How Women Are Fighting For Representation in Latin American and Spanish Battle Rap

By Thor Benson

They say a large crowd of people is capable of anything. As I entered Red Bull’s Batalla de los Gallos International Final, a freestyle battle rap tournament that took place in Buenos Aires on December 9, this particular crowd felt more unified and determined than any I’ve witnessed. They filled the stadium to the brim. The synchronized chants of the crowd sounded like an approaching army. Fists were raised into the air, demanding that the show begin.

Batalla de los Gallos features freestyle rap artists from all around the Spanish-speaking world. Rappers from Spain, Colombia, Argentina and elsewhere congregate in front of these crowds to see whose skills are best. It’s been going on since 2005, and these events that happen throughout the year often draw well over 10,000 people. The judges choose a winner who does not receive a tangible prize, but victory can launch a career. Arkano of Spain and Aczino of Mexico, for examples, are two performers who have become bigger in the Latin American and Spanish rap scenes because of these battles.

Across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, both artists have reached over a million followers, and in 2016, Arkano set the Guinness World Record for longest rap freestyle by performing for over 24 hours in a public square in Madrid.

Though the number of women attending these battles is growing every year, the audience at these events is largely young men, and a woman has never been among the international tournament’s final competitors, including this year in Buenos Aires. It’s indicative of the culture that surrounds the battle rap scene where Latin American and Spanish machismo goes full-bore.

Guillermo Rodríguez Godínez, 24, who performs as Arkano, told me that many of the men competing tend to use sexist language. He admits that women are often objectified and hyper-sexualized. But, having been introduced to hip-hop by his older sister who was a rapper and graffiti artist herself in their Spanish hometown, Alicante, Arkano tries to do things differently.

“I always try to avoid falling into the trap of using sexist language in my freestyles,” he said. “If my rival in a battle starts to say sexist things, I do the opposite and call it out.”

Photo by Fabio Piva

Arkano performs at the 2018 Batalla de los Gallos International Finals.

Though none of the competitors in this year’s tournament were women, Red Bull did make sure the event featured female emcees. The DJ for the event was Nicole Atenea Nazar, a Chilean woman who performs under the name DJ Atenea. I spoke with DJ Atenea and other women at Batalla de los Gallos. They were quick to confirm that sexism is a major issue in the scene, but they often hesitated to elaborate, perhaps worried about being shunned for calling out the issue. It was as if they were concerned about being seen as the “other” by speaking out about the obstacles women like them face.

DJ Atenea said she sees sexism in the culture, but she tries to ignore it. She did note she’s the first woman to DJ a Batalla de los Gallos — perhaps a sign of progress — but it didn’t come easily. Women need to fight hard to get into the scene, Atenea explained.

“It’s true that women struggle to be included, but you shouldn’t let that be something that limits you,” she said.

Mary Ruiz, 38, a Spanish emcee who also helped host the event, said men don’t trust you when you try to get into the scene. You have to prove yourself as a performer first, and then, eventually, they start to accept you as another rapper. “When women come into the rap-battle scene to compete, they look at you like you’re an alien,” she said. Though not a rapper herself, Ruiz, who performs under the name Queen Mary, has seen it happen repeatedly to others.

Photo by Fabio Piva

Queen Mary emcees in Buenos Aires for the 2018 Batalla de los Gallos International Finals.

Luyara Cerena, better known as Tink, an emcee and rapper who lives in Argentina, agreed, adding that women have to blend in with the men to some degree and can’t be too aggressive. Things are getting better for women, but it’s taken a long time.

“It’s a struggle every day — meeting new people and fighting your way into the scene,” she said. “You have to give it your personal, female touch but also fit in with what the scene is about.”

Some don’t see it as a problem of the battle rap scene specifically, though. A Mexican rapper named Cerco, another emcee at the event, blamed Latin American and Spanish culture generally. “It has to do with society and how things are done,” Cerco said. “It’s sad, but every year you see more girls.” As Cerco implied, Latin American and Spanish society have faced an issue with what we might call toxic masculinity for many years.

What’s depressing about the lack of women in these competitions is that the major rap battles like Batalla de los Gallos can change an artist’s life. Like playing soccer competitively in this region, doing well in rap battles can take you from rags to riches. Cerco himself said he comes from an impoverished, dangerous town in Northern Mexico, and he had little to his name before he got into the rap scene. Now, he says, he’s more financially stable and gets to travel the world for rap events. He said many of the other men in the scene are just like him.

In the United States, after years of misogyny in a male-dominated scene, women like Cardi B and Nicki Minaj are now topping the charts alongside their male counterparts. Women in Latin America and Spain are still waiting to achieve this status. For years, lists of the top Latin American and Spanish rappers have been nearly entirely dominated by men. And though rappers like Roja, Rebeca Lane, and more have been talking about the sexism in this culture for years, they have yet to earn the credit they deserve.

In the end, the latest Batalla de los Gallos was won by a talented, local Argentinian rapper called Wos, who himself has an audience of 1.2 million followers on Instagram alone. Though his performance was its own spectacle, and matched by the intensity of the energy in the arena, one hopes some women will be seen competing with him at the next Batalla de los Gallos International Final in Spain. A culture that only hears half of its voices misses out on some of the best ideas.

