I’ve been arguing with myself for the better half of the past two weeks, trying to figure out who actually won 2017. It’s not a matter of who made the most money, or who was the most popular. It’s not even a question of — as the kids say — who was living their best life.
No, I want to know who had the greatest impact on public discourse this year. When we look back, five or ten years from now, what will we say 2017 was the year of?
In order to get the bottom of this question, I chose to use the good ol' American method of comparative competition. I laid out all of the names (not just people, but places and things as well), and pit them against one and other in an NCAA March Madness-style bracket.
But before we get to the bracket, it’s important to note that not every “winner” of 2017 could fit — I only had 64 slots. So, while Frederick Douglass had a much better year than some of us who are actually living, his name isn’t on the list.
Okay, here’s the bracket:
The 16th seed in every division is someone who slid in: the underdog, the person/place/thing that finessed their way to victory this year. Whether it be through media antics or unhealthy relationships, the 16th seeds brought home a W. And if you ask me, a win is a win -- even if they played dirty.
Immigration is included as a concept that impacted the news, not just in the United States but abroad. In terms of the States, this is about DACA, ICE and travel bans. Immigration as a concept won a lot of public discourse this year, for better and for worse.
Natural disasters over Bhad Bhabie (the "Cash Me Outside" girl): While 14-year-old Bhad Bhabie had a ball on social media this year, even landing a multi-million dollar deal with Atlantic Records, she doesn’t hold a candle to the centripetal force that overtook the Atlantic Ocean this year -- let alone the California wildfires and the earthquakes that hit our neighbor to the south.
Tiffany Haddish over Lin-Manuel Miranda: Lin-Manuel Miranda has been on a roll since the success of Hamilton last year. I’ve seen him on everything from Sesame Street to Saturday Night Live. But the underdog, Tiffany Haddish, hit the silver screen and made a splash in Girls Trip; she killed interviews on late-night TV and early-morning radio, and she was also on SNL -- making history as the first African American female comedian to ever host the show. She won!
Maxine Waters over Marshawn Lynch: Despite the Raiders’ mediocre season, the Oakland African king known as “Beastmode” has had an incredible year. Besides playing for his hometown team, his clothing line is thriving and he has a reality show on Facebook video -- and it’s actually entertaining. But his year doesn’t compare to Maxine Waters'. She won 2017 with three simple words that carried more weight than even Marshawn’s most profoundly brief speeches: "Reclaiming my time."
Jay-Z over Aziz Ansari: Aziz had a great year with the successful second season of his show Master of None. But Hov is second to none when it comes to the art of rap. Although Jay took some Ls on social media, overall he had an amazing year, welcoming his newborn twins and enjoying the success of his latest album.
The Cast of Moonlight over Remy Ma: I’m all for formerly incarcerated people getting out and getting to work, and Remy did just that: She put in work. That "ShEther" track, a Nicki Minaj diss, turned heads. But the cast of the movie Moonlight unintentionally dropped a diss track when they accepted the Oscar for Best Picture over La La Land, and it was much more memorable.
Kim Jong-un over Tyler The Creator: I really just want to see these two guys compete -- like, in real life. I don’t care if it’s a Hacky race, arm wrestling match or a game of NBA Jam on Sega. It’d just be entertaining. But for the sake of this bracket, Kim wins over Tyler off the strength of beefing with 45 and launching multiple missiles as a “test."
Chance The Rapper over Kamala Harris: This is a tough one. Kamala is a force to be reckoned with, undoubtedly. Even though this is her first go-round as senator, she’s spearheaded some great work, from demanding that Al Franken step down to championing bail reform. But Chance the Rapper is a rapper, and he’s fighting a very similar legislative fight. Mr. Rapper pushed for education reform in his native Chicago, won three Grammys this year, recently tried on the role of a weatherman and dropped a Christmas album.
45 over Chadwick Boseman: Actor Chadwick Boseman (a.k.a. Thurgood Marshall, a.k.a. Jackie Robinson, a.k.a. the Black Panther) has had a great year. But unfortunately, Mr. 45 was inaugurated as the President of the United States in January, and, somehow, he remains. He stirred the pot more times than Boseman this year.
Domestic Terrorism over Joe Budden: Joe made his way back into the limelight via Complex's Everyday Struggle series, and his ongoing beef with Lil Yachty and Migos put him squarely in the middle of the old- vs. new-school hip-hop debate. But domestic terrorism, in the form of mass shootings, has claimed more lives than we can accept as a nation. Headline after headline, seemingly every week, there was another shooting.
Daniel Caesar over Kate McKinnon: While Kate brought light and laughter into our lives on many nights of wondering what the hell the people in Washington are doing, it was Daniel Caesar who provided the soundtrack to marriage proposals, weddings and young love. His words, while not nearly as funny as Kate’s, made us tear up all the same.
