Toxic masculinity is everywhere. It’s up to us men to fix this | Jordan Stephens
The past two weeks have reminded us of the extent to which women suffer at the hands of the patriarchy. As women share their stories and many nod along, what about us men?
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.
We have subconsciously benefitted since we were born from patriarchal privilege – in many ways it’s invisible to us. I’ve been outspoken in my support for women’s rights, but I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve fallen foul of the patriarchy’s malicious hardwiring.
But in confronting it, rather than continuing to abuse my power, I’ve found more inner peace, understanding, love and truth then I ever could have done had I continued as I was.
The abuse of power is a plaster for sadness and prevents self compassion
I’ve been fortunate to experience most financial brackets, and I promise you that nothing material brings happiness. No house, watch, car, phone, television, necklace brings peace. Those tangible things just allow you to feel more comfortable.
I’m not saying don’t slob in front of the television or don’t go out and take drugs – I won’t condemn anyone who makes those choices. What I’m saying is that we often partake in these activities when we’d rather not confront our emotions.
And it’s not OK when the desire for these things comes at the expense of other people’s safety or freedom. The abuse of power is a plaster for sadness and prevents self-compassion.
I was raised predominantly by a strong mother, and I’d to think that I journey into the world with good intent. I want to love, spread joy, help people and inspire. But I’ve still found myself in pockets of self-destruction.
Extended periods of time taking cocaine, excessive drinking, excessive working habits, starting numerous projects at once, reading so many books that I feel self-righteous and, most painfully, finding that whenever I entered into intimate relationships I would end up selfishly self-destructing.
That self-destruction led to a breakdown of trust in people I cared for and in myself. I had been wounded by the patriarchy in thinking even for one second that this behaviour was acceptable.
If you’re one of these guys who takes pride in jumping from girl to girl or brags about breaking hearts, you have no idea what it feels to truly love and trust yourself. And, knowing how I feel now, I am sad that structural abuse might prevent acceptance and understanding.
I’ve recently confronted and processed my own childhood trauma to understand what it was inside me that would unconsciously destroy a desire for trust and intimacy.
I’ve come to realise that it’s because I’m more terrified of rejection and having my trust broken than I ever could have previously imagined.
I desire trust and intimacy just as much and perhaps even more intensely than those I’ve shared love with. It’s been an incredibly painful realisation.
I believe that the false power gifted to me as a man in our society didn’t allow me the space to understand, cry, and work through the pain of my past and duality of my present.
This idea that male vulnerability is undesirable – it covers up the pain of so many troubled boys who wanted more hugs from their mum or have missed the company of their dad, or were victims of abuse or loneliness or just generally felt as though they had no time, space, company or even the words to describe how they felt.
It’s our responsibility as we become adults to acknowledge this pain and gain compassion for ourselves and acceptance of others.
But for men in particular, when the patriarchy says that it’s OK to grab a woman’s ass, or tell her what to do, or watch too much porn or deny her space – and you accept this as a way of treating another human being – you deny yourself the opportunity to understand why you desired that comfort of power in the first place. The ego wants dominance and control. And the male ego is currently everywhere.
As far as I can see, this toxic notion of masculinity is being championed by men who are so terrified of confronting any trauma experienced as children that they choose to project that torture on to the lives of others rather than themselves.
What’s even more upsetting is that often when men allow themselves to feel this pain, it’s so new to them that they kill themselves. We live in a society where men feel safer killing themselves than acknowledging pain. Accepting the patriarchy from a place of false benefit will prevent you from ever truly loving yourself or understanding others. It’s OK to feel sad. It’s OK to cry.
It’s OK to have loved your mum and dad growing up. It’s OK to have missed them or wanted more affection. It’s OK to take a moment when you’re reminded of these truths. When you allow your brain to access these emotions, it knows exactly what to do. So nurture yourself. Talk honestly to the people around you, and welcome the notion of understanding them more than you have ever done before.
• Jordan Stephens is a writer/performer best known as one half of British duo Rizzle Kicks
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Jordan Stephens on masculinity, mental health and getting sober
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Jordan Stephens is singing me the first song he ever wrote, aged eight, which he called The Simple Beat. The lyrics are mainly “boom and dum” but the tune is jaunty and inspires him to bop around on the sofa at Soho House White City.
