A Meditation on Manhood and Male Rappers Wearing Dresses

If you believe Kid Cudi’s ‘SNL’ attire threatens Black masculinity, it’s time to do some soul searching

Photo: Will Heath/Getty Images

It’s spring again, and with the opening of businesses after a year of Covid-19, it’s apparently become necessary to once more consider one’s personal fashion before stepping outside. You’d think that after a year of pandemic couch-surfing this would be a low priority, but as it turns out, if you’re a Black man, you still can’t wear just any old thing. Somehow, in light of all of the problems we face in the most racist country in the world, it is still ungenteel to wear dresses.

Last week, Kid Cudi appeared on Saturday Night Live in a dress. The decision was part performance (Cudi is a graduate of the Kanye West school of double-take), part business (the dress is featured in a forthcoming fashion line), and part homage. Seattle rocker Kurt Cobain is a touchstone for Cudi, and Cobain used to rock a dress every now and then, because why not?

What’s ironic is that the group of people who normally praise such performative chess moves in Black rap circles decried Cudi’s game: extremely vocal heterosexual Black men. These brothers were not down with the dress, and naturally, everyone has to hear about it. I assume this reaction exists because they care that Black families with impressionable babies who stayed up to watch Saturday Night Live because they stan for British actress/host Carey Mulligan might be ripped asunder from exposure to a rapper/singer in a dress.

Just kidding. We know why they’re mad: because they’re homophobic.

Masculinity is largely a learned thing, and for most men, they interpret its many manifestations in their lives as a rite of passage. Manhood is a commodity to them, something you invest in with specific chits of behavior and one day have bestowed upon you by the gods of machismo. It’s a backwards way of looking at one’s self-esteem, since a rite of passage is generally less an education in and of itself and more of a final test kind of thing, like an SAT. All of the education actually happens before the rite of passage, born of experience and socialization. Men conform to and normalize how society sees us, how we see ourselves, and all of that translates into whatever life we are forced to live from a young age. Somewhere along the way, we’re supposed to make enough peace with that formula not to hurt anyone else or ourselves.

Black men’s definition of masculinity is further tempered by a lifetime of survival considerations: racist stereotypes, social fear, generational PTSD, school-to-prison pipelines, and so on. Black masculinity is very much a case for nurture over nature, often referenced as a weapon we use to both defend and attack. We use our Black maleness to make room on the street and to speak with authority on all things Black. We play king and aggrieved jester when it suits us. It is traditionally a weapon so vorpal we often cut ourselves drawing it out its sheath.

But what I really want is to be beyond such symbology. When you see yourself as a weapon, then everything becomes a target. It is hard to love someone in a healthy way when you are a weapon. It is hard to raise a child well when your parenting always carries the whiff of bludgeon and cudgel. These ancient yet sadly traditional versions of Black masculinity are an appetite that always needs feeding, that picks from a menu comprised of all the things around us that we can conquer: the weaker sex, the softer male, the boy with sugar in his walk. But if we sacrifice these adjacent targets at every turn — especially when no one asks for our opinion — we can be made bigger, stronger men. We can even prove ourselves real men.

The rite of passage we should be instilling in Black men is having the strength to be the person you are in your most vulnerable and quiet moments any time you want; the you without danger or fear, the you that is not a weapon. That’s a freedom that can’t be purchased.

That Black men are targeted by White society can’t be denied. As America enters another season of protests over the death of a Black man at the hands of police — this time, 20-year-old Duante Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota — the analogy of hunting feels more truth than allegory. The fear that drives the hunting is more bait for the hunter than the prey, in that the things society ascribes to Black men aren’t really characteristic of most Black men. More Black men go to college than prison. Black men are not any more predisposed to violent crime than any other race of men. Those warped statistics go on.

At the root of that fear isn’t The Thug or The Brute or the oversexualized Buck; it is American reckoning. The sun doesn’t set on the legacy of American slavery, and so the hunting of Black men is not unlike an exorcism, an attempt to eradicate its internal evil with extreme prejudice. The hunt is Amercia’s autoimmune response to the sin of slavery, and the guilt that comes with knowing that almost every Black person a White person lays eyes on comes from that sin. With all of this real terrorism, how dare anyone make a case against Black self-expression in any form that does no harm? I would lay more destruction of the Black family unit at the feet of a generation of media-savvy rappers who sell crime-fueled machismo than at the feet of a handful of brothers crying in interviews or wearing dresses.

Much noise is made over the emasculation of Black men. For my money, the things people who use the phrase either don’t know what emasculation means or they’re applying the concept where a fear lies. Certainly there are times when the world comes for Black men in a way that may strip them of their manhood. Ask actor and walking pectoral muscle Terry Crews, who had his crotch grabbed at a 2016 Hollywood party by an executive. There were a lot of angles to that situation, but without question one of them was the attempt to neuter his masculinity. It was a power move, designed to deflate Crews’ presence and the strength that is assumed to come with it.

Speaking of emasculation: Is hip-hop actually being emasculated by the presence of pink Timbs and rappers in dresses? Young Thug wore a dress on the cover of his 2016 album Jeffery, and the year before that on a magazine cover. He’s also 6-feet-3-inches tall and likes guns. Do you really want to get into a fistfight with Young Thug, despite what he wears?

And see? Even there, the way I’ve presented the determination of Young Thug’s manhood vis a vis a fistfight is a problem. I’ve made the test even more chest-thumping, even more focused on patriarchal-fed violence than on the strength in expressing himself freely, which is the more resilient example of Black strength and true liberty. I have come this far into the discussion and still made a case to fight it out, and that is wrong. Black men will never be free if the test is a Mandingo pit fight.

For myself, I never feel my manhood is threatened, even when it is. That’s because I control whatever my manhood means. I don’t allow the actions of others to qualify my understanding of what I am. I feel comfortable in the totality of my manhood because I’ve put in the work to understand how it came to be, what it’s capable of, how it can best be used to help myself and others, and finally, I love the person that manhood has played a part in creating. That last part is important. Manhood is not all that I am. If I had an ingredient list in descending order of present amounts, manhood is the third ingredient. I am — and love — being Black more than man, and I am — and love — being creative more than man. I also acknowledge that such understanding took decades to achieve.

Part of the problem is how we manifest vulnerability. If we manifest it as softness, then we may never see the strength that comes in revealing one’s self to others, and standing in that openness without fear. Like anything else that we attach to self-definition, vulnerability is a tool. If you cannot be vulnerable, you cannot comfort. If you cannot be open, you cannot be repaired, cannot rest.

The rite of passage we should be instilling in Black men is having the strength to be the person you are in your most vulnerable and quiet moments any time you want; the you without danger or fear, the you that is not a weapon. That’s a freedom that can’t be purchased, and because it isn’t a commodity, it is achievable by anyone with or without the balls to exist as themselves. That is a life worth being about. And by this measure, Kid Cudi passes with flying colors, as does any other Black man who unapologetically loves himself in a world that refuses to love him back.

Writer and poet holding down Columbus, Ohio

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