I was raised in the Jane and Finch area, a storied neighborhood in the city of Toronto infamous for violence and poverty, but also home to some amazing people. I grew up alongside people of African, Caribbean, Latin, Asian and South Asian descent. For the most part, I didn’t see myself the type of male which women in the neighborhood found attractive.
If his status ain’t hood/I ain’t checkin’ for him/Betta be street if he looking at me/I need a soldier/That ain’t scared to stand up for me/Gotta know to get dough/And he betta be street
– Destiny’s Child ‘Soldier’
I was never the tough, dangerous or rebellious type, rather the funny, nice, nerdy guy that could cry at movies, carry a conversation. I liked Tori Amos, Depeche Mode, Red Hot Chili Peppers as well as Public Enemy and N.W.A. I ended up having romantic or sexual relations mostly with white women, as they seemed to be more attracted to me. Power and privilege in society allowed the ‘MANual’ for white men more wiggle room for experimentation around their performance of gender. They could bend the rules and still be ‘real men’. Examples of this range from David Bowie to 80’ metal bands doused in permed hair, tight leather and lipstick to numerous ‘sensitive’ leading male actors. Prince was the only powerful man of colour we saw on TV truly bending strict gender rule. Sometimes he was reduced to a punching bag in jokes within the community. He was a ‘fag’ despite his public image as being extremely sexually active with women.
I recently realized there was another young male of colour who struggled with not embracing the rude, aggressive bad boy as their persona, image and identity.
The young man seen in this video (click on image above) is a 17 year old boy, a young man on the edge.
The man Tupac became was a man of violence. He didn’t just rap about guns and gangs; he lived that life on and off record. This video highlights the true tragedy around his death, having lived a life which led directly to a very early death.
I will submit to you that the footage that you just watched was shot just before Tupac’s death. Yes, the footage is in fact from when he was seventeen and he was killed at twenty five. I say to you, however, that you just saw footage of a young man moments before his death.
Say you are standing on the edge of a cliff.
Below is the bottom which is beyond sight.
Say you are pushed, or fall off this cliff, free falling to your death.
One could say you didn’t actually die until you rode the seemingly eternal trip down and hit the ground. One could also say you died that moment you fell off the edge, and your free-fall descent was just a ‘slow-motion’ sight to an onlooker as their eyes mourned you following the body along the journey down.
Somewhere after this video was the moment where this young man stepped back, and reflected on how things were unfolding for him as ‘the Nice Guy’. Some people watched this video and would comment with surprise at how he appears ‘so gay’.
The side of Tupac seen in this video was not permitted to stay fully surfaced, by a system, by a society, by himself. This side of Tupac was struggling for breathe long before the rest of his mortal shell struggled to survive multiple gun shots at 25 years of age.
How many young men are standing at the edge, about to fall over? This is an issue when it comes to boys all across the globe, regardless of race, but becomes intensified for racialized men who lack privilege and power in society. How many young boys are in fear of disappearing as ‘just another somebody’, and are coded to desperately need to be ‘Somebody’.
This side of many men is forever stuffed into a box and stored in the basement of their heart. We all must consider how society must undertake a shift to save this side of a man’s self from an internal extinction. We must help catch men and boys lost in free fall, a downward descent of pain and suffering that is inflicted upon not only themselves, but anyone they love, anyone who loves them, or anyone in their way.
I think of another famous young man spiraling in a cycle of violence, a young man who became the very storm that once rained upon him as a child. He attacked and almost killed a famous woman, an act which thrust him into the world’s spotlight.
I also think back to a young man I came across in 2009 shortly after that famous incident happened.
“Especially for young people, we are bombarded with this one sided, monolithic image of what it means to be black and male…images of black men are not reaffirming and not positive. There are institutions who are committed and invested in perpetuating that negative image. This is especially true for a young man who may not have access to a variety of expressions of black masculinity.” – Shantrelle P. Lewis
In 2009, I was invited to attend a session by a group who use art as an engagement tool to create discussion spaces among young women of colour. It was a circle of 20 or so West Indian and African young ladies gathered when I quietly joined them in the rec room of an apartment building in the Jane and Finch area. My arrival in the space took the young security guard, half hiding in an opposing room, off guard. The split-second ‘what are you doing here’ double-take on his face mirrored the same expression on my face. We then exchanged awkward nods, acknowledging one another as guests in a special space.