On I Am > I Was, We Finally Find Out Who 21 Savage Is

By Trey Alston

21 Savage is proof that abundance isn’t always a good thing, even in the streaming age. Now, musicians and celebrities openly engage with fans on social media to establish an effective persona and keep people interested. With our attention spans shorter than ever, and fame especially fleeting, artists seek to overload the public with Q&As, unreleased snippets, and snarky posts to generate conversation. 21 Savage, meanwhile, wisely rides the bench while others try their hardest to score. He’s mysterious and unreadable, but with his new album I Am > I Was, which dropped December 21, he has peeled back the curtain to reveal not only his level of comfort in the mystique he’s cultivated, but also what resides behind his brow.

Despite his seeming ambivalence to celebrity, 21 Savage spent the better part of two years ensnared in some of rap’s biggest moments. He provided a menacing counterpart to Post Malone on their Grammy-nominated 2017 collaboration “rockstar,” which became one of the year’s biggest hits, surprised fans with venomous ad-libs on Childish Gambino’s mysterious single “This is America,”, and injected intoxicating amounts of testosterone into Cardi B’s “Bartier Cardi,” her expensive follow-up to “Bodak Yellow.” Outside of rap, he was involved in a very public two-year relationship with Amber Rose, a prominent pop-culture figure and sex-positive activist.

But in the face of so much publicity, 21 Savage kept, and still keeps, in the shadows. No matter how many interviews he does, the world never comes closer to understanding what makes him tick. 2016 was his most press-friendly year, when he became a member of the XXL Freshman Class and was the subject of an intense, detailed profile by The Fader. But several thousand words gave more insight to the various “beat-up ass apartments” he lived in as a kid in Atlanta than 21 Savage himself; the most prominent takeaway from the piece is that he’s just as stoic in real life as he is in pictures and interviews.

This stone-faced personality plays into the off-kilter rap he makes: music for horror-movie villains to sneak around bedrooms at midnight to. No one slinks through verses like he does. He prefers to build anticipation and dread before striking with blunt-force lyricism and then watching the blood spill out. His voice rarely evolves beyond a menacing murmur — sometimes an actual whisper — as he raps about brutal depictions of street violence, often more blunt and macabre than actual horrorcore rap, with which it shares stylistic similarities. His 2017 studio debut, Issa Album, found religion in dirty pistols, lust in downed liquor bottles, and solace in dead presidents. But its defining characteristic was his separation from reality and the idea of celebrity: “The internet won’t help you understand me,” he raps on “Famous.” It’s a striking, maybe purposeful observation of what he decides to give the world and what he decides to hold close to his chest. He tells vicious tales of violence, but won’t share what’s on his mind. A few months later, he doubled down by hitting the nail on the head and dropping Without Warning, a surprise project made in quiet collaboration with Offset and Metro Boomin.

Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

21 Savage’s I Am > I Was also arrives at an unexpected time: right when things are winding down, when media coverage for the year closes after the releases of year-end lists. But the album begins on a more soulful note than 21 Savage has ever explored. The opener “A Lot,” featuring a near-whispering verse from J. Cole, flows smoothly with its background ambience, allowing 21 to dig into the dark corridors of his mind and explain himself. Throughout the album he stitches together disparate images in his life. The beats are just a little darker, more emotional, than his past works. His rhymes are delivered a little louder and looser than before. The album’s expansive world of production — ranging from the slow-moving “All My Friends,” to the frantic, jittering anxiousness of “A&T” with City Girls — brings heightened versions of the rapper’s many different personalities explored on Issa Album, from excited to glum, as if to brandish the growth evident in the album’s very title.

What connects each song’s thread is the simultaneously brutal and blank delivery of 21’s message. It makes the wide-reaching album sound like an authentic evolution for 21 Savage, where he’s just as concerned with his thoughts as his morose subject matter. It’s not an airtight exhibition of the rapper’s curatory abilities, but it’s not trying to be. I Am> I Was, instead, is a journal chronicling the maturation of the mind and what comes with it. On “asmr” he whispers, “All these dead bodies got me seein’ strange things/Both sides of the gun, I done dealt and felt the pain,” digging deep into his horrific past, but now viewing it from a distance rather than from beside it. Where he once reveled in the struggle, he now reflects on it: “I remember times was dark/Now I can shine in the dark/Lost a couple friends, I ain’t even really mad though, I ain’t even really mad though,” he raps on “all my friends.” That repetition is important. The past is now water under the bridge.

On I Am > I Was, 21 Savage takes the floor to tell his truths and his stories. But there was no dramatic roll out for it. While his peers spent all year shooting releases out of cannons and spilling out on social media, 21 Savage waited the length of 2018 to get around to sharing his story. He wasn’t in a rush. After all, in a telling Twitter pronouncement ahead of I Am > I Was, 21 revealed that he’d already earned one billion streams this year “without dropping any music at all.” Mystery was still good for something in 2018, regardless of what the social media activity from other musicians may lead you to believe. Take that, transparency.

How One Artist Turned a Highbrow Meme Account Into a Collaboration With Young Thug

By Rae Witte

The “get you a man who can do both” meme originated from a 2016 Valentine’s Day tweet featuring two images of Drake: one of him in a suit and one in a bomber jacket and cap. Nearly three years later, it lives on as a sentiment of appreciation for individuals capable of juxtaposing achievements as minor as looking good both dressed down and formally and as interesting as being well-versed in fine art and all things Young Thug.

Hajar Benjida, a 23-year-old photography student, is the latter. As the brainchild behind the Instagram account Young Thug As Paintings, Benjida aligns modern photos of Thugger with paintings from as early as the 1500s where the subjects embody a strikingly similar mood, body position, and/or facial expression. The bio reads, “This is literally my school project.”

