Working with Words: Azekel

The acclaimed musician explores modern masculinity with Farfetch and Zegna

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A wise man’s mother once told him to “give a person their roses while they’re alive”. For some men this remains a challenge, the fear of vulnerability shutting them off from others, their feelings languishing in the dark. What would the world look like if this rigid form of masculinity were shed? What qualities would we instil in our sons to make that happen? Together with Port, Farfetch and Zegna have partnered to create two short films with poet Seán Hewitt and musician Azekel, exploring the subject of modern masculinity as well as a recital something they’ve penned. 

Port talked to Azekel – the London-based progressive R&B artist who’s earned the admiration from the likes of Prince and collaborated with Massive Attack and Gorillaz – about his chosen text (taken from his upcoming body of work ‘Analyse Love’), hip hop sampling, and how men can spread more love.

 

How has your work impacted the way you navigate life and the way in which you communicate with others? What freedom has music given you?

It’s brought me to different worlds, allowed me to meet different people, understand different lives. I’m really into collaboration and community, and it has brought me to lots of different communities. From a young age growing up in east London, listening to different kinds of music and playing instruments, it allowed me kind of travel before I actually traveled. It opened my mind up from a very young age and it continues to still do that – brings me in different spaces. It allowed me to meet you, for example…

When I first fall in love with music as a child?

My mum was born in Balham, so even though I’m Nigerian I was exposed to British music early on, not just African music, or funk and hip hop. My mum bought me a guitar when I was a kid, she said I could become the next Jimmy Hendrix, which was cool. Simply her saying that made me inquisitive to who Jimmy Hendrix was. That’s an inspirational thing for a six year old to hear. I went on to smash and break the guitar over my brother’s head though! As I got older I carried on that thirst and desire to make music and bought my own guitar. I bought it from Argos – I’ve still got it actually, it plays really well.

The piece starts with a quote from Slum Village – do you often look to other musicians for inspiration?

I love hip hop and a big part of hip hop is sampling. I love to sample and I think I do that in all kinds of creative disciplines. Whether it’s prose, films, music…I like the idea of using life, other people’s lives, recycling, not letting anything go to waste.

Hip hop is definitely one of the most reciprocal genres in that it often cuts something up and creates something entirely new in the process. Why did you pen these words, where did they come from?

I love J Dilla first and foremost, he’s a big influence on my musical style. I’ve been working on a body of work called ‘Analyse Love’ and it talks about different aspects of love – parental love, sexual love, brotherly love – and as I was making the record I was listening to that Slum Village song, ‘The Look of Love’. The lyrics really spoke to me – what is love, you know, what does it look like? I liked the lyric that it’s got something to do with being a man and handling your biz…For me anyway, the idea of what love is was put on me rather than me understanding what it was my own self. So in the course of making this body of work, or this album or mix tape, as I was making the work, I was understanding what love meant to me, my own self.

How can we spread some more love, have men look after other men?

How can you spread love? I think loving yourself first, being comfortable in your own skin, then there’s less ego.

What does RuPaul say, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Yeah of course, self-love, 100%. I think men don’t really talk about that as well – self-love. Especially the Western ideology of what masculinity is, through things like cinema, is macho, strong and silent, 007. Aspects of strength are definitely needed, but I think it’s also okay for a man to say he’s scared or has fears. Maybe he doesn’t need to share that with everyone, but the people he’s close to.

Is love and faith interchangeable for you?

I think it’s instinctive. I believe love is the purest thing. So naturally you would think God, whatever that means to you, would be akin to something which is that pure.

What do you think masculinity means in today’s society? How would you like to see this develop and progress in the future? Or to put it another way, if you were raising your son, what qualities would you want to instill in them?