The circle began as the young women went around the room sharing their responses to the classic ice breaker: ‘What do you like or not like about being a woman?’ When they came to me, I shared my usual response to this question: “As a man, I like that I can pee standing up. What I don’t like is that, we as men, can’t gather and talk like this unless if it’s about sports or cars.”
We later broke from conversation to pick out items for making buttons; I pulled out 2 small photos of my partner’s daughters to make into buttons as a gift for her. When I explained the photos in my wallet to a curious girl from the circle, she replied “Oh. I thought you were, gay.” Clearly some of these young women were not used to a heterosexual man wanting to sit and hear what women had to say.
When we return back to the circle, one of the facilitators sparks a new discussion by bringing up the recent news about Chris Brown assaulting his girlfriend, Rihanna. One by one, the girls start tossing a cool disgust towards Chris and a warm curiosity over what Rihanna ‘must have done to cause the attack’. Cutting through the multiple voices, one of the young women becomes animated as she reveals no one would believe what her girl was saying about this very topic earlier. She directed attention to a young lady sitting on the couch, hiding behind a shadow of silence until now, holding her infant son.
“SHE was BUGGIN’ the other day, yo. You don’t even know! Goin’ ON and ON about how hot Chris is, and how she’d be with him!!”
The attempt to get her friend’s buried opinion to surface instead ignited the room in a fire fueled by disapproval. Shouts of “WHAT?!!?” and “Girl, you’re CRAZY!!” rained down upon her. Defending herself, the young mom casually dismissed the criticism, simply stating that she found ‘New Chris’ sexier versus the departed, innocent public image Chris held. “What if your baby son saw a man treat you like that, would you want him seeing that??” one girl questioned with aggression. Likely having found interest in the conversation, our previously-hidden security guard surfaced, walked up to the circle and spoke up.
“What she’s trying to say is, before Chris seemed SOFT and, now…he’s all…”
The young man vibrates with raw energy as he spreads his arms wide, shoulder up, puffs out his chest, and displayed a menacing figure competing with the widening smile on his face.
“…he’s…you know?? ”
Chest swollen. Arms spread out. Back straight. Shoulders square.
“a man” I finish under my breath. Moments later, holding her baby to one side like a football player bracing for impact, the girl jumps up off the couch to finish the swirling attack on her morality.
“YO, I don’t give A FUCK WHAT you all think! I think Chris Brown is even HOTTER AFTER WHAT he DID!”
The conversation ends.
I am spinning.
“The ignominy of boyhood; the distress. Of boyhood changing into man; the unfinished man and his pain”
– William Butler Yeats ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’
In 1989, Christopher Brown was born to Joyce Hawkins, a former daycare director and Clinton Brown, a corrections officer. Growing up in Virginia, Chris taught himself to sing and dance like Michael Jackson, soon appearing on stage at church and talent shows. His parents had divorced, after which a man named Donnelle Hawkins entered the stage. From seven to thirteen years of age Chris soon found himself living in a state of terror from which he wished to gracefully float away from, like his hero did with his Moonwalk.
Dance around the pain, dance around the sorrow
Donnelle physically abused Joyce, Chris remembers living in fear, hiding in his room and once even seeing his mother’s nose bloodied after an argument about another woman. At one point Donnelle became blind after shooting himself in the head during an argument with Joyce. Chris wanted to discover power and handle violence in the way many young men are taught to: with more violence. He had vowed that by the time he was 15, he would kill Donnelle.
In an early interview on the Tyra Banks show, Chris spoke candidly about the past and living in a state of fear. “I treat women differently; I’d never want to put a woman through the same things that THAT person put my mom through…”
“I got older, I realized how to overcome stuff and become …like showing off on stage, but I was scared and timid when I was young”
Person gives way to Persona. Powerlessness medicated with Power.
Women in the audience cheered over this young rising entertainer, able to share his personal torment of being in a state of fear, living in a home of abuse, experiences which many of his female fans could relate to. To this day, Donnelle denies ever hurting Chris’ mom, saying once he ‘accidentally slipped’ and head butt Joyce during an argument as well as claiming to have ‘accidentally’ shot himself .