“At first, it was just a school project and only your teachers see it. Then you only know their opinions. Why would I wanted to be limited by their opinions only or just my family or my friends?” Benjida told MTV News. It makes perfect sense. While her teachers may be well-versed on the art featured within the project, do they really understand the essence of Jeffrey Williams, the artist known as Young Thug? Would her friends and family understand or appreciate the depth of knowledge she has on art and how it miraculously compliments her cognition of all things Thugger? By sharing the project online, she could reach audiences with an appreciation for each individually and touch those that similarly may be invested in both.

“Metro Boomin was an early fan of the account when it had like 80 followers. I remember him saying, ‘You deserve a lot of followers. This is amazing.’ Within like four weeks it went viral,” she said.

These aren’t your mainstream Mona Lisas that any art novice might know. A photo of Thug on his phone in a red jacket, riding pants and boots is nearly identical to a Francis Wheatley painting of Lord Spencer Hamlet from 1778. The Beautiful Thugger Girls album artwork practically mirrors Rosso Fiorentino’s Musical Angel from 1522, and a close up of a side glance embodies the same feeling as Pietro Rotari’s A Girl With A Flower In Her Hair (1760-1762).

Started in February 2016 (a good year and month for memes, clearly), the account has seen the growth Metro thought it deserved. At 79 posts, Young Thug As Paintings has amassed more than 64,100 followers. She’s been able to meet Metro Boomin, and even better, she’s been able to meet and collaborate with Young Thug.

“I also put it online because I did want to work with Thug but in a creative way. Not like ‘Oh, I want to shoot with you,’” Benjida said. “I don’t like to tell people I want to work with you. I want to prove and show, and maybe it’ll open other doors and other opportunities.”

As Benjida told, that it did. “In late September, I put up an IG story that I wanted to do something during Miami Art Week. I noticed Young Thug saw the story and he followed the account. He never liked anything on it, but I saw it as a yes. Why else would he follow?”

She’d wanted to do something with the project, but it needed to be the right fit. “I was in Atlanta and wanted to do a pop-up or something like that but I preferred to be in an art fair. Everyone can rent out a store and put something on,” she said.

The same Instagram story also led a production company to Benjida. Together they put together a proposal to take to Young Thug’s label, 300 Entertainment. “I sent it to Rayna [Bass] from 300 who I was already in touch with for something else. She said it was amazing.” It was time to take the school project-gone-highbrow meme account to the art world. “We tried some art fairs and SCOPE was interested. There was another one, but they said I needed a curator to write about it for it to in the fair. I didn’t like that. Why would my artist statement not be enough? This was my first exhibition.”

Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

With three weeks to prepare (and impending school work toward the close of the semester), Benjida got to work. Truthfully, a perfect fit, SCOPE Art Fair is held three times annually in Miami, New York and Basel, Switzerland and focuses on up and coming galleries and emerging artists. They usually have around 60 to 100 exhibitors per show. The final product allowed fair attendees to not only touch the art but to take it as well. The coinciding images were printed on transparent paper so the similarities could be seen as the images were laid on top of each other.

“Everything at SCOPE was for sale and also SCOPE is the highest selling art fair in Miami, so for us to give away free prints, I feel like it was a statement,” she said. “It was exciting to be around other artists and their work. I went to all the booths and looked around. It was also a very different and diverse crowd. There was this really old lady, like in her 70s, that asked, ‘Is this the Young Thug as paintings exhibit? I’ve read about it.’ I wish someone caught it on camera because I was in shock she just came in the booth and said that!”

Recalling when Thug saw the finished product, Benjida shares, “The first thing he said was, ‘Thank you so much for this.’’” Like the rest of us, he also asked how she knew about all the art in the show and on the account, adding that his photo side-by-side with a painted likeness of Andres Zorn’s 1887 painting Man and boy in Algiers was his favorite post.

By the power of Instagram, Benjida collaborated with one of her favorite artists and did her first art exhibition at a major international art fair. “Even Young Thug said, ‘I learned a lot about art because of this project.’ He said he would just search the artists or the paintings. He would search the original artist. He was very impressed with how much he learned. There were also other people would hit me up and said they were not into art like that, but by putting it next to Young Thug, it made it more accessible.”

Pop Quiz: What’s Your All-Time Favorite Holiday Song?

The TRL Pop Quiz works like this: our editors are posed a music-related question and have only 15 minutes and just 100 words to research, choose and explain their answers. This week’s question: what’s your all-time favorite holiday song?

There’s no denying Mariah Carey’s throne on top of pop-friendly holiday songs, but Sia’s 2017 album, Everyday Is Christmas, deserves more recognition. With a title seemingly unrelated to the holiday season, “Puppies Are Forever” is the album’s standout song, reminding its listeners that “puppies are forever, not just for Christmas.” Aside from being cute as heck, Sia’s lyrics point to the potentially problematic practice of giving pets as gifts for the holidays: only give a puppy as a present if you’re confident it’ll be able to live a happy and healthy life! Who wouldn’t stan that? – Matt Gehring

My favorite Christmas song is “Christmas Time is Here” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio for the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack in 1965 – fitting, as A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of my favorite television holiday specials. “Christmas Time is Here,” both the six minute instrumental version (which I prefer) and the nearly three-minute version with vocals, is a beautiful and slow jazz song. I love it. The melody is incredibly melancholic, certainly not the obvious choice for a children’s holiday special. But then again, Charlie Brown is often sad, and the holiday season can be, too. – Leah Williams

