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.

A recent Huffington Post underscored this, using celebrity offspring Jaden Smith as a poster child for the trend that’s being called the #carefreeblackboy.   The piece notes:
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.
As well:
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.
Not for nothin’, but this isn’t the first time black men have been in skirts.  Remember when Kanye, A$AP Rocky, Diddy and Vin Diesel wore them?  There was a bit of a backlash.  Do you remember the metrosexual man?  That was a thing for a minute.

Truth is, we’re all trying to figure out how to be individuals AND how to be black in this world.

GAY REPRESENTATIONS AND “GENDER NON-CONFORMITY”

Concurrently, there’s an increasing prominence of black gay artists that probably tracks with the country’s increasing acceptance of gay issues.  I can’t imagine that this shift isn’t having some effect on notions around black masculinity.

Look across the musical spectrum and you can see artists like Mykki Blanco and Stromae, who play back and forth across lines of gender and sexuality.
Rapper Le1f (pronounced “leaf”), made his network TV debut on David Letterman.  The 2013 Afropunk festival showcased Le1F, Mykki, and New Orleans Bounce Queen Big Freedia (star of Fuse’s Big Freedia: Queen Of Bounce) in 2013, and featured rapper Cakes Da Killa last year.

Up-and-coming pop singer Shamir Bailey said recently in an interview in the Guardian that “I never felt like a boy or girl, that I should dress like this or that.” Gender non-conformity in effect here and in a recent Buzzfeed community submission.  What’s interesting is to note the number of men of color—particularly black ones—represented.

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?

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.

Thoughts?

Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.

  • Step

    Interesting observation but this seems like a pendulum swing and perhaps just a reaction to the uber-masculine Chiraq period we are going through right now. It reminds me of what I have read and seen about how dandy-ish black folks looked during the Harlem Renaissance period after coming out of the hyper-masculine period of WWI. And remember there were tons of black hippies in the 60’s/70’s wearing flowers in their fros and cornrows again right around another war time period.

    • Maybe. But I also think both can be true. Further, I feel like this is more evolutionary than reactionary. Attitudes around so many things have evolved, that I’m not sure it could’ve manifest to this degree prior to this. Of course, I’ve got no hard answers, just more questions. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Step.

  • SirKnows DevoidofPunk

    I don’t blame Jidenna for anything. He’s not doing anything that we haven’t seen Black Men do before…

    Blackness and Black Manhood has never been one thing. We’ve always had intra-community conversations about this via art, etc. but the larger society has always put us in boxes. and then we turn around and blame “Black Myopia” for the narrow-mindness foisted upon us and trained us.

    Whether it’s black hippies, buppies, collegiates, etc. nothing’s new under the sun.