As we face a defining moment in American history shaped by deep racial divisions and heightened political tension, it’s easy to place such a focus on color that we overlook the soul. Even further, the desire for acceptance has reached such a peak that even in an era of independence and creativity, many have become blinded to the transformational power of self-expression.
However, despite treading through a myriad of distractions, being authentic and aligned on your path is the only key capable of unlocking your true identity. Finding solace in this concept is how Benny Harlem took ownership of his narrative, creating a mystical movement that would help men heal and grow – beginning with his crown roots.
Harlem’s footprint is tied to a powerful natural hair movement. Taking a trip to Africa during an important period of self-discovery, the ancestral homeland presented Harlem with a profound paradox of pain and healing. The experience forcefully expanded his understanding as Harlem found himself grappling with the innate desire to avoid confrontation by remaining within the walls of his comfort zone.
“I used to battle with anxiety around the thought of bearing children with a woman of my race, because she would possibly have the child looking like myself with the same texture of my hair.”
Today, nearly two decades removed from this memorable turning point, Benny is now revered as the poster child for creating a conscious hair regime that has established a blueprint adopted by like-minded hair enthusiasts, urging Black men to walk proudly in their natural design. Now, directly influencing of over 500,000 engaged followers on social media, Benny is using his hair as a medium to make a series of bold political statements that spark conversations centered around defying conventions of race and gender.
While on set in Los Angeles, we jumped into discussing how he’s turned vices into victories, redefining masculinity, and his urgency to elevate the longstanding mindset limiting Black communities.
What makes your hair and the styles in which you wear it so meaningful?
Benny Harlem: My hair is meaningful because it’s treasured — by me, by my family, and by those in my lineage that came before me. My ancestors paved the way for me because they treasured their hair, and they have seen so many things that I have not. My hair is the last remaining piece to show that they existed and that’s very important to me. I’ve been growing my hair for 15 years, and it’s important that my hair is no longer diluted with chemicals and certain products. It’s not even diluted mentally. I’m so blessed with my hair. I hope that my decision to not dilute my hair mentally, physically or spiritually will have somewhat of an impact on others to do the same with their hair and become aware of the ingredients and facts being used.
Before reaching this point of clarity and self-awareness, what was a pivotal turning point or moment in which your adversity became the fuel that pushed you forward?
Benny Harlem: There have been a few definitive turning points that I credit with moving me into the direction and space I’m in currently. The most important turning point was when I discovered that I hated myself as much as the brother that killed my own flesh and blood. Another turning point was realizing that the girl I was in love with when I 14-years-old was abandoned by her father, and she was only with me because we both had no idea of what love really was. She didn’t value herself, and in turn, I didn’t really value her. When I learned what really happened in those moments, and in my own life growing up, I was able to fully understand that self-hatred is extremely strong. I don’t want to speak for every man, but for most Black men I know and co-exist with, self-hatred is very apparent—especially in America. I used to battle with anxiety around the thought of bearing children with a woman of my race or nationality, because she would possibly have the child looking like myself with the same texture of my hair. The curlier or straighter the hair, the better. For me, that was the most prominent example of self-hatred and that I needed change.
“It’s considered wonderful for a Caucasian, or anyone that is not a Black male to show themselves openly and free themselves. If they want to wear eyeliner because they call themselves a rock star it’s embraced and accepted — that’s not the case with Black men.”
At what point did you realize your story was impactful enough to empower and influence a generation of people?
Benny Harlem: There are millions of Black men — not just in America, but all over the world — who deal with the same challenges of self-hate and discovering who they really are. Being able to overcome the fear, anxiety and doubt that fueled self-hate is my victory. I, fortunately, came to the realization that I had issues, I’m not as confident as I thought I was, and I didn’t even want my own child to come out with the same hair or features as me. I was so conflicted that I preferred my child’s hair be a little more like the masters who owned my great-great grandparents. I had to get help. I’m still getting help to this day. Most of us are in need of help and a lot of us don’t speak on it — Even those who are awake.
Recently I watched The Mask You Live In, which follows young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. How does your movement challenge traditional ideas of masculinity, strength, and manhood?