My favorite Christmas song since I was a kid is “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt. It’s a straight-up classic that’s still being played 65 years later. Countless artists have recorded covers of “Santa Baby”, but none will ever beat the original. I think it’s cool someone made a sexy Christmas song so long ago when other songs from the era were family-friendly and somewhat corny with too many jingle bells. It’s timeless because, while the holidays are about quality time with family and what not, sometimes you just want some expensive luxurious things! Landyn Pan

Nothing puts a stan in the Christmas spirit like Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me.” Originally a bonus track off the Japanese re-release of her Christmas Kisses EP, the R&B holiday bop has quickly risen to become one of her most popular holiday songs ever. On the song, she pleads with Santa Claus to not let her fall for her crush unless it will last. The original Grande song has an orchestral interlude that definitely calls to mind the pop music that she was making at the time, like 2013’s “Honeymoon Avenue” but with a holiday twist. – Kristen Maldonado

Cardi B’s New ‘Money’ Video Looks, Well, Like It Cost A Lot Of Money

When Cardi B‘s “Money,” not to be confused with Cardi B’s “Money Bag,” dropped in late October, it was the first taste of new music we heard from Cardi after her debut collection — one of our albums of the year, Invasion of Privacy — dropped in April. And after she’d ascended to utter rap stardom. And after she’d given birth to her daughter, Kulture. It was an Event, and it went hard.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the “Money” video is, likewise, an Event. The biggest, most memeable moment is Cardi breastfeeding what may actually be her daughter in a moment of power for working mothers. In fact, breasts are all over this monumentally expensive-looking video, as is Cardi herself — behind a glass case like a museum artifact, commanding a fleet of highly fashionable women, sitting naked at the piano.

Earlier this week, Cardi appeared in a new segment of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, where the pair sang and danced to her massive hit “I Like It” at a senior center. “I just had a baby and this is how I lost weight,” she says at one point, twisting her torso around to the music. The “Money” video, though, tells a different story, as her moves throughout it must’ve accounted for at least 30 percent of Cardi’s postnatal cardio regimen.

By the end, we’ve taken a detour to pay homage to Cardi’s stripper days, with piles of cash on the stage for full effect, and lingered on her angel-white pair of Beats headphones long enough to get some nice product placement. It’s a hell of a ride.

Watch the dazzling, money-filled “Money” video above.

How SHINee Fans Found Strength In One Another In The Year Since Singer Jonghyun’s Death

By Elizabeth de Luna

In the early evening hours of a Saturday in June, 400 people gathered in silence under an open tent at KCON New York, a convention celebrating the growing global influence of Korean pop culture. At the front of the room, moderator Cortney Marbury cleared her throat. “Before we begin this panel on mental health in K-pop,” she said. “I want to take the first 15 minutes to open up the floor to anyone who wants to share their memories of Jonghyun and SHINee.” A heavy quiet hung over the room until one young woman crept up to the microphone. “SHINee was the first band I ever loved,” she said. “They got me through some really dark moments. I would even say they saved my life.” Heads in the audience nodded in agreement. “So when I saw on Twitter that Jonghyun…” she paused, breathed deeply, and continued, “had killed himself, I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t…” Her voice broke. “It’s been six months and I still think about him every day. No one in my life understands what I’m feeling. Why didn’t we see that he was struggling? What do we do now?”

Over the next two hours, more than 30 fans of influential Korean group SHINee, called “Shawols,” would approach the mic to share similar feelings of grief, confusion, and guilt. Their stories transformed a panel about mental and emotional health into a forum of collective mourning for the death of singer Kim Jonghyun, who died last December at the age of 27. This public outpouring was “completely unexpected but obviously needed,” Marbury said. “It was healing to be vulnerable in a safe space with like-minded people.”

Getty Images

The members of SHINee, from left to right: Onew, Taemin, Jonghyun, Minho, and Key.

Being a K-pop fan outside of Korea can be physically isolating. To support an industry a world away, international Shawols must actively participate in a global digital community, performing almost all of their fan activities — from making friends to waiting patiently for lyric translations — online. Most international Shawols found out about Jonghyun’s death through a personal text, group chat, or tweet. They waited for news to cross time zones, breathlessly refreshing web pages for updates and typing furiously to their friends in other countries looking to make sense of the tragedy.

The recent deaths of American rappers Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, and Mac Miller were heavily covered across Western media, but Shawols didn’t experience the same public mourning. Many expressed that they were unable to properly communicate their pain to family or friends and, without anyone in their life to talk to, buried their sorrow as a means of coping. Kimmie, a Shawol from Georgia, noted that “many fans suppressed their grief because they felt that no one around them understood what they were going through.” It’s no wonder, then, that so many Shawols were openly overwhelmed by emotion at KCON. For the first time, they felt understood.

As a musician, Jonghyun was singular in his ability to write and produce songs for himself, SHINee, and some of K-pop’s biggest artists. As a person, fans describe him as witty, full of life, and compassionate, especially when it came to the struggles of others. Although homosexuality is criminalized in Korea, Jonghyun publicly supported the country’s LGBTQ community. He also was open about his own depressive thoughts in a culture that claims the world’s highest suicide rate among 10-19 year olds. On his nightly radio show “Blue Night,” Jonghyun answered questions from listeners in an attempt to help “set their hearts at rest.” Fans say these displays of empathy made his suicide especially painful. “He was so open with his own struggles,” said What The K-pop’s Amy Leigh, “that when he died, we felt that we lost a champion for ourselves, someone who really understood us.”

Choi Hyuk / Getty Images

The mourning altar outside of a hospital in Seoul in December 2017.

