In November of 2014, Jackson Howard published his site’s most widely read and acclaimed piece to date from the colorful city and spiritual capital of India, Varanasi. At the time Howard was bedridden after losing 25 pounds from contracting E. Coli; however, he managed to feebly traverse to and from the Internet café in order to successfully publish his groundbreaking interview with forgotten hip hop protégé, Hitman.
Howard is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of Not Mad, a student-run digital magazine that discusses art, music, culture, personal narratives, and social change. The publication caters to college-aged students, and in a broader sense, the entire millennial generation. “The thing that really drives me to do it is that it feels like for kids our age there is such a heavy sense of irony and embarrassment in outwardly claiming things we are passionate about,” Howard said. For this reason, he and his partner Rio did not want to create a “nihilistic, pessimistic cultural criticism,” but rather sought to provide a platform through which young adults can genuinely explore their interests and discuss the issues that are salient to people of that generation.
Howard and his partner pride themselves on their success in establishing a distinct and expressive voice that permeates throughout the content. Even in the beginning stages when they were desperate for content, they fought to maintain a quippy, clever, genuine voice that also embraces their youthful naiveté. “Keeping a strong voice that’s unrelenting and unbending to popular pressure, economic interests, or the desire to have more content is at the root of all of it,” Howard said.
Not Mad has transformed from a small project where Howard and his partner churned out all the content into a literary community with a “revolving door” of 45 contributors that range from close friends to professional freelance journalists with impressive resumes (think New York Magazine and Afropunk). Social networking has played an integral part in sourcing new contributors—from writers to artists to musicians—as well in disseminating their work and growing their readership.
Howard’s primary role at the publication is working intimately with the writers and editing the content to ensure that each writer’s strong personal voice is able to shine through while still preserving the overarching tone of the magazine. He says that the most common struggle he faces is receiving articles that sound like academic papers. Not Mad does not publish neutral content and intentionally highlights the writers’ biases. “Part of our writing style is that you’re always aware of the writer; even if the first person isn’t used, the writer is still very much involved in the piece you’re reading,” Howard said.
One of the firsts aspects readers notice about Not Mad is the vibrant and crisp aesthetic, which is designed by Howard’s partner. They aim to exclusively showcase artwork from fellow college-aged students. A crucial part of their identity and brand stems from promoting the work of like-minded millennials. “Equally important to the quality of the articles is the fact that we are supporting kids who are doing the same stuff that we are doing.”
The practice of featuring relatively unknown artists on their site extends to the interviews they choose to conduct. While Howard and his partner both come from families in LA who are involved in the entertainment industry, they have refrained from the temptation of pulling celebrities and big-name artists in order to boost readership; instead, they have intentionally chosen to interview subjects who align with their vision. For instance, some of the interviews that Howard is most proud of were with Marcus Haney—a man who created a documentary after posing as press and sneaking into music festivals across the country—and Lisa Cooper, the stylist behind all of Beyoncé’s music videos.
The piece that has garnered the most attention, however, is the Hitman piece Howard published from India. In the early 2000s, Hitman was a rapper taken under Dr. Dre’s wing and featured on Dre’s album “2001” more times than any other artist, including Snoop Dogg or Eminem. At the time, he was set up to be the next big name in hip hop; he was on the brink of eminence when he inexplicably disappeared from the public eye. With the 15th anniversary of the album approaching, Howard found and reached out to him on Twitter, riddled with curiosity about his abrupt decline into obscurity. “When I found him on Twitter, he only had 500 followers. He hadn’t done an interview in eight years. Nobody had searched him out. Nobody had even cared.” The result was a three part series that satisfied the ravenous interest of hip hop heads” and simultaneously became a gripping human-interest story for those who had never heard of him.
Despite the success of Not Mad, Howard still struggles internally with a quintessential millennial dilemma of wanting to make a valuable contribution to the digital society that dominates the daily lives of our generation and feeling uneasy about the perpetual reliance on technology and connection. Publishing the Hitman piece from an Internet cafe in India where cows leisurely mooed outside especially provoked the feeling that there was something inherently superficial or unnatural about channeling our identities into a virtual outlet. In his eye, this could very well lead the world to neglect the present world.
Ultimately, Howard hopes that Not Mad will be a safe space where millennials can voice these types of struggles that are uniquely characteristic of our age group. “People don’t just want listicles, and they don’t just want super heady intellectual academic stuff,” Howard said. “There’s a need for what we’re doing and college-aged kids have a thirst for more.” In the future, Howard hopes to transform the Not Mad brand into a lifestyle, much like Vice has done, by expanding into a variety of platforms. Howard’s eventual goal is for Not Mad to become “a voice of a generation that is able to encapsulate and represent what it means to be our age in 2015—to embody something much bigger than me or than any of us.”