It’s easy to see how this evolved into Rizzle Kicks, the rap-pop duo Stephens formed with his BRIT School friend Harley Alexander-Sule. They described themselves as “your mum’s favourite mixed-race double act” and their 2011 debut, Stereo Typical, won fans including Stephen Fry and James Corden, who appeared in the video to their song Mama Do the Hump.
These boys from Brighton were just the right level of cheeky — they drank rum and tried to impress girls but they also loved their mums.
Stephens, aged 27, feels proud when he hears Rizzle Kicks songs now but, he says, “it took me a while”. Before we broach that, Stephens is hungry.
He ran 5k around Wormwood Scrubs with his dog this morning and wants pancakes and a banana smoothie.
He’s wiry, in high-waisted baggy stonewashed jeans, a pretty necklace with a large square pink jewel on it and a matching pink ring made for him by “a mate”.
Since Rizzle Kicks recorded their last single in 2016, Stephens has turned his hand to a vast array of projects.
He’s acted, playing a rebel soldier in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (“I thought my part would be cut so I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it,” he says) and starring in an as yet untitled film about coffee with Kate Nash and Florence Pugh’s brother Toby; fronted a mental health campaign called #IAmWhole; and has just signed a six-figure deal with Bloomsbury for three children’s books. Rizzle Kicks isn’t over: “I want to make more of that music,” he says. “But Harley’s being a dad.”
We’ve met to talk about Big Tent Ideas Festival, in the Isle of Dogs, where Stephens is speaking about #IAmWhole tomorrow. It’s known as “Tory Glastonbury” but is non-partisan. “I was intrigued by being asked to represent in a political context,” says Stephens.
“Our goal is to normalise mental health, without being preachy or overwhelming. Government funding for mental health is poor. I’m a patron of a charity called AudioActive and they’ve just had their third suicide in a short space of time.
It was a young boy and when the charity tried to get help there wasn’t anyone available because it is so underfunded.”
The Goddess of Pop brings her glittering back catalogue to London for two huge shows. Expect some fabulous outfits and belting ballads. Madchester will take over north London venue on Halloween, as the legendary ravers headline the Roundhouse.
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The New York indie-rockers finally returned in 2019 after six years without a new album and look to be just as popular as ever, with two shows at this huge north London venue. Shouted words backed by beats played off a laptop — this duo’s slyly evolving sound is a simple, piercingly effective formula.
The jazz icon plays a career-spanning show at the Barbican, following up two days later with a concert joined by conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Indie rock’s most endearing slacker returned earlier this year with a new album and now comes for a headline show at Ally Pally.
This Dublin group have proved themselves one of the freshest, most exciting guitar bands of 2019. Catch their gritty, boisterous punk sound as it reverberates through Kentish Town Forum. The Scottish pop sensation has been selling out stadiums it’s nobody’s business — which means this gig at the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy almost seems intimate.
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He may have been in business for near-on six decades, but Rod Stewart is still going strong — in fact, this is his biggest ever UK tour. Catch the grand finale in the capital. ‘Tis the season to be singing, and who better to belt out the festive favourites than Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes. Expect renditions of Frosty the Snowman, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and all the rest.
Stephens is open about his own mental health. He saw a counsellor at school after being diagnosed with ADHD at 15. “I got more time in my GCSEs, which helped,” he says. “But they also gave me biscuits, which was the opposite of what I needed.
” Three years later he was touring with Rizzle Kicks. He didn’t feel able to talk about his feelings, so instead, he says, “I just got really mashed up”. “Drinking is numbing, removing yourself and not having to think about yourself.
Sex does that too, going out and sleeping with a bunch of people.”
What made him realise that he needed to stop? “I went through a hard break-up and decided to stay sober. I’d been making the same errors and was in a destructive cycle to do with intimacy. I find love difficult. Men can fall into a place where you are bigged up for being emotionally detached but beneath that is a deep fear of rejection and abandonment.”
Did anyone notice he was struggling? “I’m a strong character,” he says. “If I want to do something it’s hard to stop me. I was very functional, a lot of people are when mashed up. London is a mess — there are a lot of messed-up people. And there’s a perverse celebratory energy around young stars going out and losing themselves. That behaviour is encouraged, especially for males.”
He continues: “Men have an element of competition based around strength or being impenetrable. I question why we are brought up in a society where men don’t feel it is within our means to build emotional resilience. Rejection and heartbreak are important in growing up. I’ve had those pains in wild bursts. It was hardcore. I’d have preferred to learn gradually.”
