that they will just get bigger onwards and everyone is holding this on as 2020 starts with the hope of a comeback soon.
Gauff after beating tennis legend Venus Williams. Image courtesy of Bleacher Report.
At just 15, tennis sensation Coco Gauff made global headlines and won the hearts of audiences across the world by beating former World No. 1 Venus Williams at Wimbledon in July. She went on to beat world number 60 Polona Hercog, losing to eventual winner and World No.1 Simona Halep in the fourth round; but all her four matches attracted massive Wimbledon crowds of loyal supporters, and were the most watched on ESPN on each day.
Of course, to the tennis world, this perhaps wasn’t so much of a surprise; she dominated youth tennis, ascending to No.1 at junior levels. She was the youngest girl’s singles finalist in junior US Open history, and the fifth youngest girl’s singles champion in junior French Open history last year, eventually making her WTA Tour debut in March.
During the rest of 2019 Gauff would go on to rise to a career high ranking of world No.68, winning a WTA singles title at the Linz Open, the youngest player to do so since 2004, and two doubles titles with frequent partner 18-year-old Caty McNally. At the US Open, she played a poignant match against then No. 1 22-year-old Naomi Osaka. While she would go on to lose it was a massive moment for tennis as a sport, steeped in cultural significance. Osaka consoled Gauff in a graceful and moving moment; Coco said later that "For me a definition of an athlete is someone who treats you as their worst enemy on the court but after they treat you like you're their best friend. That's what she did."
Hachimura during the NBA draft earlier this year. Image courtesy of The Spokesman-Review.
Rui Hachimura, the 21-year-old Japanese basketball player with parents heralding from Japan and Benin, has been a promising prospect for a while now. After impressing for Meisei High School in Japan, the small forward joined the D1 US college Gonzaga, where he was the first Japanese player to play D1 college basketball. He notched up 19.7 points per game in his junior season, being named the top player in his conference this year.
However, he really made headlines when he was selected 9th overall in the NBA draft by the Washington Wizards after declaring for the draft a year early; Hachimura was the first Japanese first-round pick ever. The announcement caused a lot of hype to build up around Hachimura - being the only representation in NBA basketball for a country of 127m people is a big deal - and he was picked to be a Jordan Brand athlete. So far in the season, it is clear that he is still adapting to the NBA but he has been relatively successful, achieving a double-double in his NBA debut and scoring 30 points against the Clippers earlier in the month.
We named Hachimura as a youth of the year, however, not only to herald his basketball talent, but also to recognise his potential to dismantle the racism that still afflicts biracial people like Rui in Japan. His parents recounted that while growing up in Sendai, children told him, “you’re black, go away”, while Hachimura himself remembered that “they looked at me like I was different”, telling media that "they looked at me like a fucking animal”.
Hachimura himself remembered that [during his childhood in Japan] “they looked at me like I was different”, telling media that "They looked at me like a fucking animal”.
He appeared to be relieved to finally be in the United States where he has been more warmly accepted; but he has had to travel thousands of miles away from the rest of his family to pursue his basketball dreams, learning English along the way. As Hachimura becomes more and more famous as a basketball player, though, he can actively combat those stereotypes and prejudices that hurt him as a child, along with other biracial athletes and celebrities like tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, and presenter of famous children’s programme Oha-Suta Ike Nwala. He seems to recognise this, explaining that “there are a lot of half-Japanese and half-black kids, especially in the Tokyo area. I want to be the guy where they say, ‘I want to be like him.’ ”
Felix during an infamous Europa League game earlier in the season, in which he scored a hat-trick and wowed spectators.
There were plenty of prominent young footballers who plied their trade across Europe this year and drew the attention of many. 20-year-old Portugese forward Joao Félix has caught more attention than most. After debuting for Benfica’s reserve team in 2016, he started regularly playing for the first team last year, scoring an impressive 20 goals last season. In April, he notched up a hat-trick in the Europa League against German outfit Frankfurt, becoming the youngest player to score a hat trick in the entire competition.
In July, Spanish club Atletico Madrid signed him for an eye-watering £113m (€126m euros), the second highest sum paid for a teenager after global superstar Mbappé, who incidentally is one of the picks for The Bigger Picture’s Youths of the Decade. In November Félix won the Golden Boy award, which recognises the best u21 player in Europe. Debuting for the Portugese senior team this year as well, his creative and inventive style of play dazzles many and he certainly has a bright future ahead of him.