Today, some of the most powerful voices in art and activism are coming are teenagers who know how to use their creative outlets, as well as social media, to reach the masses. From the refreshingly unique musical voices of artists like Raury and Willow Smith, to Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg refusing to stay silent when they see racial injustice aimed either directly or indirectly towards them, today's teens are creating the future right before our eyes. Here are just 18 of the many influential young pop cultural leaders of our time, in their own words.
Alessia Cara hasn't even released a full album yet, but she's quickly become one of pop and R&B's most buzzed-about new artists. Her refreshing single "Here," debut EP Four Pink Walls and a star-making turn on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon have all set her up for what's sure to be a long-lasting, vital career.
She Says: "I want to change views, resonate, and make people feel something. The best reward one can receive as an artist is people viewing their music as art that provokes real feelings. That's all I care about. Doing all these little shows, looking into the crowd and seeing people sing lyrics from my songs is the greatest thing ever. It's so significant to me because I'm a music lover and a fan first. I do that with my idols and seeing people do that for me is the coolest feeling in the world."
Her Peers: "As far as artists go, I admire Lorde, Kehlani, Raury, Melanie Martinez and Chance the Rapper, to name a few. Seeing young artists take control of their work and deliver amazing art as a result is really inspiring to me. It's something I've always done and have tried to do with my career. Seeing other artists like me be successful at it is an awesome thing. A young intellectual I admire is Tavi Gevinson because she is a smart, lovely superwoman."
Jacob Whitesides became a hit on YouTube with his covers and is one of the best examples of DIY Internet success. He's built a massive following across social media, which has helped skyrocket his original songs on the Top 40 and singer-songwriter charts. He released his debut EP, A Piece of Me, earlier this year and is preparing a follow-up for October.
He Says: "Sometimes I think we live in a world where even when things are good, people always feel unsatisfied with wherever they are, so I think first I just want to enjoy being happy where I am now and not let my ambition take away from being in the moment. Everyday I'm working hard to improve my craft as an artist, my connection with the best fans and keep pushing my work ethic. All those things make me happy."
His Heroes: "It seems obvious to say, but I really admire the creative sides of Steve Jobs. I am here talking to Rolling Stone because of an iPhone. Music has transformed because of Apple. But I would have to say that among my peers, Boyan Slat really impresses me. He has used the Internet to help us improve the environment and raised a couple of million dollars to help clean up the ocean. I admire him."
At 14, Hailee Steinfeld was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in True Grit, and her career has only grown brighter since. She starred in an updated version of Romeo and Juliet in 2013 and showed off her vocal chops in Pitch Perfect 2, which also previewed her debut single, the upbeat, infectious "Love Myself." Currently, she's filming another installment of Pitch Perfect and prepping her debut album.
She Says: "The role of Mattie Ross in True Grit was an undeniable launching pad. Since then, I've learned and absorbed bits and pieces from every film set that has helped me grow in this business as an artist. My hope is to continue exploring new characters and opportunities in film that I haven't done before. Maybe taking some risks, and setting goals beyond my current reach."
Her Heroes: "I hesitate to zero in on one person as there are many individuals who have inspired me in music and acting. I find inspiration in people every day, and not necessarily known personalities. Often times, it's just by observing a good deed or reading a newspaper article that makes me feel motivated to aim higher.
"I admire my peers who keep their head down, focus on on the work and have fun doing what they love. Being young doesn't mean I can't take control of my life and have an opinion or make decisions that will ultimately define my future. I know I want longevity in this business and will avoid the pitfalls that would jeopardize it."
Raury's 2014 mixtape, Indigo Child, was a game-changer. The Georgia native effortlessly fused folk with hip-hop, making a refreshingly eclectic sound reminiscent of his heroes Outkast (whom he has opened for live). "They made us feel that it was OK to like different things and still relate to what was popular," he says. With his upcoming album, All We Need, Raury is preparing to do just the same for a new generation of kids.
He Says: "My hopes as an artist are very simple. I just want to be able to be that conscious voice in the back of all the kids and adults that listen to my music, telling them to chase their dreams. Encounter and overcome their fears. As cliché as it sounds I believe anything is possible. I'm 19 years old doing an interview with Rolling Stone, which may seem like a reach for many people, but I thought it was possible, and here I am. Live out your fucking dreams. No one can stop you. And if they try, run them over as you make it to your finish line and come back to pick them up."
His Peers: "I'm into everybody. I believe that people are here for different purposes and for that I appreciate them. I like what Jaden and Willow are doing. I'm into Chance the Rapper, Lorde, Joey Bada$$, and, of course, the Underachievers. Kehlani is an amazing soul. I love and support my generation wholeheartedly. We aren't next; we are now."
