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Music How Kevin Abstract taught us empathy (and more) with a treadmill

May. 8, 2019
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Kevin Abstract of Brockhampton recently dropped his sophomore album Arizona Baby, which has quickly become my summer jam. His work’s vulnerability has always allowed fans the intimate privilege of getting to know him, but this reached unprecedented and mind-boggling levels following Arizona Baby’s release.

For ten hours, Abstract livestreamed himself walking on a treadmill outside his old house on Brockhampton Street in Corpus Christi, Texas. Fans surrounded him throughout the day, ebbing in and out as the sun changed its place in the sky. I tuned in around the fifth hour, and there were a few times it looked as though he might throw up or pass out. But this wasn’t what made the livestream a spectacle. Rather, it was the fans—both in person and online. People in the comments started pointing out this girl with pink hair, and she quickly became dubbed Pink-Haired Girl or Lava Girl. The comments were flooded with people complimenting her style and asking for her social media handles. Eventually Pink-Haired Girl fans were fed, and she now has over a thousand followers on Twitter and Instagram. These funnels of human interaction—first through Kevin, then through YouTube—taught me a lot about what people find important, be it aestheticism or empathy.

One fan’s brother talked to Kevin on the phone. His repetitive use of the word “bro” made for a quick meme, but things quieted down when he divulged to Kevin that his father was an alcoholic, forcing him to raise his little brother on his own. From this point on, Kevin asked everyone about their story. When one girl asked him to sign something for her friend, he asked, “What’s her story?” The question seemed fitting, considering the “teach me empathy” video he’d put out a month earlier. When asked why he was running on a treadmill for ten hours in front of his old Brockhampton home, Kevin replied, “empathy.” 

This was an exercise in humanity, and the treadmill was just an accessory. Getting to know someone, after all, doesn’t have to take hours; it takes a few questions and the ability to listen.

Watching the interactions between Kevin and his fans was sobering. Even when he was on the brink of passing out, he stopped to take photos with fans, signing shoes and Brockhampton apparel while adorning his trademark big-toothed smile. While watching, I thought a lot about smiling in the face of pain—in the face of depression or fame or strenuous physical activity. I felt bad about his situation, but then I remembered that his vigorous treadmilling was a choice. And it wasn’t as if he didn’t have anyone to help him; he asked fans several times to get on the treadmill so he could get a break. But then again, why didn’t they offer? Each time he wanted to take a break, he had to ask someone to get on. The fans in the comments started to point this out. “Why isn’t anyone asking him if he’s okay?” some asked. Some demanded the fans present in Corpus Christi stop asking him for photographs and autographs. People that weren’t there started to take ownership of Kevin Abstract through their protectiveness. Was this empathy? I still don’t know. I mean, who’s to say what I would do if I showed up during the final hours when he was at his worst?

I know exactly what I would do, and I would justify it by saying that this exertion was all his idea. It wouldn’t have been my fault he was running on a treadmill for ten hours; I didn’t tell him to do that. And on the other hand, I’m sure that he does believe the fans deserve to get his picture and signature. In this way, he equates his status with that of us laypeople. He’s just one of us unspectacular humans. Fittingly, Kevin said during the livestream that he got the treadmill idea from Shia LaBeouf’s paper-bag mask at the Berlin Film Festival that read “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.” 

The treadmill became a medium for thought, action, and introspection. Somebody even came out to their parents while walking on it as Kevin took a break. Just when the comment section began to chastise the Corpus Christi audience’s selfishness, a middle-aged mom complimented Kevin on what he was doing for young people around the world. I think we can all relate to a moment like that—when life is looking bleak, and suddenly someone comes along to appreciate your greatness. A lot of the time, it’s someone we didn’t even expect would care.  

Watching the livestream humbled me and reminded me of a feeling I’d been missing for a while: connection outside of social media. It’s funny, because the whole thing was only possible of social media, but Kevin humanized the event and taught me that modern empathy is possible. I’m going to remember the Pink-Haired Girl, “bro” guy, coming-out guy, and kind mom for a while. During those five hours I reflected on how my actions affect others and what it means to be considerate. I decided that maybe I wouldn’t ask him for a signature if I had the privilege of being there. It’s still a maybe, but that’s the ever-changing beauty of introspection.