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Jermaine AmpomahPhotography Campbell Addy

The black male body: poster boys for shifting ideals of beauty today

Curated by filmmaker Stephen Isaac-Wilson, James Massiah, Jawara, Marvin Desroc and more explore the changing landscape of the black male body from their childhood to now

Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.

Tyson Beckford, Usher, Mekhi Phifer, Taye Diggs, D’Angelo, and Marques Houston – these were some of the men I was attracted to growing up. Their game smooth, their character cool, and their bodies otherworldly; so basically the complete opposite of me and mine. 

Through a cocktail of cable TV and bootleg movies, they became my reference for black male beauty. Unquestionably, they were hot and often topping polls as some of the sexiest men alive, their offerings to both black and wider pop culture in the early 2000s are undeniable.

However, whether this type of beauty was attainable, or something I even wish for myself was another question. Laden with testosterone and an overt masculine edge, their American bodies felt at odds with my gentle pre-adolescence persona. I needed men and bodies that allowed more room for experimentation, manoeuvre, and difference.   

Luckily university provided me with this, it gave me the space, time and resources for self-discovery. We’re now in a moment where young image-makers are offering us different point of views, and mirrors to hold up against our bodies. 

Works from artists like Marlon Riggs, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Ajamu being re-shown at major art institutions across the world, and we now even have out-and-proud black actors, models and musicians that are redefining what it means and looks like to be a sex symbol. We now have options, and that’s all we ever really wanted. I still personally covet the body D’Angelo had in ‘Untitled’, but if that’s not possible I have alternatives.

Here, for ‘Behind the Masc’, I curated a group of young creative black men who have each selected an image that defined black masculinity for them growing up and then a second image representing the modern black male nude.

STEPHEN ISAAC-WILSON 

THEN: D’Angelo, Voodoo album cover 

“An image of D’Angelo, American adonis. Sexy, smart and sensitive, a reference for beauty that is still relevant for myself and many others.”

NOW: Stephen Isaac-Wilson in Dick Print 

“An image of me for my friend Kacion Mayer’s publication Dick Print. A fusion of references, lived experiences and imagination.”

JAMES MASSIAH 

THEN: Tupac by David LaChapelle 

“Tupac was an idol of mine at a time when I was figuring out a lot about myself, relative to how I perceived myself and learning more about how others in the world perceived me. I feel like he embodied many conflicting notions of what blackness, maleness, and black maleness were all about, so much so, that I felt more emboldened in flouting the expectations of how I was supposed to be as someone perceived to be a black male, along with all the luggage that can bring, as much for them as anyone else in different ways.” 

NOW: Optimism 101 by William Pine & Rosie Atkin 

“I wrote these poems at a point in time when I was coming to terms with a series of changes in my life, related to all manner of things, and the performance of these poems at the ICA involved me removing a layer of clothing after each poem as an act of catharsis and letting go of anything close to the feelings of guilt, shame, or regret – a lot of which is born out of not meeting the expectations put upon you relative to your perceived identity.” 

TREY GASKIN 

THEN: Trey Songz, Ready album cover 

“I was 11 when Trey Songz’s Ready album came out, and that cover exemplified what it means to be black and a male sex symbol. Although I obviously found him cute, that ideal of masculinity and what it meant to be sexy made me feel isolated as I was a waif and I wanted to look like Nicole Richie.” 

NOW: Mowalola Ogunlesi graduate collection lookbook 

“I shot Mowalola’s graduate collection lookbook when I was 18, and it was honestly the first time that I ever felt not only comfortable, but sexy in my body, which to me is a big feat. Looking back, I think we take for granted how developmental imagery is for children and how trivial comments about how one should or shouldn’t look can actually affect them through adulthood. I think it’s very important that we celebrate all body types and encourage kids to express themselves through dress as early as possible. Period.” 

JERMAINE AMPOMAH 

THEN: Tyson Beckford in Polo Sport Ralph Lauren campaign 

“My first image – or shall I say person, because I found it hard to find a specific image to encapsulate him – that symbolises black masculine sexual energy/potency for me growing up was Tyson Beckford. For me, this image exposed a different side of black male masculinity that I was not used to seeing it made me aware of the beauty in the black male body and gave me a sort of hope that I could potentially be as beautiful one day as a boy of colour. For me, it represents aspiration. Looking at it now it still feels like that, but classic.”

NOW: Jermaine Ampomah by Campbell Addy 

“The second image is me, by my friend Campbell Addy. It makes me feel proud, royal and appreciated for what it is I represent in today’s African male diaspora. I believe it represents a new era of beauty in black masculinity, where former social constructs of what a black man should be, are no longer relevant. We are reinterpreting the black male gaze!”

