Image via Element Skateboards
Image via Element Skateboards
Nyjah Huston, barely seventeen, is conventionally awkward. His shoulders droop, his frame is narrow and noodly, and his shoes silly-big. Beneath a forehead brailled by faint acne, his facial features don't seem yet to agree, quite. In recent video interviews, he is uncomfortable, with smiles only halfway organic and blinks that linger too long. It’s a gentle boil of adolescent anxiety—you can tell he’s considering escape.
This also is the most comfortable Nyjah Huston has seemed since the 2004 arrival of a tiny, impossibly skilled skateboard grommet with dreads dangling to mid-chest. He was shy because he was a little boy, speaking blankly in 2006 of "blessings" he felt skating with pros that he had "looked up to for so long” (at this point he was eleven). Huston was unsmiling, a little creepy, and concerned observers might have wondered what caused that degree of vacancy at such a young age. Mainly we all wished he would go away.
For several years he seemed to. Now Nyjah has returned, both more and less awkward than before, to slaughter every contest he enters. Skate contest results are like weather forecasts for a distant, even imaginary, land—it’s cool that someone keeps track, but nobody truly cares. It's frankly impossible, though, to ignore the way in which Nyjah’s killing spree has segued so neatly into his first professional video, the one theater skateboarders value. Released with much hype on 11/11/11, Rise & Shine is a three-dollar, extremely high-definition iTunes download. It even has a plot summary:
Element presents "Rise & Shine" - The Nyjah Huston video, an iTunes exclusive starring Nyjah Huston. In 2011 Nyjah 3-peat'd at Street League, won X-Games gold, and became The Berrics Battle Commander. Now he's out now to prove his talents where they matter most; in the streets.
Well, not the streets, exactly. Featuring not a single shot in an urban center, the film has a soundstage polish that signals a shift toward for-profit entertainment. The credits list three directors and three producers and Nyjah himself receives billing as an actor. It makes older skateboarders echo Jason Jessee's famous anti-joke: "I love skateboarding so much I want it to die."
Twice this year we've seen notable dreads disappear from skateboarders' heads. The other vanished dreads belonged a Brazilian named Adelmo Jr., whose braids reached his thighs before he was sent (on a dubious conviction) to state prison in Rio de Janeiro. Discussing the circumstances, he speaks with calm sincerity: "My locks are gone, but the roots are deep in my heart."
But how to think of dreads grown by a child too young to understand why? They did indeed matter, because despite ongoing attempts to commodify the activity via competition, the pursuit of skateboarding is principally aesthetic. Explaining Bryan Herman, who skates effortlessly and is always stoned and does not seem to give any fuck whatsoever, Andrew Reynolds declared with perfect redundancy that Herman "Looks the coolest and looks the coolest doing it." There is a leveling of talent in today's skate market; ours is an age when nameless kids are as technically proficient as the pros. Maneuvers themselves are devalued, and it’s the ineffables that draw distinctions.
Over email, Big Brother alumni and sudden ESPN correspondent Chris Nieratko explains that Nyjah has "finally grown into the tricks he's had all along and lost that little kid style that any child is plagued with." But the longer story is far more interesting, as Nieratko summarized for a recent interview:
He always seemed so sad. You know the look: It's the one we've seen on his face since we were first introduced to him. When he came to do a demo, I saw him constantly looking for approval from his father, almost completely afraid to speak. He was never permitted to stand by his teammates. … I know what fear looks like and I know how hard it is to live under tyrannical rule. … Not all abuse is physical.
Here, we start to understand why Nyjah's shoulders droop. It's a phenomenon common to sport—think Bollettieri, Capriati—but new to skateboarding. Coaching is one of the things skateboarders explicitly seek to avoid by choosing the activity over organized sports. Perhaps, in Huston’s case, “coach” isn’t the right term—“rad dad gone horribly wrong” might be more apt. We'd heard rumors: a stern, protective father who allowed Nyjah neither candy nor ice cream, and was by all accounts the reason he got the boot from Element three years ago, which booting allegedly included an open invite back if Nyjah somehow shed his dad. Then came Mr. Huston’s failed startup, I & I Skateboards, and resultant video footage he won't allow his son to use, out of spite.
