Hypermasculinity, like many other topics in the hip-hop community, has often been pushed under the rug. Although we all come out of hiding now and then to salute those—Frank Ocean, A$AP Rocky, and Kanye West to name a few—who briefly dismantle barriers resurrected by this male-dominated industry, there’s still very little room for guys, in particular, to be who they are meant to be.
But it’s 2017, and the idea that men can only listen to trap music and have to stay far away from the color pink is outdated. So as part of an initiative to encourage self expression and reverse hyper-masculine stereotypes within millennial men, AXE has continued its “Find Your Magic” campaign with an intimate discussion panel last Wednesday (Aug. 23).
The panel included masculinity expert Carlos Andrés Gómez, LGBTQ advocate Hunter Klugkist, and a current high school sophomore. Award-winning recording artist, John Legend also appeared on the panel to discuss his journey to self expression, the stigma of men in the hip-hop industry, and artists’ responsibility to destroying crippling stereotypes. Hear are some of his biggest takeaways.
Unlike some of the other panelists who shared stories about their high school days, the “All of Me” singer didn’t have the most traditional upbringing. At a young age, Legend was home schooled, prompting him to skip a number of grades by the time he got to high school. “By the time I got to high school, I was two years younger than all my classmates. I was 12 years old and everybody was taller and had a deeper voice. So the actual physical manifestation of masculinity hadn’t arrived yet,” he recalled. He admitted that he was a nerd and at times didn’t fit in, but found refuge in music. “For me, music was the thing that made me feel like I could be myself,” he added. “I could get on stage and connect with people. That helped me love myself more and open myself up to people. I think art has given me that self expression, that joy in my life and helped me in all of the facets – develop more confidence, develop a connection with people.”
Besides using art as a tool, Legend also acknowledged his father’s role in reimagining what a man was supposed to be. His father, Ronald Lamar Stephens, was a factory worker by day, but dabbled in the creative realms of painting, carving and sewing in the afternoon. “I think we had an example of someone who wasn’t the straight definition of what a man’s supposed to be. In the day he was doing the manly factory job and then at home, he was making his own suits, painting and drawing,” he explained.
And it was that foundation that would guide him through the music industry, despite it’s harsh reality. “I came up collaborating with a lot of hip-hop artists, and hip-hop is known to be a hyper-masculine form and appears to be misogynist,” he explained. “So I was collaborating and surrounded by artists where that was the norm, even though Kanye was breaking all of those norms. I think you can be influenced by all those, but it takes some growing up, maturing, and finding yourself, and falling in love to help you understand exactly how you wan to express yourself in that environment in a way that’s more empathetic in a way that’s honest.” Today, Legend attributes his continued growth to falling in love with his wife Chrissy Teigen and fathering his 18-month-old daughter, Luna.
In addition to the discussion panel, AXE announced the launch of “Senior Orientation” – a program dedicated to empowering and promoting inclusivity to students at Centennial High School in Ohio. The program offers a custom curriculum, mentorship and a series of performances that will foster a free and creative space for students to express their unique voices.
While it’s a step in the right direction, Legend says the hip-hop community and influencers have a responsibility to do their part in dismantling hypermasculinity in all facets. “I think [artists] have the power and also the responsibility to use that power wisely and in a way that can help young people envision other ways to be,” Legend stated. “Nicki helps you [directed at high school panelist] with ways to be, and I think JAY-Z talking about his relationship with his wife and therapy, it’s helping other people realize ways to be. I think we as artists, we have an opportunity to really help people think about who they are as we’re thinking about who we are.”