The Houston Astros over Tracee Ellis Ross: Okay, Tracee is the bomb. Like, old-school, '90s-slang the bomb. She’s a great media personality, an extremely accomplished actress and she’s freaking beautiful! Her accomplishments with Black-ish should be acknowledged. But, I think even she’d agree how incredible it was that the Houston Astros brought the MLB World Series trophy to H-Town for the first time, especially after that massive hurricane. It was the work of heroes.
Colin Kaepernick over Dave Chappelle: Dave came out of retirement, dropped two stand-up specials on Netflix with more to come, made an appearance on Def Comedy Jam and rocked some local Bay Area shows. Meanwhile, Colin hasn’t played a single snap in the 2017-2018 NFL season, but he’s had the most influence on football at large and America's ongoing conversation about civil rights. Hence, the GQ Citizen of the Year nod.
Kevin Durant over Daveed Diggs: Daveed has been on a roll since the stage play Hamilton. I’ve spotted him in TV shows and sitting courtside in Los Angeles. But Kevin Durant won his first NBA championship. And as a Bay Area native and Warriors fan, I know Daveed appreciates that.
Cardi B over Asahd Khaled: Look man, I don’t think there’s a kid who’s had a better first year of living. Asahd can brag for the rest of his life that his baby photo, an image of him draped in gold chains, is on the cover of a top-selling album. DJ Khaled and Nicole Tuck, you’re doing just fine. But Cardi B kicked in the door of the pop culture world, and we saw nothing but the red bottoms of her bloody shoes. She dropped a summer anthem and hasn’t turned back since. This was her year.
Issa Rae over SZA: In another close matchup, these two both put it down for the culture. SZA had an amazing run: She dropped a great album while being one of the flyest human beings on the internet. But Issa Rae’s success with the second season of her show, Insecure, deserves praise. Plus, Issa’s comment about how she’s “rooting for everybody black” on the Emmys red carpet stole the show. She wins.
Public Protests over Miss Texas, Margana Wood: Margana’s comment about 45 and white supremacy were amazing usage of her platform, but nothing compares to the people power exhibited in the form of protests this year. From protests at the San Francisco Airport challenging Trump's travel ban to protests in Virginia against white supremacy, this year has seen an amazing amount of people coming together to demonstrate their beliefs.
Healthcare over Chris Brown: While Mr. Brown won back some fans by releasing a documentary and 40-track album, his art paled in comparison to the healthcare debate, a tug-of-war between legislators that will have lasting impact for generations. When we look back at 2017, we'll have no choice but to acknowledge it.
Star Wars over Ed Sheeran: Sorry Ed, you had a hit song, great album and a good run. But this is Star Wars we’re talking about.
Jordan Peele over Logic: Logic dropped a much-needed track about suicide awareness, but Get Out brought a clever, necessary take on racial issues that have been plaguing America from the start. On top of that, Jordan took a step outside of his normal comedy writing and created a thriller. It’s not a comedy, no matter what the people who give awards say.
Migos over Doug Jones: While Doug Jones’ December win in the Alabama Senate race made headlines, the rap group Migos had pop culture in a headlock. Hit songs, appearances at award shows and countless memes -- the W goes to the trio from Atlanta, not the politician from Alabama.
Bitcoin over Kofi Siriboe: Kofi, a handsome gentleman who stole the attention of my girlfriend and my momma, had a great year. His appearances in Queen Sugar and Girls Trip thrust him into the spotlight. But know what looks better than Kofi? A Bitcoin. The crypto-currency made headlines in the past couple months as its value rose astronomically, then crashed again. Winner goes to the intangible coins.
Beyoncé over LecRae: Uh… They’re both from Houston. And, um… they both make music. But the comparisons stop there. Queen B by a landslide.
The Washington Post over the cast from Stranger Things: While 11 and her cast of lovable dweebs stole our hearts and pushed our imaginations to the limit, the staff at the Washington Post brought reality to our doorsteps. I’m a fan of a good science fiction series, especially one that takes you to another dimension, but “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is an undeniably cold tagline. And true to form, WaPo’s coverage of domestic politics, international war and much more kept me informed in the dark days of 2017. It’s like they've kept a finger on the pulse of “the upside down.”
Immigration over Rapsody: Rapsody dropped a top-tier rap album this year, but the issue of immigration is bigger than hip-hop. Sorry Rapsody — immigration wins this one.
#MeToo over Blac Chyna: In short, Blac Chyna got over on her former romantic partner and secured the bag. Congrats. But the #MeToo movement was the biggest clap-back to all the men in positions of power who’ve been getting over on women for years. The #MeToo movement by a landslide.