One year later, Shawols are still fighting to support friends continents away, many of whom continue to carry their burden of grief through their daily lives. On Monday evening, Leigh hosted an online memorial broadcast on What The K-pop’s radio station to mark the one-year anniversary of Jonghyun’s passing. It served as a digital memorial service for Shawols who could not make one of more than 40 vigils held across 15 countries and 13 U.S. states throughout the month of December. To understand how the fandom is moving forward, MTV News spoke to six Shawols about how they’ve found strength in one another, online and off, in the year since the idol’s passing.

Warning: detailed descriptions of self-harm, depression, and anxiety.

MADELINE

19, Minnesota

I never felt truly understood as a person until I found SHINee and was able to explore and express myself while connecting with other K-pop fans through my YouTube channel. I was not planning to post a video about how heartbroken I was about Jonghyun’s passing until I realized that, regardless of distance or language, pain and joy are universal emotions and mental health is a universal struggle. Being vulnerable about those things is a superpower.

Courtesy of Madeline

Madeline with her poster from Jonghyun’s first compilation album, The Collection: Story Op. 1.

As international fans, many of us don’t have immediate support or understanding from those around us. I wanted to make a safe space within my corner of the internet to let people know they’re not alone and encourage them to grieve freely. To hear someone say “I feel this way, too,” changes things. So I said, You know what, screw it! I am crying in my room and I am just going to record myself speaking from the heart about what I am going through. I didn’t expect 54,000 people to watch it or 700 of them to comment. People were leaving messages of support, just trying to take care of each other. I think that, in turn, was a way for them to take care of themselves.

In Jonghyun’s case, I think he wanted people to acknowledge the broken parts of him. With that in mind, I ask people how they are a lot more often and give people a lot more space to express themselves. Jonghyun was able to give unconditional love to his members and his fans. That’s something that I always want to emulate through my channel and beyond. It makes me upset to think he thought he didn’t live a life that was impactful. His passing made me realize that everyone leaves a legacy when they die, so it’s OK to give yourself more credit than you think. Regardless of what you achieve, you’re somebody’s child, somebody’s friend. You create a ripple effect.

AURELIJA

27, Lithuania

The day was beautiful and sunny after a recent snowfall. I was in a very good mood and had just made myself some tea when my sister texted me and asked, “Did you hear about Jonghyun?” I dropped everything and went to the internet. I remember reading that he had been found unconscious and kept refreshing the news, hoping that maybe he’d made it to the hospital in time. Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, everything was exploding with rumors but I refused to believe any of them until there was an official statement from someone I could trust. Then, there was an official statement. On Tumblr, some Shawols were harming themselves, and that scared me. I have quite a few Shawol friends around the world, and I messaged every single one of them and said “Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, don’t. He made his own decision. You cannot do this to yourself.” Thankfully for me, every single one of them replied.

Other fandoms offered their condolences, but one really surprised me. I saw it on Tumblr. The lead vocalist of the group Linkin Park had also committed suicide earlier that year and their fans reached out to Shawols publicly and said, “We know what you’re going through. It’s going to be really hard and we know how painful it is, we’re sending you love and strength.” I was very touched, because our fandoms are so distant. It proved to me that language has no boundaries.

For me, SHINee is love. That’s what they mean to me, and I take a lot of strength from them. They make me want to be a better person, to be a good reflection of a Shawol. Being part of a fandom is almost like being part of a family. You all go through the same emotions together — pride and happiness in the good times, sadness and anxiety in the worst — in very large numbers, all over the world. That’s why, when I saw the thousands of messages from Shawols at Jonghyun’s memorial in Seoul, I said, “This is where our strength is.” The love we wanted to share with each other was immense; it united us.

Courtesy of @aquarieoul

The temporary memorial for Jonghyun in Seoul. Over three months, fans gathered in the space to leave thousands of messages and mementos for the late singer.

Jonghyun’s death made me realize that, as long as you’re breathing, as long as you can get the fuck up and do something, you just have to do it. There are so many people who care about you, there are so many things you have to experience, so many things you have to do, that you can do. I look at the world so differently now. It’s never an option to give up.

CORTNEY

27, Georgia

In 2012, my friend Jasmine and I started a YouTube channel called 2MinJinkJongKey, which is a portmanteau of the names of SHINee’s five members. Our first video was concert footage of SHINee singing “Stand By Me” at Madison Square Garden, and we’ve continued to post SHINee-themed content ever since.

Courtesy of Cortney

After Jonghyun passed, I asked KCON if I could host a panel that would honor his memory and give attendees information about mental health. I was super nervous because I didn’t know how people were going to react to a panel like that. He didn’t die in a car accident; he killed himself. That hits in a totally different way. But as soon as we allowed the audience to share their memories, we saw how badly Shawols needed a safe space to talk. It was hard for some people to share, but it seemed like they could breathe freely again after speaking their truth. Losing Jonghyun was tragic but it’s a tragedy we can learn from. If we can save someone by talking about his suicide, that’s what’s most important.

I, myself, have experienced the same kinds of thoughts that Jonghyun did. In early 2017, I was in a really bad mental place. I planned to attend two of SHINee’s U.S. tour dates and then commit suicide, but something in me changed after seeing them in concert with other Shawols. There is no greater feeling than looking around a room of thousands of people and knowing you’re all there because of your love for the same thing. SHINee and Shawols reignited my fire; I decided I wanted to live.

Courtesy of Cortney

This handout was produced by the organizer of a local memorial Cortney attended in Atlanta, days after Jonghyun’s death. The back includes emotional health resources.

