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Glitterboy photo project expands ideas about black masculinity

South Philly photographer Quil Lemon has a new photo project called Glitterboy.
South Philly photographer Quil Lemon has a new photo project called Glitterboy.Read moreQuil Lemon

Black men don't sparkle  - much less wear glitter on their faces, right? But why not?

That's a question that South Philly's Quil Lemon explores in a new photographic collection titled Glitterboy. It's impressive not so much because of its breadth but for its impact. The nine photos the 19-year-old college student has posted on Instagram and Twitter of young black men wearing glitter intrigue because they challenge  traditional beliefs about masculinity, gender, race and sexuality.

"I wanted to shift culture with my work," Lemon explained recently.  "I wanted to change the way people view things...."

It's shifting anyway. Earlier this month, Will Smith's son Jaden barely caused a ripple after he showed up at the prestigious fashion showcase, the Met Gala, wearing clothing from Louis Vuitton's women's wear collection and  a pair of "man heels." At the same event, Sean "Puffy" Combs was photographed reclining  on a stairway wearing a sparkle-encrusted black suit with a long Super Fly cape. Maxwell wore what looked to me like a cross between a maxi-skirt and trousers.  Over the years, we've seen similar expressions of gender-nonconformity from the likes of Young Thug,  Kanye West and the New York Giants' Odell Beckam Jr. among others.  While it may not always be to my taste, I still find it fascinating to watch.

"They're pushing back against flattened out notions of what it means to be a black male and having to dress a certain way, speak a certain way and be a certain way," explained James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University.

"In that sense, I really applaud it," he added. "I wouldn't call any of this a sartorial revolution just yet.  But it's certainly out on the edges and it's starting to force folk to sort of rethink convention...We can ill afford to be homophobic, sexist and misogynistic at a moment when our community requires all resources on deck in an inclusive way to address the political and social challenges that we are confronted with at this particular moment."

Lemon, a student at the New School's Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, was inspired by a cryptic post on Tumblr by hip-hop star Frank Ocean in which he announced his new SnapChat using the term "glitterboy" and the words, "will shine and shine and shine."  That was followed by the star's  use of glitter on male and female bodies in his 2016 Nike video.

Then, on a whim while at a party last fall for the Milk makeup line, Lemon  decorated his face with  stamps shaped like stars and purple-pigmented sparkle. He posted images of his made-up visage on social media to both shock and applause.  That's how he got the idea for the Glitterboy project. His biggest challenge was finding enough males who would allow him  to bedazzle their faces.

"I'm glad a lot of them saw the bigger picture of what this meant versus just being focused on themselves," Lemon told me. "It's more about masculinity for all black boys."

It's also about expanding the definition of what that entails.  Even if the expansion comes in baby steps, I like that we are moving past the stereotypical assumptions people tend to have about African American males as being athletic, drug dealers, lazy or good at dancing.   As Petersen pointed out, males' posing for photos with glitter on their faces  is still considered taboo but thanks to the risk takers such as Jaden Smith and Andre 3000, boundaries are evolving. We're less shocked when males don't conform to traditional norms.

"Hopefully, we're raising a generation of young black men who are just more comfortable in the skin that they're in,"  Duke University's Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American Studies, told me. "And they don't feel as though they have to perform a script to black masculinity, that there' s not a specific uniform of black masculinity. "

And that they're men even with glitter on their cheeks.