I think the idea of masculinity is so right or left, that it becomes too difficult to live. Just like certain concepts of love can become too difficult to live. If I were to raise a son I would want him to be himself. Ideals are obviously important to aim for, but I think self-acceptance, being yourself, being comfortable in your own skin, I think that’s what makes a man really, being comfortable, not feeling you have to put on a mask, or have to live up to an unworkable role. It’s a process, it’s a journey, but it’s also an individual thing. I don’t think it’s something that should be forced onto anyone. Masculinity should be whatever your definition is.

Nobody wants to live in narrow, predestined boundaries. For boys or men who struggle to articulate their love – whether it’s for family, a friend, or partner – what advice would you give to them? How can men better communicate in their own day-to-day lives?

I think men’s inhibitions are often rooted in a fear of how they’re perceived, how other people will see them. I tell my guys, my boys all the time, ‘I love you’. Men need to understand that love doesn’t always have to be a sexual thing. Love is an emotion. Again, it goes back to being comfortable with yourself in order to communicate openly and honestly. Part of that is understanding that we only have a fixed time on this earth. It’s therefore important to live in the present and tell our loved ones that we appreciate them, whenever we can.

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Photography Benedict Brink

Styling Mitchell Belk

Grooming Roku Roppongi

Working with Words: Seán Hewitt

Farfetch and Zegna explore modern masculinity with the award-winning poet

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“I am large, I contain multitudes”, wrote Walt Whitman in his seminal poem ‘Song of Myself’, and indeed, most can lay claim to this statement. Assumptions of character traits based on people’s gender, or assigned sex at birth, often fall short of reality. We are simply too complex for binaries. However, what does masculinity mean today? Its toxic qualities are easier to identify and are increasingly being called out, but what does a progressive version of it look like? What new opportunities do men have to communicate, to grow? Together with Port, Farfetch and Zegna have partnered to create two short films with poet Seán Hewitt and musician Azekel, exploring the subject as well as a recital of a text they’ve penned. 

Port caught up with Hewitt – whose debut collection, Tongues of Fire, won The Laurel Prize – to discuss his chosen work ‘Ilex’, the consequences of men denying their fragility, and writing as a means of investigation.

 

Why is poetry your artistic medium? What sets it apart from other modes of communication, literature, expression?

Fundamentally I write poetry because I like its mystery. I like the fact that rhythm and music and rhyme and language all play together. Often when you write a poem, you don’t know where it’s going and you find something out by the time you get there. I think of the poem as connecting two things that wouldn’t be connected otherwise and you basically ask the question, what happens if we connect them? So it feels like discovery to me.

Why do you often pair the natural world with the poetry of the body? What magic happens when the two meet?

I often think of using the natural world or looking through the natural world and back to the body as a way of rethinking what the body can be, or what nature – which is really the rest of the world – can teach us about being human, or what it might mean to be human. If we were to look at a question and ask, for example, ‘what would a piece of holly teach us about this?’, we come at it in such a strange way, a way that’s outside of our usual way of thinking. A poem might begin thinking about a piece of fungus, and if you turn that back and look at life or love or the body, you often begin to ask different questions and think how are things connected. Of course, as a poet, you think everything is connected.

I like the idea of poetry as a mode of investigation. The poem is beautiful by the way – why did you choose this text with masculinity in mind? Why is it important to you?

I chose this poem thinking about masculinity for a number of reasons. One, because it’s basically a really old-fashioned occasional poem, written on the birth of my nephew. But I was wondering, what would I wish for a young boy now? And it was the ability to retain vulnerability, the ability to be fragile. To bring into being a man or masculinity, where all these things that are often seen as weaknesses, might actually be blessings, in a way. Another reason that I like this poem is because originally when I wrote it, I sent it out to an editor, anonymously. My name wasn’t attached and they thought it was by a woman, and I liked the idea then that inside the space of a poem, I’m almost androgynous. Once you connect my name with that poem, people read it differently, but there’s nothing instinctively masculine or feminine about the person I am inside the poem. It made me think perhaps I’m not a static masculine identity, that inside the poem I have a freedom that perhaps I don’t have elsewhere.

