EXCLUSIVE: John Legend Calls For An End To The Pressures of Toxic Masculinity

The stereotypes of "the male ideal" are destroying our Black men.

For youth today, the experience of growing up can be painful. I can remember being in high school witnessing different forms of bullying that I saw other males exert on each other. If you wore a pink polo, you were considered gay. If you showed any form of emotion or sensitivity, you were labeled “soft.” I remember having to pretend to like every sport that existed just to overcompensate for my body type. I was skinny, short, and not exactly ideal as the first round pick in phys ed. So I completely sympathize with the young Black men growing up today in this socially judgmental climate. It’s extremely imperative that we create spaces to reinforce to our youth that it is completely OK to be an individual. 

The men’s grooming brand AXE recognizes that the atmosphere of the hallways, locker rooms, parties and social media channels often push insecurities to the forefront as young guys struggle to figure out who they are within the confines of “who they’re supposed to be.”

According to AXE, this pressure to conform can churn out unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. In fact, the company reported that of the young guys who find themselves facing this inner turmoil, 81 percent turn to bullying, 71 percent to sexual harassment and 51 percent experience depression.

To help empower young guys to confidently embrace their true selves, AXE announces Senior Orientation, a program dedicated to bringing a message of self-expression and inclusivity directly to high school students.

Through a curriculum and series of performances for seniors, the orientation aims to encourage the students to foster an environment of inclusive masculinity. The curriculum was co-developed with AXE by masculinity expert Carlos Andrés Gómez and features John Legend. The program will rally seniors to take a mentorship role with underclassmen that shows them there’s no one way to “be a man.”

The upcoming Senior Orientation will take place at Centennial High School in Columbus, Ohio —close to Legend’s hometown. Both Legend and Gomez will also help select and mentor students to perform at Senior Orientation to express their unique voices to their school as it relates to them overcoming toxic stereotypes.

Before they kick off the orientation, AXE held a private event with John Legend, Carlos, an LBGTQ advocate and current high school student, who wanted to share their experiences with these issues in front of invited guests here in New York.

 John Legend sat with BET to share why this campaign is important to him. 

BET: Why were you passionate about joining AXE with this initiative?

John Legend: The whole idea was about encouraging creativity, individuality, and expression. Mentoring artists to be the best they could be in whatever art form. I think this [initiative working with the high schools] is a real cool extension of broadening that message of ‘finding your magic’. It’s about expressing your individuality and not trying to fit into everyone definition of who you should be. But about being you! AXE sells to men, and focusing this conversation on men, masculinity and what it means to be man is a healthy conversation for us to have. The goal is to help guys understand they can be more free to express themselves through individuality. And give them some space to be creative and open.

BET: How much do these ideas of toxic masculinity affect the music industry currently?

JL: Interestingly enough, in the artist community we are more permissible than the average citizen. In our [artistry] community we know individuality and creativity is important. I worked with Kanye over the years and he was dressing differently than any other rapper! [Kanye] gave more guys more permission to dress differently in hip hop. There are artists who are trailblazers in that sense. We should value creativity, authenticity, and individuality.

 BET: Do you think there is a lot of emphasis for males to be certain way?

JL: Overall as a consumer community, everyone will decide what they like and don’t like. People are still going to talk in the barbershop about what they don’t like and like, this guy's outfit and how it looks this way to them. But I feel the more artists show that it’s cool to be creative and different and not dress like everyone else, the public will eventually follow along. And be like, “I look up to this guy” and see it's OK to redefine masculinity.

It’s crazy because you look at the '80s, like, everyone was more femme back then! They wore makeup, tight leather pants, and they were like the coolest cats. Prince, Rick James, and Eddie Murphy in full leather suits. Then we went through an era when none of that was cool anymore. I think artists must lead the way, to be the ones that say “we are the trailblazers and move the culture.”

BET: What do you think this idea of toxic masculinity stereotypes come from?

JL: A part of it comes from, maybe, the idea that all jobs [and typical male-dominated roles] are disappearing. The coal miner or factory worker jobs in the Midwest where I grew up are disappearing. So a lot of the men who used to hold those [traditional] roles are [now] asking, “What is my role in the world?” and they feel a sense of powerless. We saw that with the election and we see it in other manifestations like what happened in Charlottesville. There is a backlash — something they thought they could rely on in the world. A sense of purpose disappearing. And then they lash out on minority groups and people they are afraid of because they want to feel powerful again. We see it manifest in hate and violence. We got to figure out how to solve this.

BET: In your opinion, what else can we do to support our younger men?

JL: I think it’s important for us to have these types of conversations. To have people think about — what we are doing in the high school of talking to the kids. Helping them learn how to help each other. It’s the key!

BET: This is an important conversation to have especially with young Black men today.

JL: Yes! It’s a double-edge sword for us because we are dealing with it in the context of racism as well. So when people have stereotypes about how Black men behave, how we interact with other people, our penchant for violence and the [alleged] danger we represent — it's getting our kids killed in the streets. At the same time, we have to think about what these stereotypes mean to us too. Our sense of powerless and fear, sometimes we take out on others in this negative form.

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