Kevin on earth

Musician and filmmaker Kevin Abstract was a teenage outsider — now he’s making art that’s essential for all of us.

Kevin on earth

Musician and filmmaker Kevin Abstract was a teenage outsider — now he’s making art that’s essential for all of us.

Kevin Abstract shares a one-story, six-bedroom house in South Central, Los Angeles with 12 of his best friends. The boys are all members of Brockhampton, a crew that the 20-year-old musician and filmmaker once described as a modern-day boy band. Their cozy space feels like a teenager’s dream manifested, a secret hangout spot and adult-free zone. No rules allowed. On a sunny evening in February, a disintegrating couch guarded the front gate, takeout boxes were scattered around the kitchen, and a plate bearing a half-eaten cake sat, as if frozen in time, on top of one of the many stacked analog TVs littering the house’s hallways.

Abstract and Henock Sileshi — AKA H.K, Brockhampton’s 22-year-old creative director — had spent the entirety of the previous night editing footage they’d just shot and turning it into a rough cut of a video for “Runner.” The song is taken from Abstract’s 2016 album, American Boyfriend, released via Brockhampton’s imprint on Empire Records. Two verses in, the quick-hitting track segues from Abstract’s melancholic vocals into a frenetic pop-romp that could easily make a dent in the pop charts. Its video was designed to be the conceptual follow-up to his breakout single, “Empty.” Both tracks, like much of the material he’s released over the past couple of years, are poetic and introspective, a crystallization of the turmoil that defined his coming of age. It was the video for “Empty” — which features a high school football star performing oral sex on another boy — that revealed to Abstract’s parents that he was openly gay. In his work, which totals two albums and a collaborative Brockhampton tape,  Abstract blends a palette of emotions immediately identifiable to anyone who has experienced the type of adolescent isolation he tends to portray. “I don't know why I'm so obsessed with high school or teenage culture. I don't know what it is, because when I was in high school I didn't like it,” he told me.

Ian Simpson became Kevin Abstract in 2014, when he was a high school senior in a suburb north of Houston, Texas. He’s cagey about his time at home, but pieces can be put together from autobiographical snippets in his music and various interviews. As the story goes, he left home at age 15, and was taken in by the family of a close friend for a year. Then he spent a year living with his older sister in Georgia, and eventually moved back to his parents' house in Texas.

Teen angst is nothing new, but like so many others in his generation, Abstract found a hideaway on the internet early on. In fourth grade, he discovered “what the internet should be used for,” embarking on a path of discovery that would teach him the fundamentals of music, film, and writing, as well as expose him to fellow outcasts. As a teenager, he found reprieve on social media, an escape from a high school where he felt like kids like him couldn’t exist. Brockhampton, whose members come from across the country, and even as far as Northern Ireland, met on the popular message board Kanyetothe. The site serves as a stomping ground for young people looking for a community with whom to obsess over the latest releases from their favorite artists, look at sneakers, or share their own independent work. Before they had the autonomy to establish the safety net that is the Brockhampton house, they congregated on the online forum. The group started collaborating not long after Odd Future, led by the polymath Tyler, The Creator, burst open hip-hop’s doors to a new style of skateboard-obsessed artist with a flair for colorful clothes and a love of seemingly discordant genres and aesthetics, like indie rock and rap.

“[Odd Future] laid out a blueprint, and for us it was like, ‘Oh we can do this.’ It kind of unlocked something in all of us,” said Sileshi of the crew-driven formula that Odd Future used to help facilitate the rise of names like The Internet and Frank Ocean. Perched on a couch in the living room, Sileshi wore a Supreme hat covering blond locs not unlike Abstract’s. He described Brockhampton as more of a media company than a music collective, echoing the kind of corporate-speak that’s now the staple of savvy, multi-hyphenate, ambitious creatives. “We make things that we want to make. We’ll be ourselves, and we’ll create the content,” he said.

Right after graduating from high school in 2014, Abstract left home again, this time for San Marcos, Texas, where he and his newly assembled band of creative compatriots moved in together to follow their dream of making music, films, and designs together. That same year, Abstract published an open letter on the website Pigeons and Planes, describing how Childish Gambino, the hip-hop moniker of multi-talented artist Donald Glover, changed his life. Glover, he said, offered a rare view of a young black creative with whom he could identify. In his own output, Abstract hopes to pass on the favor. “I’m really big on emotion and just making people feel something. After they see something I’ve made, or hear a song I’ve made, I want them to feel something,” Abstract told me. “My biggest goal is to just move people, especially on social media because you're scrolling.”