What are the consequences of denying the fragility you highlight in the poem?

Psychoanalysis tells you that you can’t bury anything successfully. Often what we’re asked to do is distraction or rechanneling that emotion into some other outlet, and eventually they catch up with us. We see often men dealing with the outcomes of that emotion or experience catching up. One nice thing about poetry or being an artist is that you get the chance to sit down with those emotions in a private way and figure them out as best you can, on your own, and then share them. I think that that is a connection between a writer and a reader or a singer and a listener – that you create this space where we can communicate with each other in ways that we don’t often do.

Roger Robinson said that poetry is an opportunity to practice your humanity with others. It’s a way to empathise, a vehicle to access other bodies, other states of mind. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges for men in communicating today? What can be done to remedy this?

It is a big question. My sense of it is, and this is probably because I’m not immune to it, I don’t think anyone is immune to it…There is a feeling that anything that we do feel might be particular to ourselves. I think the more we talk, the more we read, the more we listen, the more we learn that nothing is particular to any given person. No matter how embarrassing the thing you might want to say feels, it’s never embarrassing to the person who hears it, because they recognise something of themselves in it. That’s why in a poem or in a song, I can say I was doing this, this is about my nephew, this happened to me on this particular time. And anyone else can read it and see something of themselves in it. So nothing is a particular unique experience. It always has an element of universality if you tell it honestly. I think the fear of that isolation, or being the only one, is what holds people back from speaking. But the more we speak, the more we realise we’re not alone or isolated at all.

We’re living in a different world to our fathers and grandfathers. What opportunities do we as a younger generation of men have when it comes to defining and expressing ourselves?

We live in a world where people are beginning to be a bit more open about what masculinity or femininity mean, and whether we need those categories. Or, what it might mean to express oneself in a way outside what we think of as those categories. And that feels like a great freedom to me. We have technology, we have different jobs available. We have a whole history behind us, of men wearing makeup, you know, our parents grew up in the 70s, 80s. They shouldn’t be shocked! So maybe we should be a bit braver in doing whatever we want and expressing ourselves in different ways, because we’ve come a long way. I think grabbing hold of that freedom, making use of it, is what we should do. We should be brave enough to do that.

Are binary terms like masculinity and femininity, where we ascribe qualities based on gender, relevant anymore? Do you think masculinity can be a force for good and if so, in what way? What would it look like?

It’s hard to say what is a masculine trait and what is a feminine trait. In my mind when I begin to list what I think of as masculine traits, I think of so many women that display them. If I were to imagine an ideal masculinity, it would be one that was vulnerable, emotional. In fact, that borrows many aspects of stereotypical femininity. I think it would probably be a blended identity, because any polarised thing, any binary, is inevitably going to lack what the other thing has. An ideal always has to be a kind of compromise between the two. So yes – vulnerability, creativity, the freedom to express oneself, no fear of showing emotion, care for other people. That’s something I’d like future men and masculinity to exhibit. It must be widely defined enough that anyone can fit into it.

If I were to think about strength, I immediately think of my mother, if I was thinking about vulnerability I would immediately think about my father. That may be personally unique, but I’m sure it applies to many people. Good parents will have those blended identities. Speaking of – how is your nephew? How old is he?

He’s four, and he’s well. Apparently it’s quite common for a couple of weeks for it to be hard to get children to breastfeed. He’s absolutely fine. He’s a terror.

As his uncle, what lessons or qualities would you like to pass on to him?

It’s quite a nice role to be an uncle because you get to have fun and to steal children away for a day or so, and not have a great deal of responsibility. He’s very imaginative, so I like to play creatively with him. He loves to make up stories and I buy him books and read to him. He paints, runs around, dresses up, he just has that freedom and play that I think we lose too quickly. I would like him to get the most out of that and hold onto it as long as he can. At least until the world drums it out of him!

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Photography Benedict Brink

Styling Mitchell Belk

Grooming Roku Roppongi