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02/06/2019 16:30 EST | Updated 06/05/2019 10:54 EDT

For Black Men, The Sharing Of Joy Is Crucial: Jah Grey

"Now that I’m being read and seen as a man, I really now understand the importance of unlearning what I was taught."

Listen: Jah talks about the immense joy he feels right now, and the question that presents him with. Music: Driftnote. Audio editing: Omar Rivero. Audiograms: Al Donato.

To know Jah is to know that his professional work is his personal work too; a work dedicated to transparency and living in the vulnerability of truth. The self-taught photographer began his career in 2014 sharing, through portraiture, the deep and meaningful stories behind his subjects, most of whom are Black men.

His photographs focus on the relationship between body and space, inspired by shared experiences of vulnerability, and using subjects who do not fit, or desire to fit the label of hyper-masculinity imposed upon them as Black men.

Jah, who now shares his time between Toronto and Los Angeles has had work shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and been showcased in and collaborated with community galleries/organizations such as the FreeSpace sponsored by Canon Canada, The Project Gallery, and LAMBDA LITFEST Los Angeles.

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Photographer Jah Grey

What is Black masculinity?

Black masculinity is love, it is self-care, self love, it is strength, it is consciousness.

What did you first learn about Black manhood?

The first thing I learned about Black masculinity would be pretty toxic. I feel like I've learned for me personally I learned Black masculinity on BET or people that I went to school with from what I seen. It just looked like, just not being vulnerable, just not being open, being hard, not having any emotions, just looking like you are stable all the time emotionally, mentally, physically. So those were my first encounters with Black masculinity of what that looked like, being able to provide you know and being able to have it all. And that was super unrealistic.

Courtesy Jah Grey
Photographer Jah Grey

What are you presently learning or unlearning about Black masculinity?

The things that I am unlearning about masculinity would be the toxic behaviours like the abuse; the physical abuse, the mental abuse, the emotional abuse. It is such a dominant thing in masculinity.

I'm learning what that [abuse] looks like, because I feel like it was such a norm, I didn't really understand the many ways and the many forms that abuse can look like.

I'm in a community that talks a lot about misogyny and abuse and how men treat women and this is when I actually realized even more that this was a problem. Even as someone who grew up in a female body, it didn't seem like a problem to me, and now that I am on the other end, now that I'm being read and seen in this world as a man, and from personal experiences, I really now understand the importance of unlearning what I was taught, and how problematic it is and how harmful it can be to those around me.

I am really trying to unlearn, and trying to build healthy relationships as a trans guy. I am trying to redefine what those relationships look like as a guy.

I feel like a lot of Black men... when we do get that joy, being able to express that is like: how?

As an artist, I speak about redefining masculinity and challenging the norms, which I love doing. I feel like it is a really important thing to redefine everything and not follow exactly in everybody's footsteps, but learn from the things that they do, the things that might be wrong that they do, the things they do that might be right.

I choose to work with people who also want to challenge that, who are not afraid to be themselves and also be afraid to be themselves as well.

Courtesy Jah Grey
Photographer Jah Grey

Currently, I've been photographing Black men that choose to be vulnerable. I never direct them on what to do but we have conversations about life, things that might be vulnerable. During the conversation when there's that little pause, I would take those photos.

I've showcased two men hugging and embracing, expressing and showing love to one another because that is something that Black masculinity doesn't show. [Society tells you] that you can't have healthy, loving, intimate dynamics with another man, and if you do, it means that "you are gay." That's bullshit. Capturing men in these moments that you might not see them often are important.

I feel like we are sort of improving as Black men, in regards to learning how to be loving to one another, learning how to be gentle with ourselves and our brothers, and learning that we need to hold each other accountable — I want to document the softer side, but also document the sides of us that aren't the nicest or the prettiest. To let men know that, yes, we may not be perfect, but we can make the choice to change to be better, for ourselves and for those around us. That we don't have to conform to societal expectations of what black masculinity is — we can unpack it, create and build a new foundation of masculinity.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.


In this series on Black masculinity, we speak to a number of Black men on what masculinity means to them, what they have learned or are in the process of unlearning, and how Black manhood reimagined has presented itself in their lives and work.

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