Now here's Nyjah back on Element with an eight-minute soliloquy beneath which Lil Wayne's hollering fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em, even if they celibate. It is a triumph of agency. This narrative of a kid held financially and psychologically hostage is what makes Nyjah's unbelievable string of contest victories so affirming—he's won over half a million this year alone—and casts Rise & Shine's stunt-based spectacle in a light rare to skateboarding. It has the potential for meaning.
Don DeLillo writes that "Much of the appeal of sport derives from its dependence on elegant jibberish." While there's a poetry to the sequence of Nyjah's tricks—nollie-backside-noseblunt, nollie-backside-heel-backside-lipslide—there's also a deadening effect of such talk, a reduction of the visceral to the flat statistic of a scorecard.
I've watched Rise & Shine upward of 40 times in the past week. I do not recommend such a thing, especially if you are a skateboarder. But the sheer brutality of Nyjah's skating is indeed a singular achievement that will prove to be a document of note in whatever history skateboarding is writing for itself.
Like a counterpoint to the compelling case against his standing as a fallible human being, Rise & Shine opens with a sack job on a rail somewhere foreign, Central or South America. The still-dreaded Nyjah absorbs full impact to his crotch and stays down, pained. Soon enough the crowd cheers the child king of the modern skate arena back to his feet.
After this we have a full 5:50 of uninterrupted demolition of handrails, stairs, and very large gaps. In that time Nyjah lands 67 tricks, 23 of which earn a second viewing from another camera, often slow-motioned for further appreciation. For nearly six minutes, we're pummeled at the rate of one trick every 3.9 seconds. For comparison, the similarly hammer-heavy Andrew Reynolds' part in Stay Goldfeels healthy at 4:20, with a trick rate of one every 4.3 seconds.
Do such numbers matter to skateboarders? Jesus, no. In fact, just calculating them probably lost me some friends. But they do give a sense of the brutal pacing of Nyjah's section, which at moments overwhelms itself, achieving incomprehensibility. Few are the rails or gaps he skates smaller than 10 stairs, and they come like boxcars on one of those endless midwestern freight trains. The kid has achieved missile lock on grown-man living. His flip tricks are boosty, caught proper, stomped hard. While he's always been comfortable on rails, here Nyjah goes after them like a man owed money, locking into sitcom-length grinds or spinning 270 blindly with uncanny precision.
But, but, but this is just one kind of skating, the chorus chimes, and rightly so. We do not see Nyjah Huston moving through city streets—his filming missions are selective and nocturnal. They are movie sets lit by floods run on generators that growl and smell of petroleum. He skates with trucks rigidly tight, keeping his lines straight and landings perfect. Anything less requires a quick tick-tack adjustment—a, clunky, artless flourish and probable cause for editing that cuts landings as soon as his legs absorb the impact. Every time: feet wide, strategic, automatic. Soulless.
Exactly twice in these six minutes of video do we see Nyjah push. Pushing being, of course, the activity one does more than anything else while riding a skateboard. A push is always idiosyncratic, the mirror from which no skater can hide.
The final frustration of Rise & Shine, and the essence of its threat to the activity of skateboarding (this video belongs to the industry of skateboarding) is not that it fails to capitalize on the potential meaning of Nyjah's narrative. Rather it's the way the film goes about business in precisely the way its leading actor wins contest after contest—with ruthless cool and quiet (and not unhealthy!) ego, slaying with such insouciance that the activity itself is minimized. The rhetoric of Rise & Shine's three falls, the last of which is visceral, an awful plummeting and bounce, is subsumed by the larger case made that there is nothing this young man cannot do.
So, for any of this to mean anything, you yourself need to do something. Next time you climb a set of stairs, count them. When you find yourself at the top of a set of 16, or 12, or even eight, stand at their top and turn, looking down to where you began the climb, the sidewalk or blacktop below, and imagine jumping. Consider two separate distances, height and length. Question whether you could make it. Imagine the impact. And the feeling this imagined leap brings: of doubt, fear, a totally sane preference to not find out? Try to muffle that voice whose task is to keep you unbroken. Duct tape its mouth and see its cheeks go red, arms waving to say no, no, no. Consider what it would mean to live without that voice, free from the evolutionary gift of hard-wired fear. Imagine what kind of person could quiet this voice.