SHINee saved my life, and they continue to set an example for me and other Shawols as we heal. Their strength and vulnerability in the months after Jonghyun’s death helped us pick ourselves up and continue on as a fandom. In that way, they truly fulfilled the meaning of their name, “one who receives the light.” I will always be grateful to them for sharing their light with us.

JOSEPHINE

27, Sweden

In 2011, my first boyfriend cheated on me, and I remember thinking that no one would ever love me again. In that lonely time, I found SHINee and their music. They gave me a new community of online friends from all over the world. I was happy and had a reason to live again. I became an admin for SHINee fan pages and groups on Facebook, and sometimes stayed up chatting with other Shawols until five in the morning. To this day, Shawols are some of the best people I know. I found a new family in them.

I saw the news that Jonghyun had killed himself on Facebook and remember praying that it was a cruel joke. I stared at the screen for the longest time before I managed to click the link to the news report. The rest of the day is a blur. It felt weird to be so sad about someone I didn’t know in real life; it felt like a member of my family had died, like a part of my life and hope was gone. I don’t have any friends in real life that like SHINee or K-pop, so I went online to Facebook and YouTube. Shawols were there for each other, even from across the world. Everyone felt the same pain and most of us didn’t have people in our lives who could understand why we were heartbroken. I had been feeling depressed for a while before Jonghyun died, but I lost my strength to fight that day.

Courtesy of Josephine

Josephine’s tattoo matches one Jonghyun got to honor his second studio album, Poet|Artist, which was released posthumously on January 23, 2018.

Just last week, I reached out for professional help and will have my first meeting on the one year anniversary of his death. I don’t know if that’s a positive sign or a cruel joke from the universe. I got his neck tattoo on my own neck as a tribute to him. It feels like I have a piece of him with me and gives me strength to not give up. I know Jonghyun didn’t want to die. He wanted the pain to go away and didn’t get the help he needed. I am getting that help and will fight every day to get better, to keep living for him and the other members of SHINee, and to make them proud.

PEACE

20, Maryland

Around this time last year, I was going through a hard time with my mental health. A verbally abusive relationship had put me in bad depressive state, and I had distanced myself from the things that made me happy. The morning Jonghyun died, I was on the train to work in D.C. and saw a message about his hospitalization in a Twitter group chat. Rumors on Twitter spread so fast these days, so I scrolled through my timeline to see if what I was hearing was true. I didn’t see official news, just tweets saying “I’m so sorry to Shawols.” I hopped on Instagram and saw YouTubers and Korean celebrities posting messages about his passing. It was then that I realized I was crying and that everyone on the train was staring at me.

After that day, I pushed his death out of my mind until forcing myself to process it, for the sake of my mental health, several weeks later. I became a Shawol after watching Cortney and Jasmine’s SHINee reaction videos on their YouTube channel 2MinJinkJongKey, so it felt right to me to view their video about Jonghyun’s passing. Watching them talk about it was the closest I had come to speaking to another person about my grief.

I tried to participate in a group chat where Shawols spoke openly about their mental health. There had been a outbreak of people wanting to kill themselves in the community, so I was trying to be there for others. In the end, though, I was still not in a safe mental place and had to leave those chats, too. There’s only so much you can express in a digital forum like that. It was only when my Shawol friend Madeline gave me a call that I physically spoke with someone about how I was feeling and began to heal.

Courtesy of Peace

A supportive group chat message from a Shawol.

To this day, I haven’t shared what I went through with my parents. I’m thankful that I had Shawols to support me instead.

KIMMIE

40, Georgia

I am a bit older than most K-pop fans. I’m married and have three children who love the genre. That shared interest has brought us closer. Before discovering SHINee, I had been in a depressive rut for a long time. Suddenly, I was happy again and making lasting friendships with other Shawols, in addition to connecting with my kids.

Courtesy of Kimmie

Kimmie’s family dog, Jamong. “Jamong” means “grapefruit” or “short-legged person” and was a nickname given to Jonghyun by SHINee members Onew and Key.

I especially identified with Jonghyun. When you have depression, you can recognize depression. I listened to his nightly radio show “Blue Night” every single day for three years. He felt like a brother, like a friend; it’s a connection that’s difficult to explain. When he died, I went through a period of shock. When somebody brings that much light into your life, especially after such a dark period, you don’t know what to do when they are gone. My work suffered, and I ended up seeking therapy and was diagnosed with PTSD. I have been very open about my grief — it’s OK to feel those things when someone you care about passes away. I was lucky that my family understood. My kids and I spoke about how it affected us, and my husband brought me Kimchi stew in one hand and a box of Kleenex in the other when I was in the depths of my emotions.

It hit many of my Shawol friends hard, too. I stayed active on social media to be there for others in the community and was worried when some of them disappeared for a while. The cruel irony of online friendships in that you form relationships with people around the world but have no way of getting in touch with them if they don’t respond to your messages. Luckily for me, they did eventually write me back.

Courtesy of Kimmie

Kimmie’s tattoo (which reads, “You did well, Jonghyun”) is a phrase commonly used by Shawols in messages of mourning. It’s said in response to a line from Jonghyun’s suicide note: “Just tell me I’ve done well.”