Dance around the truth, dance around accountability
This heightened experience of being powerless in a childhood shadowed in abuse, multiplies the average desires of any young person to establish an identity and be someone. Respected, feared, someone in control, someone with power. At the turning point of going from a boy to becoming a young man, he became Somebody when on stage, and soon discovered the power of the public stage at an early age. By 13 years of age, he was discovered and 3 years later, the world discovered him.
At the age of 16, he had a huge hit single with ‘Run It’ and people started falling in love with this new babyface R & B artist with the smooth moves. In the song, Chris sings “Girl I can set you off/Don’t believe my age is gonna slow us down/I can definitely show you things/To have you saying I can’t be 16/Once I get in you won’t wanna go”. The song also features rapper Juelz Santana who makes reference to the infamous Ying Yang Twins song ‘Wait ( The Whisper Song)’ and its classic lines “Wait you see my dick/Ay bitch! wait til you see my dick/Imma beat dat pussy up /Like BAM BAM BAM BAM/Beat da pussy up, Beat da pussy up, Beat da pussy up”.
Chris gracefully danced that silent line between being an innocent, nice teen heartthrob and the pressure to fit into the strong, ‘masculine’ black male R & B artist, all while growing up under an increasingly heated spotlight. As the fame and power grew, Chris still needed to assert his manliness lest anyone question his manhood. Chris explained, for example, how his dancing is masculine and not ‘voguing’ (aka not ‘gay’).
In fact, Chris has gotten into numerous quarrels and taken to proving his heterosexuality and manliness numerous times in public and via social media by mocking & questioning others sexuality, implying he is more manly. Asserting manliness for men of colour can be an act to preserve their status, identity, and sometimes their life.
Situations where he is tested or needs to show maturity, he gets angry and reacts by giving into anger, calling others ‘bitch’, ‘gay’ or ‘faggots’.
Homophobia is violence against women. Understand that when someone is targeted for this particular kind of physical or verbal violence, they are being attacked for not conforming to traditional ideas of gender roles (i.e. as a male you express emotions and are called a ‘faggot’ or as a female you don’t act or dress a certain way, and are called a ‘lesbian’). The message sent and enforced is ‘this is not how a man acts’ or ‘know your lesser role and act like a woman’. The way we teach men to build-your-own-power-and-identity, is at the cost of women’s value and worth. This double-edged sword also ends up denying men their own humanity as a result. When you devalue something, you don’t value it. When you don’t value something, you can discard it, disrespect it, and destroy it.
By now, most folks know what happened that night just before the 2009 Grammy’s, on the night before the biggest day in the music industry, between Chris Brown and then his girlfriend Rihanna. Some people have a ‘desensitized’ association when they hear that a woman has been beaten. The mind may connect to an image of a woman being backhanded across the face as seen on dramatic television shows. The result is some will trivialize or downplay an incident or display of violence.
While Chris has repeatedly refused to talk publicly about what happened that night specifically, folks can read the actual police report online to really understand what we are talking about here. (*trigger warning* The report is naturally very graphic in detail, giving a full account of the incident)
Click to read the report
At the time when the story came to light, some pointed to this day as the moment Chris Brown’s career could possibly come to an end. It is not an exaggeration to say that Rihanna’s Life could have ended that night.
In this interview with Larry King on CNN, with his mom and lawyer by his side, Chris discussed how he felt he could do more than what the justice system would decide on, in order to atone. “I feel like , with what I’m capable of as far as influencing people, influencing kids, the youth, I can do a lot more to help out the community…I know I can do a lot more which I intend to do…” Chris during this interview, and since, has refused to discuss the incident.
Dance around the truth, dance around accountability
On August 25, 2009 Chris Brown was sentenced to five years of probation, one year of domestic violence counselling, and six months of community service; he delivered a public apology and performed community service required of him.