Pop needs a punky, angsty, rock-tinged new voice and Bea Miller is here to deliver it. She does so on her debut album, Not an Apology, which was led by her catchy, strong singles "Young Blood" and "Fire N Gold." Miller got her musical start in 2012 when she competed on the American version of The X Factor against girl group and summer tour mates Fifth Harmony. While neither act won that season, Miller and 5H have proved that they don't need a reality competition title to take over the charts.
She Says: "The best moments for me have always been meeting people who are the same age as I am who have connected to my music and been greatly impacted by it. Being able to talk to the people whose lives you were at any point able to change for the better — or even distract them from any struggles they were going through — is incredible. I would love to age with my fans and always give them music they relate to and tell them the things other artists are hesitant to say. I just want to connect with everyone who needs to hear what I have to say."
Her Peers: "I really appreciate Willow Smith's recent music. She is truly very talented and intelligent. She doesn't do what everyone else does just because that's the popular thing to do. She isn't intimidated by anyone's opinion and is very much herself, which is admirable for someone young."
From the moment "Royals" began to blow up, Lorde became the voice of her generation. She gives an honest perspective on the teenage experience not only in her songs — she was one of the few teen pop stars at the time to write the words she would sing — but also on her social-media accounts, where she shares her opinions and fears. Her debut album, Pure Heroine, was an instant success, and in the aftermath, she's become a trusted music curator, helping assemble the brilliant soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1. Oh yeah, and the living members of Nirvana handpicked her to sing with them when they performed at the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction. Currently, Lorde is attempting to follow all this up by writing her highly-anticipated sophomore album.
She Says: "I've always been into the idea of confidence," she told Rolling Stone last year in her cover story. "Like, I called my record Pure Heroine. Even my stage name is kind of cocky and grandiose. I get paralyzingly nervous a lot of times, so I tried bravado. They way I dress and carry myself, a lot of people find it strange or intimidating. I think my whole career can be boiled down to the one word I always say in meetings: strength."
Her Heroes: Lorde counts Patti Smith, Phil Collins, Kanye West, electronic group Mount Kimbie and writer Raymond Carver among the artists she loves. Of West, she said, "He's a huge inspiration. He's like, 'I don't care what anyone else thinks about what I say, I'm saying it anyway.' But it's incredible hard to live with being that person, sometimes."
It can be difficult for a child of two famous parents to find a successful way to separate themselves from their family's legacy, but Willow Smith, as well as her brother Jaden, have done so impressively. Willow rose to prominence at the age of seven when she joined her father, Will Smith, in I Am Legend, and she solidified herself as a musical force to be reckoned with at the age of 10 with "Whip My Hair." In the years following her pop success, however, the youngest member of the Smith family has found new independent inspirations, and as a result, diverged in a more atmospheric and trippy R&B direction.
She Says: "The most significant moments in my career have been when I said no to Annie and when I started producing my own music. I want to be a renaissance women. And I want to help young artists find their ways of expression — and it doesn’t even have to be through music. I just recruited an artist named JABS and it makes me ecstatic to see the spiritual growth that music creates in a being."
Her Heroes: "Amandla Stenberg is a really good friend of mine and we have conversations for hours about what we feel we need to do to evolve the world, and I admire her."
Shawn Mendes rose to prominence as a Vine star, posting six-second covers to the video-sharing app. He released his debut single, "Life of the Party," at the age of 15 and his debut album, Handwritten, earlier this year. His single "Stitches" has become a pop smash, peaking at Number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, while Handwritten debuted at Number One. Currently, Mendes is opening for a former teen idol turned pop superstar, Taylor Swift.
He Says: "Having a Number One album was something I could never have dreamt in a million years and was so significant to me. And now having two singles from the album go platinum, and a big radio hit, all in under a year, really is more than I could ever ask for. Finding out that my fans sold out all of my headline tour dates in minutes, [and] when we got the call that Taylor wanted me on the 1989 tour, were both just so surreal."
His Heroes: "I've always admired anyone that at a young age knows what they want in life and actually goes out and tries it. There are so many amazing new young artists and creatives I can't even begin to name them! I always looked up to artists like Justin Timberlake, Ed Sheeran, John Mayer and others that started at a young age and just kept on working until they were masters at their craft."
Brooklyn-based metal trio Unlocking the Truth's Malcolm Brickhouse and Jarad Dawkins have been playing music together since they were in the single digits. The experience shows: Their music and live shows are tighter than many bands with members twice their age. Since gaining national exposure in 2013 when a video of the trio performing in Times Square went viral, Unlocking the Truth have performed at major fests like Coachella and AfroPunk and opened for acts that are not only their heroes but also the titans of the genre as well: Guns N' Roses, Motörhead, Queens of the Stone Age and more. Still, for them, nothing was cooler than meeting Metallica.