During that time, SHINee served as the main source of strength for us to move forward. In February, I attended the group’s concerts at Tokyo Dome. I had never been out of the country before, but I felt the need to be there. Those shows allowed us to process the tragedy as a community. It was the saddest event I have ever been to, but it was comforting to be with other people who were feeling the same way. When I inevitably began to cry, a sweet little Japanese Shawol standing next to me put his hand on my shoulder and asked, in his best English, “Are you OK?” Later, when he was crying, I gave him my tissues. These are the kinds of beautiful people that SHINee and Jonghyun brought into my life.

Though we miss him, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have loved him.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, there are ways to get help. Find resources at www.halfofus.com or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for a confidential conversation.

Sasha Sloan Tells Us How She Wrote ‘Older,’ A Sad But Hopeful Song About Divorce

On Instagram, 23-year-old singer and songwriter Sasha Sloan is @sadgirlsloan. Her two EPs are titled Sad Girl and Loser. Before she dropped the latter at the end of November, she posted a steely selfie with the caption, “my ep comes out in less than a week i hope it doesn’t suck lol.” That self-deprecation is integral to her persona, likely both a natural extension of her actual personality (low-key and pensive, but friendly) and the fact that she first gained exposure through a viral Reddit photo where she was the butt of the joke.

Aided by a strategically placed SoundCloud link in the comments, that online fame led to songwriting opportunities in Los Angeles and eventually a chance for her to showcase her own voice. A few years (and day jobs at a coffee shop and a gym) later, she’s helped write songs by Louis Tomlinson, Steve Aoki, Tinashe, and Charli XCX. Perhaps most notably, Camila Cabello’s “Never Be the Same,” which she also worked on, blends the lyrical vulnerability and skeletal beat found on her own tracks. But it’s the midpoint of Loser — a plaintive, confessional piano ballad called “Older” — that shines a most direct light onto the person lurking behind those songwriting sessions, winking album covers, and tweets like “who’s coming to see me in march?? plz come so my self esteem doesn’t get lower than usual lmao.”

“Older” doesn’t package any of its sentiments with a quick “jk.” Instead, Sloan opens it starkly in medias res: “I used to shut my door while my mother screamed in the kitchen.” The verses bring the song’s real-life inspiration, the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, sharply into focus. Before long, though, Sloan adds her own found wisdom on the chorus, proclaiming, “The older I get, the more that I see / My parents aren’t heroes, they’re just like me.”

“I’ve been trying to write that song for a really long time,” Sloan recently told MTV News. “I’ve always been trying to write about my parents’ divorce because it’s such a crucial part of my life, but I never wrote it right. It was always too bitter.” One listen to “Older” reveals the opposite: a careful, loving study of a messy situation, viewed both from the center of the storm and from a safe distance years later. Here’s how it came together.

Xavier Guerra/MTV News

A Joint And A Hotel Room

It began in a hotel room in Germany. Sloan and her pal Danny Silberstein had just secured a joint. “We smoked it, and he just started playing this guitar riff,” she said. “I was like, whoa, that’s really dope. I feel like writing right now.” In about 10 minutes, the pair had etched out the song’s first verse, a pre-chorus, and its main hook in the chorus. Sloan typically starts writing lyrics, then works on the rest of the song, ensuring she’s constructing a good story.

With “Older,” the story was simple and sad. Her impending 24th birthday got her thinking about how her “very foreign” father (“he’s kind of like Borat”) had watched her mother give birth to her at that age. She thought about how her mother worked toward getting advanced degrees while trying to raise her. And she built a song around it with Danny.

“We both looked at each other, really emotional. I was like, I think I really like this, but I can never tell if it’s good,” she said. The only thing to do was wait a while.

From Voice Memo To Finished Version

Armed with a demo recording from the hotel room, Sloan was in no rush to finish the song. In fact, spending even a few minutes with her reveals that she’s not in much of a rush to do most things. She takes her time walking around a room, moving deliberately. But she knows when to strike. “I’m the master of ‘it’s done,'” she said. “I’ll spend time on lyrics, but if I get something I love, I don’t second guess it. You always have that feeling when it’s not totally there yet, and you push through that.”

Sloan called Danny to her place back home to smoke hookah and work on refining it at their own speed. She estimates it took about two months, with most of the time spent narrowing down the lyrics to the second verse. Once it felt right, she enlisted her producer, frequent Major Lazer collaborator King Henry. “I finish a song and I hand it off to a producer like, make it work,” she said. When she sings it live, her crowds almost always connect with it. She takes that as a good sign.

Breaking The Rules

In its final form, “Older” cycles through melancholic piano chords and Sloan’s solemn but wise voice, delivering the story taken from her own life. Despite her past work with other artists, it wouldn’t have made sense coming from anyone else, and she seems convinced that “pop singers don’t want” such specificity anyway. Early in her career, an A&R bigwig told her the “pop rules” she was to adhere to during songwriting sessions: No songs about growing old; only songs about dancing and being young forever. She appreciates the twist of “Older” resonating as it has.

Perhaps predictably, Sloan doesn’t necessarily feel the thrust of the industry machine toward making a proper album any time soon. Too much pressure, she said, so maybe another EP, or maybe some further tinkering with her own sound. Whatever she wants, really. In the meantime, she’s played “Older” for her mom, now an English teacher, who lovingly labeled it “realistic fiction.” She doesn’t talk to her dad much, but she feels like her music has brought them closer together.

“‘Older’ is also just an appreciation song to them, maybe in the most back-handed way of all time. But it was, OK, I get what you did for me now,” she said. “I get to live a pretty fucking dope life now because of that.”