Imagine someone at a company was found to have viciously assaulted a beloved co-worker he was seeing. Imagine how long it would take before other co-workers would forgive and feel safe with him returning to the space on any level, never mind returning to his old job. Imagine him then returning to quickly to his old job, then receiving a large raise and promoted to a larger position. He released an album late 2009 called ‘Graffiti’ as he started the journey to salvage his career. Critics panned it citing “plodding melodies draw attention to Brown’s unpleasantly macho style and unapologetic sentiments”. Chris started to use Twitter as a vehicle to help rehabilitate his image, communicating with fans and obsessively speaking about positivity’ and staying ‘positive’. It was a feverish message he constantly shared, it seems more for himself than anyone else. ‘Positivity’ seemed to mean forget, rather than deal with and move forward. D
Dancing around addressing real truths, real change.
More important than rehabilitating his public image or sending the right messages to the justice system, was the need for him truly make changes for himself and the people in his real, private life. He had to face old demons, show accountability, and address his anger.
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”
– Bob Marley, Redemption Song
In 2011, Chris released his 4th album, F.A.M.E The title was an acronym meaning ‘Forgiving All My Enemies’. The album had numerous hit singles like ‘Look at Me Now” which has been viewed over 310 million times on YouTube
Look At Me Now.
Chris ascended into the most intense spotlight of his life, one which left no shadows to hide under. During promotion for the highly anticipated new album, Chris made a promo stop on ABC’s Good Morning America to speak briefly with Robin Roberts and then perform some songs. The interview was to solely be about the new album, as Chris and his team requested that what happened two years ago was no longer a topic to discuss. Positivity.
Dance around the truth, dance around accountability
We are equipped with an ‘Emotion Toolbox’ to handle life’s twists and turns. This toolbox, for many men, has only one emotion-tool which our upbringing and society has equipped them in order to handle problems: anger and aggression. When faced on live television with ‘surprise’ questions regarding the violence he acted out upon Rihanna, he reached into that toolbox and used the only tool he had to deal with the situation. After the interview and performance, during the commercial break he was heard screaming in his dressing room, smashed a window overlooking NYC’s Times Square with a chair, raining glass down onto the street, got in a producer’s face and left the studio without a shirt on…
Look At Me Now.
Craig-James Baxter is the founder & owner of Understanding Body Language. Liars, Cheats and Happy Feet. He is an expert in reading someone’s expressions, movements and gestures so you really know how their feeling. Below is his analysis of Chris Brown’s Body language and gestures during the GMA interview before he exploded in anger off air.
After the appearance, Chris goes to Twitter to declare “I’m so over people bringing up this past shit up!!!” Chris continues to this day to go to Twitter to battle with others and express himself without filter. 3 years after missing the Grammys for threatening to kill one of the most famous women in the pop-culture world and sending her to hospital the night before they were to perform, he returned to that stage. Criticism was loud and strong on Twitter regarding his appearance and toward the Grammy Awards themselves for having him perform twice as well as receive an award. After hearing Grammy Awards executive producer Ken Ehrlich go on record as explaining that it has “taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened”, one can see the set of priorities for the music industry.
Chris Brown himself addressed criticism with the same technique and tact he has always shown when facing moments calling for character, strong behaviour and discipline…he took to Twitter and, like in his song Look At Me Now, had a message for all the haters…
However that night it wasn’t Chris Brown’s tweets that caught the world’s attention so much as the tweets of 25 women. Women took to Twitter to declare their affection of Chris Brown by stating that he could “beat me up any day” or “anytime”. Society was faced with the same ‘wake up call’ moment I had back in 2009 in that rec room. Comments exploded across international airwaves, print and social media of outrage and disgust over the numerous statements. People did not understand how these women could want such a thing. So I decided to ask them.
I took to Twitter to try and speak with one of the 25 women. Many of them have since deleted their accounts, no doubt due to the attention and reaction to their comments. I got one of them to respond. She was a young woman from the UK and referred to the dark British sense of humour as she made the tweet ‘in a tongue in cheek way’ referring to a desire to have rough sex with someone she found purely attractive physically (she is neither a fan nor a follower of his career).
I showed her the Tupac clip from when he was 17 and not afraid to appear vulnerable. What was her reaction? “My first reaction was ‘wow’ and I can honestly say I fell in love a little” she said. “Would I date that guy? Hell yes.” She then went onto speak about a variety of factors, sharing “I think there is pressure on a guy to be an alpha male. Where I’m from, I know there is pressure for a guy not to be under the thumb. They must look in control of their relationships”
What is most concerning is her telling me “Since the tweet went viral I’ve received hundreds of messages of abuse from all my networking sites. Most have threatened me with violence and rape.”