Schools are one place to address this. Stephens has been reading up on a school in Harlem where detention was replaced with meditation and discipline improved. “Children should be equipped with the right emotional tools to use for the rest of their lives. It’s a long-term investment. We need to implement changes to make sure we are not continuously paying for plasters.”
His pancakes arrive, soaked in cream, and he tears into them, balancing the plate on his knee. Antidepressants can be another “plaster”. “My girlfriend recommended a therapist and we worked together so I didn’t go on antidepressants when it was bad.”
His mother is a therapist too. She trained while Stephens was growing up and now practises part-time, supplemented with Uber driving. “You should interview her, she’s an interesting woman,” he laughs. What’s his Uber rating? We check his app and he relaxes when he sees it’s a respectable 4.56. “I’m always late to the car,” he explains.
In his mental-health work he’s been researching psychedelic drugs. “There is going to be a psychedelic revolution,” he tells me. “I’ve experimented with DMT and mushrooms. I’m a fan of Professor David Nutt. If [psychedelics] are allowed into the medical circuit legally I think we’ll see a decline in people struggling with anxiety and depression.”
Last year, #IAmWhole launched its Music4MentalHealth initiative with a four-hour concert at the Camden Roundhouse. Stephens’s mate Ed Sheeran played first. “He’s caring,” says Stephens. “When we meet up we order Nando’s and talk about funny videos. He has two cats who have funny ears.
” Stephens’s usual Nando’s order is extra hot. Is that part of proving himself as a man? He’s dismissive. “My girlfriend [actress Amber Anderson] is addicted to extra hot sauce. I know a lot of my male friends who get f***ing medium.” He also s watching clips of Dragons’ Den and his favourite is Deborah Meaden.
Then he looks guilty: “Actually, I can’t say that because I performed at Peter Jones’s daughter’s birthday. I can’t pick a favourite, I need to keep my mind on business.” In fact, he’s about to release a song. “It’s taken me three years to come to an EP I ,” he says.
“I’m sober now and am not fighting so much, externally I mean. I’m definitely fighting myself.”
It was Stephens’s grandmother who got him into writing and his children’s book is dedicated to her. She came over from Guyana during Windrush and was an English teacher in Finchley for 25 years.
“The story is about multiculturalism and being social instead of wrapped up in the need to achieve. The girl in the book is obsessed with finishing jigsaws but she doesn’t look at what they are.
Then she learns that life isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.” Does Stephens jigsaws? “Metaphorically I do.”
The Windrush scandal was “the most insulting thing”. “I have zero compassion for Theresa May. She is far too removed from the general population. I don’t think she has ever spoken to a black person before so it’s no surprise she is putting them on planes.
” Is Boris Johnson any better? Stephens wouldn’t consider going into politics until he is in his late-thirties. “I don’t know that much. We confused confidence for competence.
I believe in choices compassion and if you’ve never experienced hardship how are you going to represent 80 per cent of the population? Brexit is an example of what happens when overconfident men are allowed to make decisions.”
What does he make about the discussions around a lack of male role models and a rise in knife crime? “There is a straightforward parallel between youth clubs closing and an increase in crime,” he states. “What do you expect people to do with their time when they are not learning to love each other? The breakdown of community is awful.”
Football and supporting Arsenal was his community when he was younger. He gave up a professional career when “my hormones kicked in and I started smoking weed. It’s a good thing music worked out or I’d be kicking myself.” He says his new music is “funky”, adding with a grin: “It turns out if I’m not totally drunk I have a nice tone of voice.
Big Tent Ideas Festival is at Mudchute Park & Farm tomorrow, bigtent.org.uk
Jordan Stephens: ‘I Masked My Early Depression With Substance Abuse and Chaos’
Jordan Stephens from hip hop band Rizzle Kicks | © Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock
Jordan Stephens, better known as one half of hip-hop duo Rizzle Kicks, fronts mental health campaign #IAMWHOLE. He reveals how his mate Ed Sheeran is helping him to spread the message with his upcoming Music 4 Mental Health gig and how we need to challenge the culture of toxic masculinity.
The moment Jordan Stephens realised he needed help for the depression that had been clouding over him for the past few years was when he had a terrifying panic attack while on holiday. The death of his grandmother and the suicide of a close friend within a short space of time had hit him hard. Until then, he had dealt with it the only way he knew how: booze and drugs.