His self-directed videos are often immediately striking — colorful pastiches made especially poignant in contrast to the mundanity of the timelines in which they appear. In the clip for the 2014 track “Save,” Abstract suffocates in a plastic bag for an entire two minutes. The song’s abrasive energy draws you in like a horror film, and the intense visual keeps you there. “I always think about how someone’s going to react to it and how they can use it. What’s the purpose [or] functionality. It’s something I'm really big on,” he said. “That’s probably because I am, you know, I’m a social media kid. It sounds corny, but it’s true. Like, I grew up on it. That’s all I know.”

Adolescence thrives on the discreet rendezvous. A lack of funds or freedom, and an excess of hormones, forces teens to turn unsupervised locations — the back seat of a car, a quiet spot in a park, an empty house — into playgrounds for experimentation. Pop culture is full of such laboratories of lust, and Abstract follows in the tradition of films like Grease, in which teenage lovers meet in a no-parking zone at a local drive-in theater. In the clip for “Empty,” he uses the classic trope of a teenage home where the parents are away as the backdrop for a tale of forbidden love. In the video, a high school football player named Summer LaBeouf and a young man known as Helmet Boy have their sexual encounter cut short when LaBeouf's girlfriend walks in on them. Teenagers’ privacy, after all, is always in peril.

The day before my visit to the house, Abstract and the Brockhampton crew were on set for the video’s sequel, “Runner.” He’d chosen another quintessentially mischievous locale: Angels Point, a cul-de-sac sized overhang at the top of Elysian Park, 10 miles north of their home. It’s a picture-perfect scene for a high school drama. That evening, the sun set in a blend of blues and oranges fit for a romantic night of drinking stolen boxed wine in the back of your parents’ car. The shoot had all of the fixings of a major production — fire marshals, lighting professionals, permits — and appeared to mark something of a graduation for Abstract. The avalanche of support for he and his crew, from a packed house at his prom-themed concert in L.A, to an endorsement from Tyler, the Creator, is a far cry from the shoestring operation of Brockhampton’s early videos just two years ago. In the three years he’s been posting his work online, Abstract has proudly declared his ambition, and here, it seemed like things might finally be coming together.

“I like to think about how people talk, and I always make a mental note of, like, what someone is saying in their mannerisms. So it’s easy to put that on paper.”

Abstract’s dyed blond locs peaked through the bottom of a motorcycle helmet as he waited for a prop car, a vintage turquoise Dodge minivan with a wooden panel running down the side, to pull up. He spoke in a low mumble and mostly avoided eye contact, like a teenager whose parents might encourage them to get out more. The helmet was recognizable as the signature style of Helmet Boy, the protagonist of the world he created on American Boyfriend and around whom he’s planned a trilogy of short films from the album. The character is a fitting conduit for Abstract’s emotional transmissions, almost an alter-ego. Helmet Boy’s delicate gait is familiar to anyone who’s ever walked through the halls of their high school just hoping not to get fucked with. In his movements, Helmet Boy is careful, keenly aware of his surroundings to a fault.  Abstract described the character to me as the “awkward suburban hero,” an archetype of his own creation.

“The awkward suburban hero is someone who deals with stuff like secrecy, vulnerability, and trying to be yourself in a place where people don’t want you to be yourself at all,” he said. “Or if people don’t want you to exist and just existing is enough to make you a hero.”

Abstract is developing the Helmet Boy character into a larger series, of which he’s already uploaded several episodes to the Brockhampton YouTube channel. “Hopefully it gets me a deal with Netflix or at least a meeting,” he joked. It’s not entirely unlikely. Abstract has tapped into the emotional experience of his generation by telling the stories that they’ve lived in secret. An adolescence spent as an outcast turned him into an observer of the highest order, and he’s poised to become an essential voice as his opportunities expand.

“That’s what I really want to do. I want to write movies and TV shows because dialogue is easy,” he said. “I like to think about how people talk, and I always make a mental note of, like, what someone is saying in their mannerisms. So it’s easy to put that on paper.”

In the video for “Runner,” Helmet Boy and his friends convene at the secluded summit of Elysian Park to smoke weed and riff about the death of their friend Summer. No on in the car knows that Helmet Boy was with Summer the night he committed suicide, and they don’t seem concerned with asking. Perhaps pulling from his own experience, Abstract crafted the character with precision, a weird outsider who isn’t so much friends with the local miscreants as he is merely tolerated by them. When the cameras stop rolling, however, the opposite is true. Abstract has only been making music and videos for a few years, but already he commands the respect of everyone around him. He’s the awkward suburban hero all grown up, and to the group of kids he’s managed to assemble and inspire, he’s simply a hero.

Kevin Abstract's video for "Runner" premieres March 2nd on Brockhampton's YouTube channel.