Albums Of The Year: The Magic Of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour

The center of Kacey Musgraves‘ dazzling Golden Hour, an album you will be listening to for the rest of your life, hardly lasts more than a minute. On its fifth song, “Mother,” she wanes poetic over a lonely piano about shouldering the weight of the world. “I’m just sitting here,” she sighs, “thinkin’ bout the time that’s slipping, and missing my mother.”

Then: “And she’s probably sitting there, thinkin’ bout the time that’s slipping, and missing her mother.”

It’s an expanding seed of nostalgia that makes anyone feel impossibly small, one that stunningly captures the very essence of love and loss, the unyielding march of time, life and the stifling insignificance of it all. It’s Golden Hour‘s quietest moment, one that underlines the album’s biggest question: What do you do when you fear the worst is coming?

“I’m the kinda person who starts gettin’ kinda nervous when I’m havin’ the time of my life,” Musgraves confesses on “Happy & Sad,” struggling to be content with a good feeling. But Golden Hour is not dragged down in its uncertainty. In fact, it’s remarkably bright, a sprawling landscape of psychedelic piano and guitar, rooted in country with fusions of bluegrass, pop, and disco, never raising its voice and hardly altering its soft tempo across 13 songs. Its weaving motifs — of flowers and magic, of rivers and skies, of blinding color, glowing light and the darkness of the unknown — lace it together tightly, building a timeless encapsulation of feeling everything and nothing all at once, of feeling everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

On Golden Hour, Musgraves very gently pines over biggest, tiniest, most patient, and urgent moments, all with an assured air of peace and acceptance. Whether she’s ditching a beau on “Space Cowboy” (“When a horse wants to run, ain’t no sense in closing the gate”), or falling in love again on “Butterflies” (“Now I remember what it feels like to fly”), there is no one feeling stronger than the other. The result is a lush depiction of our often awful planet and the still-wonderful things within it. It’s hopeful without being naive, melancholy without inspiring pity. Even as it weaves through moments of questioning existence, the album’s title track — written as a love letter to her husband, fellow country singer Ruston Kelly — is its most full-throated acceptance of the way things are in the wake of what has been and what will be. “You set my world on fire,” she acknowledges, “and I know, I know everything’s gonna be alright.”

Small and fearful as we are, Golden Hour realizes that nothing ever erodes the reality of true love, of finding peace within ourselves, of marveling at just how beautiful this place really is. On the floating “Oh, What a World,” Musgraves is awestruck by the magical fate that brought us here, but plants her boots firmly in front of the one she shares her space with. “These are real things,” she affirms of the love and feelings beating in her heart, fleeting and ethereal as they may be. “Oh, what a world,” she proclaims. “Don’t wanna leave,” she repeats, knowing that at some point in time, we all must.

JoJo Just Rerecorded ‘Leave (Get Out)’ And ‘Baby It’s You’ For Our Nostalgic Thrill

JoJo‘s Instagram bio reads, “!!!!!!!!!,” and that’s exactly how her fans are feeling right now. The singer is celebrating her 28th birthday today (December 20), but she’s the one giving us the best present ever: new music. Or, more accurately, old music made brand new again.

On Thursday afternoon, JoJo began flooding her social media accounts with rerecorded snippets of her beloved throwback hits. Among the batch are fan-favorite tracks from her 2004 debut album, JoJo (“Baby It’s You,” “Homeboy,” “Weak,” “Never Say Goodbye,” and, of course, “Leave (Get Out)”), as well as 2006’s The High Road (“Let It Rain,” “Like That,” “A Little Too Late,” and the title track).

To hear a taste of what she’s whipped up, check out these killer snippets from “Leave” and “A Little Too Late,” featuring her grown-up vocals:

JoJo’s creative birthday gift is a welcome treat for fans, but it’s also a way for her to prove she’s triumphing against her nagging label issues. Her first album is not available on streaming services because of her former label, Blackground Records, which kept the singer locked in a seven-year contractual bind. In 2016, she vented in a Facebook post, “To say I’m sad and frustrated that this album is no longer available on iTunes and Spotify because of my previous label is a massive freaking understatement. That was such an important time in my life and set the foundation for the career I’m building brick my brick.”

Over the past few years, JoJo managed to release a few mixtapes and EPs, and eventually dropped her third album, Mad Love, via Atlantic Records in 2016. Just as she used those projects to work around Blackground’s road blocks, she’s doing the same thing by rerecording JoJo and The High Road. And our nostalgia-loving hearts are forever grateful.

Meek Mill’s ‘Trauma’ Video Paints A Cold, Vivid Picture Of His Life

Meek Mill has returned bigger and bolder since his release from prison earlier this year. The rapper’s recently released album, Championships, serves as the epilogue to a tough chapter in his life marked by legal battles, and at the heart of the project is “Trauma.” On Thursday (December 20), Meek released that track’s unnerving visual, which paints a cold picture of the traumatic experiences he’s faced.

In the Will Ngo-directed clip, a young Meek (played by his own son Papi) writes a letter to his deceased father. The Philly MC also appears in the present, reflecting on his vivid memories of street life and all the trauma it encompasses: drugs, violence, police raids, and even death. And, as he raps, the struggle is far from over.

“How many times you send me to jail to know that I won’t fail?” he asks. “Invisible shackles on the king, ’cause shit, I’m on bail / I went from selling out arenas, now shit, I’m on sale / Them cold nights starting to feel like hell.”

The video for “Trauma” follows Meek’s previously released clip for “Intro.” Both tracks appear on Championships, which arrived on November 30 and debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart. Next up, Meek will keep celebrating his wins on a U.S. tour kicking off in February 2019.