Solange over Gucci Mane: This is a close one. It might even go into overtime. Solange slayed 2017. Her 2016 album A Seat At the Table carried right over into a successful 2017 tour, TV appearances and magazine covers. Plus her hair is amazing -- and no, you can’t touch it. But Gucci also built on the momentum of an amazing 2016, by getting married and dropping a book. Big life goals accomplished this year for Mr. Mane, a formerly incarcerated man. In the end, though, it's Solange at the buzzer.
Serena Williams over Blake Shelton: Okay, Blake was awarded Sexiest Man Alive by People Magazine, and we’re still wondering if every other man on the planet is dead. Serena won 2017. The Australian Open, a building named after her at Nike’s HQ, and a newborn child? Winner.
Taylor Swift over Tom Brady: This is a close one. You’ve got to give it to Tom — what he did in the Super Bowl was amazing. And then he came back to the 2017-2018 NFL season at age 40 and played better than almost every other quarterback. But I’m tired of Tom winning. So Taylor, with her No. 1 album, Saturday Night Live appearance and new beau, gets the W.
Rihanna over LaVar Ball: LaVar talks a lot. He’s gotten some play because of it, from ESPN mentions to a 45 Twitter diss. He’s had a great year. But come on, we’re talking about Rihanna, who took over the fashion and makeup worlds with Fenty this year. Case closed.
Kendrick Lamar over The Rock: I’m still not sure about this one. The Rock had a great year: movies, magazines and the news that he and his partner are expecting a second child. But the Good Kid from M.A.A.D. City, a.k.a. King Kunta, a.k.a. K.Dot dropped an album and all the other rappers took notes. And then he reversed the track listing and dropped the same album again later in the year, and now that’s selling. Winner: Kung Fu Kenny.
Tax Reform over Michael Che: Michael got a Netflix special -- plus he's had a memorable run on Saturday Night Live, so much so that he was promoted to co-head writer. But the authors of the 2017 tax reform bill stole the show -- along with a lot of other things.
Natural Disasters over Tiffany Haddish: Tiffany’s natural gift for comedic storytelling is no match for Mother Nature’s anger at the man-made issue of global warming.
Maxine Waters over Jay-Z: Look, Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé, put together some clever words over dope beats and dropped an album about it. He made a lot of money, too. Big whoop. Maxine Waters has put in work! She’s served in Congress since 1991, and this year she might’ve reached her pop culture apex. Beyond the work that she does for African Americans, women and the LGBTQ community, she dropped three words that were hotter than Hov’s whole album. “Reclaiming my time” is such a profound sentiment. That’s how you speak truth to power. It’s perfect for the short attention span of the internet age. I even briefly considered getting it tattooed. No Jay-Z lyrics from 4:44 spoke to me in the same way.
Kim Jong-un over the cast of Moonlight: Sorry Hollywood, drama about the guy over in North Korea with his finger on nuclear arms garnered more attention this year.
45 over Chance the Rapper: Sorry Chance, all of your efforts are respectable and you’re doing your part. But 45 has a lock on this one. Maybe one day we’ll have Mr. Rapper run for president, but until then, the current person in the oval office wins this one.
Domestic Terrorism over Daniel Caesar: Sorry Daniel, unfortunately love doesn’t win this battle. Domestic Terrorism is too widespread, allowing fear to flourish in the hearts of many, and causing a love exodus.
Colin over the Houston Astros: While the accomplishments of the Astros on the baseball field were amazing, Colin won football without even putting on a jersey -- evidence that this isn’t just a game.
Cardi B over Kevin Durant: Kevin dropped the ball with his social media flub over the summer while Cardi B broke chart records and flourished online.
Public Protests over Issa Rae: Issa held it down for the culture, but the mass amounts of protests were evidence that there's a mass culture of people coming together to hold down their beliefs.
Healthcare over Star Wars: Because healthcare is real and impacts us all, and I’ve never seen Star Wars before. Like, not a single movie. But I went to the doctor last week.
Migos over Jordan Peele: This one is debatable. Both have done it for the culture. But man, Migos have been everywhere! I give it to them.
Beyoncé over Bitcoin: Bitcoin has grown since it came into existence in 2009, and this year it blew the ceiling off the financial world. But Beyoncé has been glowing since birth, and this year, she used her music to do philanthropy work, graced the cover of numerous magazines and gave birth to twins. Her husband and little sister both had great years, but Beyoncé is the highest paid woman in music. If she allowed her face to be on a form of currency, Bitcoin would be gone.
Immigration over The Washington Post: As much as I appreciate a quality publication, the issue of immigration in American predates and might outlast this periodical. And this year in particular, the issue of immigration was one of the things that kept the newspaper going.
#MeToo over Solange: Witnessing how her music empowers women, I don’t think Solange would disagree.