They Say: "I hope our band becomes one of the best metal bands and that we can reach all kinds of audiences," enthuses Brickhouse, the group's singer and guitarist. "I also want to write and produce music for other artists in different genres of music."
Their Heroes: Brickhouse cites Japanese "cute metal" pioneers Baby Metal "because they've come a long way just like us," he says. Drummer Dawkins, meanwhile, expresses admiration for hard-hitting groups like Chelsea Grin, Memphis May Fire, Disturbed and Killswitch Engage, whose influence can be heard in Unlocking the Truth's sound.
In 2013, Martin Garrix released an EDM song so massive and immediately iconic that two years after it's release, "Animals" is still a mainstay at EDM festivals. Since dropping the track, Garrix has won over some of the genre's biggest names and has been taken under the wing of veteran DJ Tiësto. The 19-year-old has released two EPs — Gold Skies and Break Through the Silence — and even debuted a new single with Usher called "Don't Look Down" back in March.
He Says: "I want to do so much. I don't know where to start." Garrix laughs. "I definitely want to keep evolving myself as a producer. Not only for Martin Garrix songs, but also [as a producer] for other artists and projects. I recently produced music for a movie, which was a really cool and instructive project for me. I also hope to put out an album in the near future. At the moment I'm working on my live show as well, we have put together the best team possible to create something that's different and next level — I really love to perform for my fans and want to give them the best possible experience. On a personal level, I just hope I can make the people around me happy and spend a lot of time with my friends and family!"
His Peers: "I admire a lot of other young talents. For instance, my DJ buddies Julian Jordan and Justin Mylo, but also Ansel Elgort is someone I have a lot of respect for!"
The casting of Cory and Topanga's daughter in the highly-anticipated sequel to beloved sitcom Boy Meets World was key for the success of Girl Meets World. But Rowan Blanchard has done more than deliver as the charming, silly and smart daughter of one of television's most endearing couples. Thirteen-year-old Blanchard is not only a strong actress but has also made a name for herself as an outspoken feminist activist, as well. Earlier this summer, she spoke at the UN Women's Conference about gender equality and wrote a viral Tumblr post on white feminism.
She Says: "There was a moment a few weeks ago where we were filming a very emotional and transitional episode for my character and I made a decision prior to the taping to go method for it. It was really fascinating for me. My character was getting bullied and I found myself in between takes actually thinking as the character, like talking to myself in her head. There was a scene where I broke down crying and during it I think I re-fell in love with acting. I feed off of experiences like that."
Her Heroes: "Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors and writers of all time. He is one of the few directors who has created a universe with their art. I also adore Sofia Coppola and John Hughes's films. And also Stanley Kubrick's films — I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is perfection. My favorite actress of all time is Audrey Hepburn. When I first saw My Fair Lady, I just knew I always wanted to act. My other favorite actors are Colin Firth, Kevin Spacey, Marion Cotillard, Emma Stone and Jessica Lange, to name a few."
Tavi Gevinson's illustrious career launched at the age of 12, when her blog Style Rookie began gaining widespread attention. At the age of 15, she launched Rookie magazine, an online site and safe space for teenage girls that has transformed into a DIY empire with an international community of readers. Over the past few years, Gevinson has also explored acting and performing, appearing in movies (Enough Said), on television (Parenthood, Scream Queens) and on Broadway (This Is Our Youth, The Crucible).
She Says: "It's deeply gratifying to have Rookie events and meet people who read it and who have a lot to say about it. That's the best I could possibly hope for: that they feel connected to it and less alone, and that it's alleviated some of the pains of being a teenager. With writing, I'm just happy whenever I can put something that's been on my mind into words, and it's an added bonus when the response unfolds and I understand that I'm not alone."
Her Peers: "Lorde inspires me so much in her approach to writing. I love that album and could pick it apart to bits and grill her about it for hours. I also really admire how confident she is in her own point of view, as an artist as well as a businesswoman. She knows that no one could possibly know her identity as an artist as well as she does. She is only interested in what will make her a more complex human being, and is able to maintain that in an industry with other priorities. I just love her.
"I admire Amandla Stenberg for being so outspoken and making so many young people feel more OK in the world just by being herself and being visible. Rowan Blanchard is a terrific writer as well as actress, and I would recommend her essay on intersectional feminism to anyone and everyone. Willow [Smith] is so confident and has such a complete vision for her music and videos."