JAWARA WAUCHOPE

THEN: Jason Derulo 

“Funny enough for my childhood was D'Angelo as well, but the closest thing I’ve seen to that recently is Jason Derulo.” 

NOW: Ashton Sanders 

“Black masculinity is a way more broad subject now, look at A$AP Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert,, and Ashton Sanders. This is what black masculinity can mean now as well and I think it’s amazing!”

HARRY ALEXANDER 

THEN: Tupac 

“When I was growing up I looked to my older brother for a lot of things, I’m not sure if I ever took anything away from it consciously, but he brought Tupac to my attention and from what I understood at that young age he was a balance of masculinity and artistry. He had the status straight young black men in the 90s craved but also had this talent that inspired so many.” 

NOW: Dancer, Michael John Harper 

“MJ is a peer, a dancer I met shortly after graduating and joining a dance company. One of the few black male dancers I knew at the time. Since meeting him, he has inspired me in many ways. I see his masculinity in his confidence, muscularity and sexuality, but he doesn’t hide his femininity which is something I wasn’t exposed to growing up. I continue to look up to him and learn from him.” 

DYLAN ETIENNE-RAMSAY 

THEN: Muhammad Ali by Flip Schulke 

“The elders in my family are very big boxing fans. This is one of the earliest images I can remember seeing in my childhood of the black male figure. Involuntarily beginning the ingraining process of viewing the black male body and energy as one that is hyper-masculine, sports-inclined, always under pressure and ready to fight – both physically and metaphorically within society. It also served as a powerful and resilient representation of work ethic, and the idea of ‘training’ and ‘practice’.”

NOW: Blu Sun Radio, The Sun, Sky, and Water Ceremony by Dylan Mekhi 

“Aside from the origin of the image stemming from references of Caribbean representations of gods and spirits – as well as, an exploration of religion and the idea of faith within the culture – this image is a representation and exploration of self-love/self-worship. Putting the black male body up on a pedestal to be worshipped at the level of high art. Creating a space for black and brown bodies to be seen in a softer, much more transparent, vulnerable, and honest light, but simultaneously, it involuntarily directly references a powerful memory of mine having to do with ‘training’, ‘practice’, and ‘form’. I swam for sport competitively for most of my life and this pose is the classic starting block pose before you begin a race.”

OLA-OLUWA EBITI 

THEN: George Dureau nudes 

“When I lived in Nigeria, there was a man who washed our laundry. I was about 10-years-old at the time, but he was my first symbol of black male potency, sex, and energy. His was was dark, but it contrasted the lightness of his palms and the soles of his feet. He was about 20, right at the peak of his adolescence. These nude photos by George Duearu remind me of him. I had never seen a man in his prime with muscles so well-defined, but clearly not as a result of vanity, but from all the manual labour he had done. It really opened my eyes to desire, the same lustful desire I seek in my images.” 

NOW: Lynette Yiadom Boakye artwork 

“I don’t know if there is a definitive look for black masculinity and nudes now, but I think there is certainly a benefit of picking features from perceptions of a ‘black man’. Now, young boys can look at their friends, images on Instagram, art, and the wider world and pick features that feel innate to them.” 

MARVIN DESROC

THEN: 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ album cover

“Growing up this image reminded me of my brothers. My brothers used to have loads of gym equipment in our tiny bedroom that we were all shared. This image symbolised what a hard black man was supposed to be. Or at least what I grew up seeing...”

NOW: Marvin Desroc graduate collection lookbook

“This image shows a man that is, for me, not one-dimensional. This man chooses sensuality over sexuality. Therefore, he is not topless and oily, but he’s showing his body in a more sensible way. This man is in touch with his feminine side yet he is not feminine in my eyes. He is still strong!”

KACION MAYERS 

THEN: Bogle 

“Bogle was a dancer from Kingston, Jamaica. The sound of my youth was dancehall/ragga/bashment and although littered with homophobia, it holds a special place in my heart regardless. Seeing someone like him be so admired and respected regardless of his considerably eccentric fashion choice (his other moniker was Mr Wacky), was necessary for younger Kacion. 

Bogle had such a progressive style, as did a lot of the men and women of the dancehall scene. He (among others) made it okay to wear colour, play around with your fashion, hairstyles and take inspiration from anywhere. You could probably count on one hand how many straight black Jamaican men made fetishwear daywear – Bogle included. Who else could wear New Rock boots to the dance? There’s nothing I love more than an audacious Yardie.”

NOW: Karnage Kills

“Black men like Karnage Kills really inspire me. So invigorating, powerful and a constant reminder of the importance of not only my own but also my black male and queer peers self-expression. He is incredibly important. So fab!”

Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.