John Legend Gets Real About What It Actually Means To Man Up
In a major effort to break down stereotypes, encourage inclusivity and promote self-expression, AXE is going back to high school with a mentoring program called “Senior Orientation”.
They’ve enlisted the help of award-winning musician and activist, John Legend and masculinity expert, poet and author, Carlos Andrés Gómez who will be visiting the classroom to mentor top dog seniors. These young guys will pay it forward by empowering the underclassman to be fearless and comfortable in their own skin while figuring out who they really are.
Think back to the usual bullying, rejection, fearfulness, and insecurities that come with life as a teenager. The pressure to fit in is no joke. Just ask a high schooler, especially a senior, who has just come through the trials and tribulations of maturing in the ruthless age of social media. It’s not easy becoming a man especially if you’re trying to break the mold.
The subject of toxic masculinity is heavier than a wall of body spray in a middle school gym locker room. But the brand, in partnering with John Legend, is dedicated to leading the conversation so that young guys grow up reaching their fullest, best, most authentic selves. We sat down with Legend to get his take.
We hear the term "toxic masculinity" more and more. What does it mean to you?
I think when guys feel that to be masculine means to express themselves in a way that can be harmful to other people, it’s about dominance, power, violence, sexual aggression and bullying. I think that’s when masculinity can become toxic.
There are a lot of pressure on guys to perform “masculinity” in a certain way. What we’re trying to do with this campaign is encourage a more inclusive definition of what masculinity means. Hopefully it will help us treat each other better, and hopefully, it will help us be freer ourselves, so we don’t limit ourselves to the idea that we have to be a certain way to be a real man.
Tell us about your role with Senior Orientation and how this program will move high school kids towards inclusive masculinity and self-expression?
The whole idea behind all of this has been to encourage self-expression, individuality, and creativity. Originally, we’ve been doing it (mentoring) with artists, filmmakers, designers, and musicians; I know a little bit about music. We’re trying to embrace the idea that being a great artist is about being creative and different, standing out and not trying to fit in all the time.
We’re trying to extend that idea to men in general. All kinds of guys buy AXE products; let’s have a conversation around what it means to be a man and how you can find your own way and find your own sweet spot as a young person is figuring out who they want to be.
We want to create space for them to express themselves more freely and to not be afraid of public censure or pressure that other people might put on them.
Kids aren’t the only bullies in school. Toxic masculinity can show up in their lives in the form of a coach, teacher and even a parent.
I think that’s part of what encourages bullying. When people are afraid or insecure, or they feel they have to prove themselves in a way that makes them seem more dominant or powerful, that’s when they act out on other people. Those insecurities and fears end up playing out as toxic masculinity, as abuse and trying to dominate someone else to make them feel powerless like you do.
I think adults in these young people’s lives have a responsibility to not put so much pressure on them to perform masculinity in that way because what ends up happening is they act out in ways that harm other people.
Your high school experience seemed pretty charmed. You were musically gifted, you graduated early and were accepted to a prestigious, Ivy League school. You found your magic at a young age. Did your high school career really go that smoothly?
It was a little bit of both. In some ways my family felt like it was perfect for a while, my parents were both there, they home schooled us, they were super into us being well educated, we went to church all the time, and everyone thought our family was perfect.
Then our parents got divorced. First of all, My grandmother died. She was a big influence in my life — she was a musician and I learned a lot from her. She was really close with my mother and after my grandmother died, my mother got really depressed. It tore our family apart, and she ended up developing a drug addiction, and things got really bad for our family for quite a while.
I think music was always something that made me feel like I had control and I could express myself without fear. It helped me get through some of those tough times when our family was falling apart.
Growing up is hard. There is an old school idea that pressure makes diamonds. If you didn’t have those obstacles and everything stayed perfect, would you still be you?
I don’t know. Obviously, every experience shapes who you are and you don’t want to artificially create trauma for kids so that they can become more awesome. It’s okay for kids to feel some pressure, it’s okay for kids to feel challenged, it’s okay for them to be pushed to go beyond what might be comfortable for them all the time because sometimes getting out of that comfort zone is where you find excellence. There is some importance and some value in that.
However, I also think kids have a tough time when they have to respond to too much trauma, and we have to make sure that they are not experiencing so much trauma that it becomes really harmful for them.
All of us are going to feel pain, and all of us are going to feel loss. Part of growing up and being the best person you can be is learning how to react to those things and overcoming those challenges you face.
Who in the music industry is doing a good job at stepping out, speaking up for what’s right and re-imagining modern manhood?
Some of my heroes did it back in the sixties and seventies; then it was anti-war and civil rights movements. This is a good time. There are a lot of artists speaking out for equal rights for women, LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter and other issues for justice and civil rights.
I see a lot of my friends doing that: Common, Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga. There are a lot of people doing and saying great things that will hopefully encourage their fans to think more about the way they carry themselves and the way they think about the world.