Both Jaden Smith and his sister Willow launched their careers by acting alongside their father, but both have also paved their own way since. While Jaden has starred in big-budget films for most of his youth (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Karate Kid), his true passion seems to lie in music. He's become prolific on SoundCloud, releasing sullen, moody rap tracks that rival the darkly ethereal sound of his sister. Not to mention, the young artist has one of the best Twitter accounts on the site.
He Says: "My favorite moment of my career was when I designed and released my own platform called Cool Tape Volume 2 for free on the app store. No other major artist signed to a label or independent artist has done this before. I hope that the future of my career involves inspiring the youth to change the world from being a dark desolate place into a creative happy real life dream that we can live in."
His Heroes: "Artists that I admire include Kanye West, Elon Musk, Edgar Casey and Nostradamus. Other teenage artists and intellectuals that I admire include Raury and Ian Connor."
Amandla Stenberg has proven that there's much more to her than just the blockbuster franchise that launched her career. Following a role in The Hunger Games, Stenberg has been one of the most thoughtful, intelligent voices in the public sphere on race, feminism and the intersection of the two. While she's continued acting, Stenberg has explored a variety of mediums, and she's just getting warmed up. Soon, she'll release a comic book titled Niobe: She Is Life, and her folk duo Honeywater recently dropped a self-titled EP. "I love all mediums of art and hope to use it as a conduit for my beliefs and change," she explains.
She Says: "The most gratifying experiences for me have been having people my age saying that because of me, they are more comfortable with and proud of their identity. It's incredible to me that I can use my platform to connect to people in a such a powerful way. I think there are a lot of girls craving nuanced representation. I hope I can in some way provide that."
Her Peers: "Willow Smith is so unapologetically herself. That kind of touching genuineness and carefree love can be hard to find. Thankfully, I am surrounded by a community of kickass, warmhearted and passionate girls that have become my closest friends. I met Rowan Blanchard a few years ago. We were just reminiscing and marveling at how we've grown together. I am so proud of her for the way she has taken up the cause of intersectional feminism. She is wise beyond her years. Lorde inspires me with her vision, her drive, her cleverness and her warmth. Tavi Gevinson is one of the coolest people and was my role model long before I met her. I think she's one of my soul sisters. Kiernan Shipka is so stylish and has the best taste in everything. She is also such a supportive friend and I feel lucky to have her by my side."
Last year, Becky G had a summer smash with her single "Shower." Since then, she's found herself collaborating with everyone from Kesha to Will.I.Am and has garnered cosigns from Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez — the latter even made a cameo in the new artist's J. Lo tribute "Becky From the Block." The young pop star released a wonderfully fun new single "Break a Sweat," has a full-length album on the way and nabbed a highly-coveted guest spot on Fox smash Empire.
She Says: "I look forward to just growing and learning more about myself as a person and as an artist. I'm only 18 and there's so much I have yet to do and live. I love traveling so getting to travel more is one of them. I guess I'm just looking forward to experiencing what life has to offer and documenting that through my music. I love music so much and look forward to continuing the growth on my sound and sharing it with my fans. It's definitely my main focus right now before anything else! [But] I love acting! I would love to one day really pursue that side of entertainment. Also fashion! Having my own clothing line and makeup line are on my list of things to do."
Her Heroes: "Demi Lovato and Justin Bieber have literally grown up in front of our eyes as human beings and also as artists. It takes a lot to be vulnerable and honest with your fans and audience. They have struggled and turned that struggle into strength and made something positive out of it. It seems like they're very involved in the creative process of their careers, which is also really inspiring."
Zendaya has become Disney's latest breakout star not only for her acting and budding singing career, but also for her strong-willed and often hilarious public persona. She's become a master of social media, doing everything from filming videos of herself lip-syncing to Nicki Minaj, to responding thoughtfully to poorly directed critiques of her red-carpet dreadlocks. She got her start on Shake It Up and now stars in K.C. Undercover; this fall, she'll make a guest appearance on the sitcom Black-ish.
She Says: "As an artist I've definitely made a lot of personal advances when it comes to stepping up my music and standing strong in my musical vision, even to producing my own show. But in the future I want to continue to keep learning more about the business aspect of this entertainment world — so important for a young person to know their own business — but also expand into drama and hopefully the big screen."
Her Fans: "I never take [my fans] for granted. When I travel abroad and have massive amounts of people in front of my hotel, I try to sign every scrap of paper and take every picture because I'm honestly so grateful for them. People or 'celebrities' often forget that those 'fans' out there are human beings, real people with real emotions who care and love you! Without those people I don't get to be in that fancy hotel, so I make it my business to say thank you. That's how you know you've made it, but haven't lost what's most important."