Life on the Road with Kevin Abstract’s ‘American Boyband’
Photographer Cameron Cuchulainn photographed the Brockhampton rap collective as they embarked on their first nationwide tour and filmed their VICELAND television show.
Kevin Abstract has always felt like an outcast. He once described himself in an open letter to his hero Childish Gambino as being "too black for the whites and too white for the blacks," and he's one of the few artists in popular music today to openly explore his queer identity. The focal point of the VICELAND show American Boyband spent much of his youth moving around the South. Misunderstood by his parents, he ran away from home at 15. You can hear all of these experiences and emotions in the 21-year-old's music. His last album, American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story, bears his wayward nature, jumping genres from indie rock and emo to hip-hop and R&B. And his lyrics often sound like diary entries, channeling youthful pain and angst.
But as unique as Abstract is, he's managed to find a tribe of like-minded outsiders. Thanks to opening himself to some kindred spirits he met in high school and utilizing forums like Kanyetothe.com, he built bonds with fellow weirdos from his best friend Ameer Vann to his producer Jabari Manwa. These comrades now form the core of his 15-plus rap collective, Brockhampton. The group, which was born out of an earlier incarnation called AliveSinceForever, is named after the street Abstract grew up. It features a diverse array of male artists who do everything from make beats and rap to direct films and design. After a stint in Texas, the group made Los Angeles the base of their operations, sharing a home where they make art and support one another.
After the success of their All-American Trash Mixtape, the collective released their debut full-length, Saturation, earlier this year. It's filled with songs that defy genre, thanks to the iconoclastic attitude of the group's MCs, singers, and producers. The crew describe themselves as a boyband, but their personalities, looks, and music don't follow those stereotypes. They make most of their own videos, do their own press, and cultivate their own image. But despite the diversity within the group, every song manages to celebrate individuality and self-expression.
The VICELAND show American Boyband documents Abstract and his Brockhampton crew as they headline their first nationwide tour. As a member of the film crew that documented this moment, I got an intimate look at Brockhampton playing shows, meeting fans, and taking long drives through the country. It was thrilling to see fans brandishing rainbow flags in mosh pits, whipped into a frenzy by Abstract's wild performances. The photos below capture some of those wild nights and the long days that preceded them.
When the guys weren't performing, they'd spend their time sharing music with each other, and composing by themselves, glued to computers as they tinkered with new songs. Whenever the trip would start to feel routine, the band would shoot scenes from the alternate universe that Kevin invented for his fictional character Helmet Boy. Usually, they'd film these scenes when there was some element that felt odd or offbeat: like when the band stayed at ranch house that kept animals; or when they were in the middle of the desert surrounded by huge windmills. We'd all get to experience these little sidelines of theater, and then we'd start moving again to the next show.
The tour ended with a performance at Los Angeles venue the Roxy that magnetized the crew more than any other set I saw them play. Since they're now based in LA, the concert felt like a homecoming that underscored a new chapter of their careers. Other shows had been at famous venues, but here they headlined a historic venue to a die-hard, sold-out crowd. It was a landmark event, but if their progress continues, it will become the new normal for them.
During their set, they mixed the sadness, hopes, and joys of their anthems with wild, rampant energy and crowd surfing. Backstage, their greenroom was packed with friends and celebrities, which included Abstract's mentor, Tyler, the Creator. Having icons like that in their audience is something Brockhampton will have to get used to.
WATCH: Episode One of 'American Boyband'
There was something special about getting a firsthand look into how far the band has come. They were relatable young guys who felt awkward about bringing TV cameras into their lives. But they were ambitious, and their productivity has gotten them out of the strip malls and parking lots of their adolescence to crowdsurfing with fans who can rap all their songs back to them. Since that tour, they've already got a new house for the crew in North Hollywood, are about to embark on another nationwide tour, and have plans to release a second album, tentatively dubbed Saturation II, later this year. It's invigorating to see Abstract and Brockhampton steer their music and their vision to reach more and more people. My experience touring with them has unraveled a subtle message that I hope is captured in these pictures: The more you feel like you're alone, the more you probably aren't.
Watch American Boyband on VICELAND.
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