A conversation that’s often glossed over in the hip-hop community is toxic masculinity. A 2017 study from Promundo and AXE, in which a handful of men from the United States, U.K. and Mexico were surveyed about their day-to-day habits, concludes that most men ages 18 to 30 still feel pressured by society to fit into what is called, “The Man Box.” The Man Box is a construct of male identity created by society, pushing stereotypes on young boys regarding how to act “like a man,” such as acting tough, using aggression to prove masculinity and being self-sufficient.

Based on conversations surrounding gender and equality in 2018, society is continuing to understand that there’s no way to “be a man,” which is why AXE is back on the road with their “Senior Orientation” series. The series involves poet, speaker, author and self-described “masculinity expert” Carlos Andrés Gómez visiting two high schools in order to have candid conversations about toxic masculinity, which the Good Men Project defines as the “narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression.” Through these chats, AXE and their guests are hoping to diminish “locker room talk” and bullying in order to promote “inclusivity, positivity, and building up their peers.”

Atlantic Records signee KYLE immediately jumped at the opportunity to get involved with the second year of the campaign, which saw John Legend as its partner during the inaugural year. “One of the hardest things about being a young man growing up [is] being fully comfortable with all of yourself,” he says. He is extremely candid about his issues with being bullied growing up, and how toxic masculinity and bullying go hand-in-hand. “For me, there were so many traits about my personality that—thinking about it now—are entirely some of the keys to my success. But that's some of the things I was afraid of, and in turn, made me really shy and a little antisocial.”

Especially with National Bullying Prevention Month around the corner, there’s a particular importance in AXE going into schools to talk to male students as the 2018-2019 cycle begins. According to the “Man Box” study, 81 percent of young men turned to bullying, 71 percent to sexual harassment and 51 percent experience depression due to their preconceived notions about their masculinity.

“[Toxic masculinity] is something that's been sort of ignored, not just by brands and companies, but by artists and people in the media,” KYLE says of bringing awareness to the topic. “We have to start the conversation first. If somebody would have come to my school and would have had this conversation openly, I would have come to school feeling a lot better about myself and a lot better about my situation.”

Unfortunately, toxic masculinity is taught to boys early in their developmental stages. If male role models are able to teach young boys and men about the issues surrounding that type of thinking, there’s a possibility that they’ll grow into positive adults who are more conscientious of other people.

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“I'm doing what I can in my music and my real life, I'm somebody who is trying to help people feel comfortable being themselves,” says the Light Of Mine MC. “Being young and being in that tough situation, [I try] to lend all the knowledge I know and lend my support to those kids, because I didn't have anybody for that. I think the earlier you get on it, the less time those kids have to struggle. … When you're young, you can be so vulnerable to those things. I think it's important to try to get this in as soon as possible, especially high school. During that time specifically, it's really tough.”

The “Senior Orientation” will make a pit stop at the rapper’s high school, Ventura High School in California. The 25-year-old and Gomez will be attending the sessions with the students, however, KYLE says he’s no stranger to visiting his alma mater. Not only does he to pay it forward, he also gives props to VHS for helping him come into his own.

“Ventura High School is like a second home to me,” he says. “A lot of [my teachers] are the reason that I became comfortable with my true self. I owe a lot of that to my drama teacher in drama class.”

KYLE details that he was picked on while growing up because of his “nerdy sounding voice” and shy demeanor. However, getting involved with students and teachers who encouraged him to be himself helped him grow on many levels. “If it wasn't for [drama class], I would have tried to join the football team, and that would have sucked, and I would have tried to do what I thought all guys were supposed to do,” he laughs. “I'd spend an hour a day, almost in a therapeutic sense, learning how to use my personality.”

Despite growing up a victim of toxic masculinity and bullying, KYLE persisted and became the best version of himself. This year alone, he released his debut album, garnered an MTV VMA nomination, and is starring in a Netflix film titled The After Party, which was released Aug. 24. He’s also planning a world tour of his own, where he plans on debuting new tunes. He hopes that his story can be a positive light for other young men who’ve experienced similar struggles, so that they can flourish in their own ways.

“My own self doubt and my own shyness about who I was held me back for so long from being a person that was confident enough to use his talents, get up on stage in front of people and just talk, you know?” he says. “One of the biggest reasons I've been able to become successful was just getting over the roadblocks and getting comfortable with myself. The more and more I put the fear aside about being judged for who I was, the more challenges, great things and opportunities I discovered from being myself.”

FTP Edelman