“I masked a lot of my early depression with substance abuse and chaos,” says the 26-year-old Rizzle Kicks singer. “I know that once I allowed for my sadness to work through me it was really tough. Depression does all it can to stop you. My unhealthy side versus my healthy side. It was a conflict. It was a complete internal war.”
Stephen’s sense of denial was so strong that it was only when he stopped writing the song ‘Whole’ that he realised what it was actually about: his gradual spiral into depression. “I didn’t intend to write about it,” he admits. “It ended up coming out.
” The track was used in 2016 as part of an NHS and YMCA campaign to fight the stigma surrounding mental health issues and encourage young people to open up about their struggles.
It ended up sparking a movement, spearheaded by Stephens, that has spread via social media using the IAMWHOLE hashtag.
The rapper fronts the #IAMWHOLE campaign © #IAMWHOLE
The musician will be hosting a special one-off gig at London’s Roundhouse in Camden in November 2018, featuring performances from Anne-Marie, Professor Green and Ella Eyre, among others, to raise awareness of the campaign. Most of them are Stephens’s mates.
The biggest coup is Ed Sheeran, whom he’s been friends with since he was 17. “It’s mad because I forget all the time that he’s the biggest pop star in the world,” he says. The Music 4 Mental Health concert will be raising money for Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), The Mix and YMCA.
But what Stephens wants most of all is for people to walk away from the show and feel that they’re not alone.
“We’re at an age where people are exposed to more mind-altering things than ever,” he says. “I don’t mean drugs. I mean screens, TV, social media.
In the same way we know what to do with our physical health, it’s really important to do the same with our mental health.
Whenever something is holding you back or making life difficult, I just want people to feel there is a support out there for them.”
Stephens was born in Neasden, London, before moving to Brighton. He formed hip-hop band Rizzle Kicks with his BRIT schoolmate Harley Alexander-Sule.
Their 2011 debut Stereo Typical, an album full of laid-back, old-school raps and infectious pop hooks, went platinum.
Their single ‘Mama Do the Hump’, which was produced by Fatboy Slim, sparked its own dance craze known as ‘the hump’, and TV host James Corden made a cameo in the music video.
Their second album, Roaring 20s, came two years later, and since then, both Stephens (‘Rizzle’) and Alexander-Sule (‘Kicks’) have been working on their own solo projects with Stephens using the stage names Wildhood and Al, the Native. He’s also started acting, with roles in critically acclaimed E4 drama Glue and a part as a rebel soldier in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For now, though, Rizzle Kicks is “on ice”.
Stephens became famous when he was just a teenager, which brought tremendous pressures for someone at such a young age. When you factor in research from charity Help Musicians UK – which shows that musicians are three times more ly to suffer from depression than are members of the general public – the issue is all the more clear.
The industry is rife with cautionary tales of mental issues being ignored. Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and DJ Avicii are all reported to have committed suicide after battling depression.
Lady Gaga, Years & Years singer Olly Alexander and Selena Gomez are some of the stars who have spoken about their own mental health struggles.
“Often creativity comes from a place of pain or discomfort or wanting to escape, so if there isn’t any sensitivity around that, sometimes musicians can find themselves in really dark places,” says Stephens. “When you’re young and you’re exposed to audiences and attention, you lose anonymity. You have to grieve your former self.”
Stephens says therapy and retreats have helped him © James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock
Counselling and personal-development retreats have been key in helping the young musician feel better. He also quit drink and drugs. “Even if it’s just on the NHS, everybody should do therapy,” he says. But Stephens explains how more needs to be done to change the culture of toxic masculinity that conditions boys and young men to remain stoic at all times.
“Socially we haven’t quite got to the stage yet where we redefine how we bring up young boys,” he says. “Ultimately we still live in a society that punishes feminine qualities. We still have terms ‘pussy’ or ‘gay’ being used derogatively. If your punishment for being emotional is to be called a pussy you wouldn’t want to do it anymore. It just fucks with how you perceive yourself.”
Stephens has been vocal about how this needs to be changed. He regularly appears as the ‘token man’ at feminist events and festivals to talk about the subject.
He’s doing his best to be open about his feelings and to be vulnerable. Most of all, though, music has been his saving grace. “Music is the most universal medicine.
Everyone will hear something and their minds and bodies will change. It’s magic.”
Music 4 Mental Health is taking place on 18 November 2018 at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, Camden Town, London, NW1 8EH. You can buy tickets here.
Wednesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. To highlight this, Culture Trip is looking at how different societies are shining a light on this important issue in innovative and alternative ways.
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