The evolving masculine imagination includes (l to r): Jaden Smith; Mykki Blanco; Jidenna; Brother Earth by Brandon Stancell; A$AP Rocky; Raury
I’m telling you upfront: What follows isn’t fully baked. It may not make sense, and all the dots I’m seeing may not exactly connect. Here goes anyway.
This is all Jidenna’s fault.
Okay, not really. Let me explain.
For those of you who haven’t met him, Jidenna is a member of Janelle Monae’s Wondaland Arts Society. While watching his “Classic Man” video, a thought started rolling around in the back of my head. I couldn’t put my finger on it immediately, but then I understood what I was watching: The guy’s a nerd.
Now, I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that us nerds recognize members of the tribe wherever they show up. I think it was that side-to-side two-step he does that gave him away. It’s a basic move that’s table stakes on the dance floor. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s also the same move I do that my wife has teased me about for years. It’s about the extent of my dance repertoire.
But the whole experience got me thinking about the ways it which our notions of masculinity—especially black masculinity—are evolving, becoming more complex and complicated.
Is there a shift in the environment, some space that’s opened up for black men–if we choose–to inhabit other modes of masculinity? Can we be more than just cool, suave, athletic, and able to get our street swagger on at a moment’s notice? Education, technology, etc, provide examples and enable people to find almost anything. Are we now more comfortable trying and adopting new aesthetics. For example, we can feel free to value, appreciate, and enjoy beauty for its own sake, a la photographer Brandon Stancell, aka the Man Who Loves Flowers. Yes, we’ve always been style conscious, but this feels like something else.
The teen’s sartorial choices may be perplexing to some, but it represents the exciting new ways in which young black men are challenging ideas about masculinity. If young black women like Zoe Kravitz, Solange Knowles, Zendaya, and Willow Smith have become the poster girls of #carefreeblackgirl, then black boys and men including Jaden Smith, Frank Ocean, Jussie Smollet, and Dev Hynes are the epitome of the #carefreeblackboy.
Weirdness or quirkiness are not traits that have often been praised or even acknowledged in the black experience. There have been very few depictions of black alternative characters in media — perhaps Lisa Bonet’s Denise Huxtable is the earliest example, but she’s one of very few. With so few reference points, young black people have not been given the same freedom as white kids to embrace nonconformity. That inability to explore and experiment has, in many ways, been detrimental.
In a society that deems young black men hyper-aggressive and hyper-masculine and teaches boys across the spectrum to bury their feelings, being carefree in any capacity is a way to push against those unfair expectations.
At first, I wasn’t surprised that I found this complexity coming out of the black alt space. Part of it is due to the fact that it’s a highly educated cohort, which suggests they’ve really been able to interrogate identity assumptions. Second, as was the case for many groups, the internet has helped people of all stripes find their tribe(s). They know the examples of people who live their lives coloring outside the lines, be they musicians, actors, filmmakers, writers, etc.
And, yes, there we have a long history of “flamboyant” black men. Think Little Richard, George Clinton, Prince, Dennis Rodman, Andre 3000, etc. But there’s something about this moment that feels like it’s more than idiosyncratic celebrities doing it (in hip hop, you have A$AP Rockys and Kanye Wests as posterchildren for a kind of hip hop haute couture). And that’s the bigger question: Is there something going on with the sensibilities of regular, everyday black men?
I have no answers here. I just started Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal’s“Looking For Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities” that explores the different kinds of black masculinities that are becoming “legible”– i.e., seen and understood–read and/or misread. Time will tell if this is just an evolution of style, or if there’s a shift in mindset that marketers and society will have to take into consideration when we try to talk to black men, as in another “layer” we’ll have to take into account.