Serena Williams over Taylor Swift: Taylor had a good year, no lie. Record sales, awards and even reports of a new love. And the whole “name a bitch badder than Taylor Swift” thing brought about a wealth of lessons about powerful women in society, so I guess we should thank her. But let's be real, Serena won the Australian open in January and set the record for most Grand Slams, she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition, and Nike recently named a building after her. Oh, and she gave birth to her first child. Serena is a *queen* badder than Taylor Swift.
Rihanna over LeBron: Look man, LeBron won at birth. I know he grew up in a rough childhood and worked hard to get where he is, but the man was blessed with physical attributes that make mere mortals look weak in comparison. This year, he also lost the NBA championship to Kevin Durant & Co. Meanwhile, Rihanna, who sat courtside for a few of those NBA Finals games, put her stamp on this year, from fashion to music. Her beauty line Fenty was all over social media as fans flocked to support her latest venture. She became outspoken on political issues, using social media to voice her opinions. And, as if that weren’t enough, Bad Girl Riri got a noticeably healthier physique this past year, setting Instagram aflame with conversation.
Tax Reform over Kendrick Lamar: Sorry Kendrick, your music is good and all, but this Tax Reform bill was pretty big news.
Natural Disasters over Maxine Waters: Maxine had a good run, and will continue to do incredible work. But natural disasters won this in a blowout.
45 over Kim Jong-un: First off, I really don’t want to see this battle actually happen. And I’m not trying to fuel the flames by suggesting that 45 had a better year than Kim Jong-un, but without the 45th President of the United States of America saying Kim Jong-un’s name (or other things that he’s called him), I don’t know how much limelight the President of North Korea would’ve received. Even if you don’t like 45, you have to acknowledge that he accomplished one thing this year: He didn’t get fired. Not yet! So, kudos to him for that. Now, let's hope these two can move toward a resolution and keep us from total global thermonuclear destruction.
Domestic Terrorism over Colin Kaepernick: Colin can work with youth, make social media comments and kneel all he wants, but people are still dying by way of random mass shootings -- and I think Colin would agree. He’d even have a rational point if he were to lump police shootings into the definition of domestic terrorism.
Public Protests over Cardi B: Sorry Cardi, pop culture and fashion are cool, but there’s nothing like seeing democracy at work. I’m a fan of seeing people come together for parties, but an even bigger fan for people coming together to rally for a collective cause.
Healthcare over Migos: Migos, it was fun while it lasted, but the healthcare debate is real. Sorry guys — you lose this one by a lot.
Immigration over Beyoncé: Believe it or not, there is something more important than Beyoncé. Immigration isn’t just an American issue, it’s a global issue. And while Beyoncé's music is known around the world, the issue of immigration was front and center all over the world this year.
#MeToo over Serena: Serena had a great year, but as an accomplished athlete who doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as her male counterparts, I’m sure she would agree that the #MeToo movement’s progress this year is extremely important.
Tax Reform over Rihanna: Sorry Bad Gal, I love all that you’ve got going on, but this tax reform bill is one for the ages.
Natural Disasters over 45: The lights are still off in Puerto Rico. 45 is a loser.
Public Protests over Domestic Terrorism: This is a close one. It’s my hope that people will look back at this year and say "wow" at both things, but they’ll note that the protests had a larger impact than mass shootings -- hopefully.
Immigration over Healthcare: In an upset, the underdog becomes the winner.
#MeToo over Tax Reform: While the tax reform bill impacts a large amount of people, the #MeToo movement brought about more headlines unique to this year. What’s really new about corrupt politicians pushing policies to pad their pockets?
Natural Disasters over Public Protests: Humans can organize all they want, but mother nature wins every time. Especially this year.
#MeToo over Immigration: This is a close one. But I believe the community of undocumented blue-collar workers would concur that something needs to be done about toxic masculinity, unwanted sexual advances and rape. #MeToo wins.
And the Winner Is...
In a close one, natural disasters win over the #MeToo movement. It's close because both issues are very similar: they're both man-made, they stem from issues that were ignored for years, they both became truly evident this year, and neither are going away anytime soon. But the thing that makes 2017 the year of natural disasters and not the year of the #MeToo campaign is the fact that this year was a terrifying anomaly for climate, crops, and calamities -- and though the chatter about sexual harassment and assault was a little louder this year, the risks of it for women in and out of the workplace didn’t change... they've always been there.
So five or ten years from now, we’ll look back at this year and say that Daniel Caesar made a soundtrack for love. Beyoncé and Serena brought life into the world. Maxine Waters and Chance the Rapper both fought for righteousness in politics. LaVar Ball, Cardi B and Ed Sheeran all made their mark.
But natural disasters won by a longshot -- and, unfortunately, will probably continue.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.