JORDAN STEPHENS first found fame as one half of the chart-busting duo Rizzle Kicks, who burst into the charts in 2011. Since then, Stephens has worked on his own music, under the moniker Al The Native and with a new act Wildhood, but more recently, he’s become known for his work outside of music; speaking up about toxic masculinity, and raising awareness around mental health. He’s worked with YMCA on their #IAMWHOLE campaign, which encourages young people to challenge the negative stigma surrounding mental health, encouraging others to speak out and seek help, as well as with Amnesty International, advocating for access to education.
It’s his work on toxic masculinity, however, that has really caught people’s attention. Writing in light of the revelations of sexual harassment around disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, Stephens penned one of the most eloquent and honest letters to come from someone in a position of fame and success in recent years. Pinning down toxic masculinity and the issues that percolate from it into every aspect of society, the letter was a breath of fresh air in terms of its perceptiveness and honesty, and one that tackled heavy subject matter as well as his own personal experiences. Published by The Guardian, Stephens professes “Any man who has read a woman’s account of harassment or assault and thought ‘that doesn’t apply to me’: what you’re experiencing in that moment is the exact privilege, power and entitlement that women are finding space to battle against.”
Continuing to advocate for gender equality and removing the stigma from mental health, Stephens will appear at Writing On The Wall Festival in May, where he’ll be in conversation with comedian Robert Webb, another personality who is tackling conceptions of masculinity with the publication of his book How Not To Be A Boy. Conor Giblin caught up with Jordan to talk about about the motivations behind his Guardian article, and how he believes gender can hinder people’s ability to process their emotions.
Shortly after writing your piece in The Guardian on toxic masculinity, you went to The Bridge [an intense six-day personal development retreat] – can you describe what that experience was like for you?
I first wrote about masculinity because I was trying to sort myself out, I was experiencing a lot of anxiety and frustration. It all culminated in me having a bit of a self-sabotage breakdown last year, so after that I wrote an essay as a way of getting my feelings out. My uncle said I should send it into The Guardian, so I did and it kinda went viral, which was crazy. Donna Lancaster from The Bridge asked if I wanted to join them and if I could write about my experience. It was an utterly transformational and eye-opening experience – it’s really about listening to your body because all your emotions are stored in your body. I always feel a bit conscious of saying too much about The Bridge because I really believe that if people want to go to it, the less you know the better. If anyone has the money to go, I honestly could not think of a better way to spend it.
Were the other guys at The Bridge experiencing the same feelings as you?
There was actually only one other guy there, it was mostly women who had been on the receiving end of toxic masculinity. I was also the youngest person there by about 20 years, but I would go as far as saying that it’s imperative for men to do that course. I’m working with Donna to try and get more and more men to go to The Bridge.
People have traumatic experiences at different ages and a lot of older men have bottled up their feelings for decades – how can we prepare men of all ages to deal with their emotions?
It’s a tough one because they’ve lived so much of their lives having a certain way of processing their emotions, but from my experience, older men are receptive to the idea of talking about their feelings. There’s a lot of weight in terms of trauma and sadness that they’ve carried for many years, but it’s never too late to sit down, open up and process your emotions. Ultimately, what all of this is about is that it’s more beneficial and more harmonious to process your feelings.
Previously you’ve addressed the issue of privilege in relation to toxic masculinity – what do you think the connection is there? Is it about having such stable and perfect lives that people aren’t able to deal with trauma when it eventually hits them?
Totally. Pain of any kind is a teacher if you listen to it, although there is some pain that you’d never wish on anyone. But usually with events that test you, there’s something to learn from them. When you have the utmost privilege and you’re prevented from experiencing general struggle, if you then experience something difficult, you can totally spiral. Whilst I don’t necessarily have white privilege, I do have the privilege of being a young mixed-race man and when I started to feel emotional pain, it was so overwhelming because I’d never really allowed myself to feel it, or I’d just use coping mechanisms to get past it. For me, my struggle was tied in with me becoming a man but also with becoming famous. It was a double power boost, which removes any desire to be responsible until it’s too much and isn’t very healthy at all.
Organisations such as the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) have been directly tackling the issue of toxic masculinity – were you inspired to speak up after seeing any of their campaigns?
I’ve worked with CALM already, there was a suicide that happened quite close to me a few years ago and my ex-girlfriend started this night called ‘Save The Male’ in aid of CALM which I helped her with as much as I could at the time. I’ve also discussed mental health with my #IAMWHOLE campaign which I spoke to CALM about as well. I think what they’re doing is great.
Do you think that the media has a role in changing our understanding of masculinity?
Having more of an equal representation of men and women in the media would be helpful. It’s interesting that we’ve had years of looking at things through a male gaze, consistently since the creation of TV pretty much. There have been successful female writers and directors but they’ve had a tough time trying to get through. If we were to balance the amount of Hollywood cinema that was created by women, for women, through a woman’s eyes, it would be beneficial for men to see life through another gender’s eyes. There’s a whole undertone of what’s acceptable for a man to do and because we have objectified women for so long, womanising and being a general liability is totally glamourised. There’s probably a place for it and for whatever reason, some people do love an anti-hero, but how interesting would it be to put another message into the back of someone’s mind? To have someone being responsible for their actions, yet glamourous.
The excuse that there isn’t any demand for an alternative can’t be used anymore because people clearly want to see something different. Younger generations in particular are getting bored of it and want to see something that’s in line with the kind of equality that we’re trying to achieve.
Deadpool and Wonder Woman were pretty boss for promoting strong female characters and I think the film industry is changing, you can tell that there is a push for more representation, but hopefully it isn’t a temporary thing. It’s happening regardless because there’s more awareness of it now and it’s shameful to overlook it, from a male perspective.
Have you had any backlash over all of this or has it all been positive? Or do you just choose to shut out all of the negativity?
I’ve been asked this a lot recently… genuinely, the people who hit me up after my Guardian article still baffles me. A lot of young men are living with pain that they don’t know how to express, I’ve had people come to me in confidence and say that they’re grieving and heartbroken. I should really go and test the waters with those who are a bit more reluctant to talk about this. But generally, by talking about the emotional secrecy of men, it seems to have resonated with most men because it’s a reality that people are living with every day.
Jordan Stephens In Conversation With Robert Webb on How Not To Be A Boy takes place at The Black-E on 26th May as part of Writing On The Wall Festival. Head to wowfest.uk for more information.