We live in a worldwide culture were violence seems to be the antidote to violence. How many times have any of us heard a man express violence as a choice for how they’d deal with a man who was violent towards women? Macho behaviour as a response to Macho behaviour.
Their 2nd album came out in 2009, but you likely won’t be seeing them perform on the Grammys, meanwhile Chris Brown’s anger issues and career skyrockets.
Chris Brown is adamant on being a role model. And because of his position, he is whether he likes it or not, young men are watching, and learning. For this young man, the free fall decent continues live for the world to see…as it does for countless young men outside of the spotlight worldwide…what are we doing to stop the cycle of violence?
What are you doing?
A surprising moment recently had someone from the Hip Hop universe step up and show accountability after a big mistake. It shows that catching someone in free-fall, the wake-up moment, can happen at any point. It’s never too late to start a change and consider making a positive impact.
Too Short is a Bay area rap icon, the 45 yr old has portrayed himself as a pimp and told countless ‘pimp stories’ for decades. He recently appeared in a video on the popular XXL hip-hop magazine’s website giving what he called ‘fatherly advice’ to boys on winning girls over. (*Trigger Warning*)
“I’m gonna tell you a couple tricks. This is what you do, man. A lot of the boys are going to be running around trying to get kisses from the girls, we’re going way past that. I’m taking you to the hole. There’s a general area down there, a little spot that girls have that feels really good to them. Don’t kiss them down there yet, that’s later in life. But this is what you do. You push her up against the wall or pull her up against you while you lean on the wall and you take your finger and put a little spit on it and you stick your finger in her underwear and you rub it on there and watch what happens. It’s like magic. You gotta find her spot, they all have a different one, but it’s somewhere in there.
Just go for it.”
This caused a huge uproar for which Too Short, like Chris Brown, issued a general apology. The response to the apology was disgust, with folks asking for more accountability, lead by Ebony magazine. Then something happened, Too Short listened, and reflected. Too Short later sat down with Ebony writer dream hampton and opened up:
“You have to be accountable for what you do…I don’t expect you to waste your time and energy trying to hear me out. I just want to get involved in something that does not (simply) say “Hey, forgive me!” I understand that I made a big mistake. I’m not going to lie to you…my eyes are opening just from reading the comments, the stuff that is coming from people. They say stuff like, “Does he get it?” I’m reading it and I am starting to get it. I’m just reading this and I’m reading that, and I’m like I am so much a part of that whole “man” thing.”
From actions to reactions, recognizing responsibility and then taking real actions to address those actions is showing true remorse. Not just a reading an apology, but reading reactions of those impacted and reflecting on what he did. Accountability.
Society focuses on what is going through a woman’s mind when she is in an abusive relationship, or wonders what she did to provoke a violence response. We need to shift the attention to how we are raising young men, the messages we are sending them that reinforce harmful and impossible ideals of manhood. We need redefine gender roles and ideas of manhood which lead to violence against women, violence between men, and the culture of violence that affects us all.
Each one Teach One.
It starts with men talking to other men, helping men to recognize and accept the role we all have in shaping the lives of other young men and boys. Many of our sisters will tell you, whether its heterosexual women dealing with the challenges of dating men, or our LGBT2S members who strive for relationships with fathers, brothers and other loved ones and friends, that you alone cannot change a man. An individual themselves must first be ready for change, real change. Our society must stop focusing on the reactive and become proactive.
I don’t believe it is ever too late for a man to want to change his life, at any age and any stage. Shouldn’t we start helping males at an early age? Yes, but that doesn’t mean we as men can’t make an impact and reach out to those already in free fall.
Jeff Perera has spoken to people from all walks of life for over 6 years (from organizations to community spaces to grade school, high school and post-secondary students) about how society’s unattainable concepts of masculinity are effecting men and boys as well as impacting women and girls. He has delivered two TEDx talks on Masculinity and men’s toxic pursuits of identity: Words Speak Louder Than Actions and The Ladder of Manhood. Jeff started Higher Unlearning, as an online space to explore how ideas of gender and masculinity play out in everyday life where we work, live and study.