Being A Man Festival January 21st to February 2nd

Being A Man: Southbank Centre
Being A Man: Southbank Centre

We are at the inaugural Being A Man Festival, the only problem? The Six Nations is on. When the Southbank’s artistic director Jude Kelly asks the audience if they would rather be watching the rugby, several men raise their hand.

Even Nick Hornby said he would only speak at the event given that Arsenal were not playing, but this did not stop a 500 strong audience turning out for the Saturday of the festival.

If you did not catch Billy Bragg speaking about BAM last week, you may well be thinking as Jude said: “men are celebrated all the time, isn’t that enough to be getting on with?” However, the three day event held at the Southbank Centre was the first of its kind to explore masculinity and male identity in the 21st century.

BAM’s sister festival Women of the World has been up and running since 2011, so it was about time men spoke up. But how do we define masculinity in today’s landscape of moisturiser, manscaping and male housewives?

Grayson Perry, who gave the festival’s keynote speech on Friday, said: “We men ask ourselves and each other for the following: the right to be vulnerable, to be uncertain, to be wrong, to be intuitive, the right not to know, to be flexible and not to be ashamed.” Refreshingly, this is exactly what BAM was all about.

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, spoke about his absent father, Carl Barnes, British Army Reserve Patrol Commander, spoke about coming out to his fellow troops in Afghanistan, and multi-disciplinary performing disability artist Mat Fraser spoke about porn and disability.

Akala Photo: Belinda Lawley
Akala Photo: Belinda Lawley

Then we came to “Being A Black Man” – an hour long panel discussion chaired by hip-hop artist Akala in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The speakers included CEO of Working with Men Shane Ryan, writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun and theatre director Topher Campbell. The conversation was defined more by race than gender, and in the case of Topher, sexual orientation too, who boldly exclaimed: “out, black and gay”.

Shane took this further stating: “when do you become black? It is not a question but an answer you are given. The version of you others see isn’t ‘you’ – it is preconceptions and prejudices.”

Akala, the son of a Jamaican father and a Scottish mother, said the first time he realised he was black was also the same day he realised his mother was white. It was his first day of primary school when another child shouted racist abuse at him in the playground, abuse he would receive from teachers too.

Shane recounted a similar story, the first time he “realised” he was on the way to secondary school for his first day when ash, coffee and racist abuse was thrown at him from a van. He was then given detention for the state of his uniform.

When it came to open up the discussion to the audience, one young man asked the panel if black men should forgo their race, as he said he felt being black was not beneficial.

Ekow said not being black would be bland, while Shane walked straight out into the audience to hand the man a business card saying they needed to talk. Shane said his ongoing inspiration are black figures from history and he was saddened the audience member had not yet discovered this.

One audience member asked the panel about the Mark Duggan inquest to which Akala closed by saying although we live in a racialised society, particularly in London, there is still a lot that needs to be done.

Akala said this was glaringly obvious from the fact that the Metropolitan Police apologised for a dog that died after being left in a locked car on a hot summers day in 2011, but as of yet they have not commented on Dugan’s death.

“I’ll let you stew on that one” the hip hop artist said as he left the stage. Jude has already been announced that BAM is set to become an annual event, and so we hope the conversation continues.