Benny Harlem: Black boys suffer the most when it comes to that. It’s considered wonderful for a Caucasian, or anyone that is not a Black male to show themselves openly and free themselves. If they want to wear eyeliner because they call themselves a rock star it’s embraced and accepted — that’s not going to be the case with Black men. If you grow your hair out, we all know how you’ll be viewed at the end of the day. But, when other races do these same things, it’s labeled ‘unique’, because they are ‘just expressing themselves.’ Black men can’t express themselves without being hardcore, or being in jail. Consequently, we can only be this voice of strength in our own neighborhoods. We’re told, “wear those dreads, talk that mess in your own neighborhood.’ To me, that shows we’re all miseducated. We’re taught to be fearful of those who look nothing like us. I really don’t even have the hours needed to get into this topic, but we have a lot of work to do, and it starts with our own children.
As a community, what are the steps we can and should take to alter or change that perspective?
Benny Harlem: We need to educate ourselves and be honest. I’m honest with myself, I know where I came from. I used to deal with a lot of dangerous things in New York City. I almost ended up completely dead. It’s only from the grace of the most high that I’m here right now; blessed and protected. I let it all go. It was my ignorance that kept it going, and that’s what keeps a lot of things going for boys that look exactly like me today. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we just have to listen to our own people and our children, while allowing them to listen as well.
Growing up without your father and being forced to design a life for yourself and your family, what is your definition of fatherhood and the role you believe men should play within their family?
Benny Harlem: We first need to start with breaking the cycle in the mind, especially with Black men. Black men need the Black woman, and I’ll never renege on what I’m saying right now. Everyone loves the Black woman, but what about the Black man? The Black man has been torn apart from Black families of all kind. We had this idea that to take Black men out of the home and allow women to raise the kids, but how has that been going with the kids? When the dad is there in the house, things will most likely be different. We need our fathers. My hope is in this generation, because we’re seeing more and more Black fathers step up. Way more than when I came up. People will say, ‘but your daughter was special.’ Yes, my daughter is special, and any other Black man’s daughter is special who came from a Black woman, who came from a Black grandmother. It’s the same thing. I put a certain idea and dignity into my daughter and wife. If people think that’s so special, then to me that’s sick. My wife and daughter saved my life.
Through your own personal trials and tribulations, you’ve awakened a movement of restoration — How do you internalize being a healer and embracing responsible you have to humanity?
Benny Harlem: I give all praise to the most high, first and always. I couldn’t even call myself a healer if I wanted to. I called myself healing from anxiety, fear and depression about ten years ago – and I was only worsening my condition. It wasn’t until I was able to look into the mirror, and the eyes of my wife who believed in me and said, ‘you’re not this and you’re not going down like this.’ I didn’t care about my life, my existence or the daughter who the world sees every day. It was then that, by accident, I took a voyage all over Africa, because that was my last resort. That’s when everything changed. It was from my trip to Africa that everything started to move and change. I was only supposed to be there for a month and stayed for over six months. It was there that I figured out that 70-80% of who I am was from there. When I found that out, I took so much pride in the blood that I carry. It changed my life and made me want to become the man that the most high created me to become.
How do you see your movement expanding and what is the next level of dialogue you’re looking to have with your audience?
Benny Harlem: We’re working on an incredible documentary with HBO, not too much about myself, but more so the journey of black hair and what black hair does to the confidence of men and women. I’ve been to 19 penitentiaries speaking to young men. It’s changed my life so much in the last year, speaking to these brothers and young boys who really don’t have a great direction for what it is they should become. Through this, I’ve seen there is a lot of hopelessness. That’s what we touch on a lot in this documentary, and that’s why I’ve been so happy to do this project. It has been a struggle, because people don’t like to touch the topic. The penitentiaries will let us in, but the networks don’t want to show a side of black men healing — they want more dramatic stories. All of the 37 men I’ve been working with haven’t been back to jail in the last nine months. Using the tools, the methods, ways of thinking, and the way of life that I have taught them through the most high, they haven’t been back. It’s been tough, but it can be done. We can’t help by the thousands yet, but in the meantime, this is how we work to help men heal and find ways to overcome.