The trouble with men: ‘We’re constantly competing, and we all lose’
Actor and poet Carlos Andrés Gómez is in Ballymun to spread an anti-macho message
Carlos Andrés Gómez: ‘Working with Axis, I see these young men come into bloom.’ Photograph: Vallery Jean/Getty Images
‘Now that we’re men,” sing Spongebob Squarepants and his friend Patrick in a well-known animated movie, “we’re tough enough to save the day.”
In the real world, however – or at least, our bit of the western industrialised world – it’s becoming clear that while men may be tough, they’re also having a tough time. Rates of male graduation and employment are plummeting as fast as statistics for imprisonment, aggression and suicide are rocketing.
Can art play a part in changing this distressing pattern? The American actor, poet and activist Carlos Andrés Gómez is convinced that it can. Gómez has been described as Keats meets Bob Marley meets Tupac Shakur. He co-starred with Denzel Washington in the Spike Lee movie Inside Man, played a gay paramedic in ER and appeared in an episode of Friends.
This week, however, will find him at the Axis Arts Centre in Ballymun, working with young writers and musicians, and, on Friday night, reading from his recently published book Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood.
Having shared a stage with Mos Def and Wyclef Jean, Gómez is no slouch on the hip-hop front, and the book mixes poetry and memoir to argue that it is time to change our perceptions of masculinity.
“I’ve lost so many men in my life in their pursuit of trying to live out this narrative of masculinity that is incredibly toxic and damaging,” he explains. “I’ve lost friends to violence, to drugs, to prison, to suicide. But overwhelmingly, they’re lost to themselves.”
Gómez was born in New York, and grew up in a family dominated by the rigidly conservative Catholic values of his Colombian father. “This is how I was told to be a man,” he says. “You never ask for help. You never admit that you’re weak. And you sure as hell don’t talk about what you’re feeling. Those three things, right there, are a great recipe for profound depression and for suicide.”
Part of the problem is that men raised in the traditional paradigm of masculinity don’t take well to wimpy academics who come along and declare that it is time for a change. Gómez, however, is no wimpy academic. He looks like he might turn up playing a macho American soldier in, say, Saving Private Ryan. And in his workshops and shows, excerpts from which can be seen on his website, carloslive.com, he takes no prisoners.
The results, however, are as non-macho as it gets. “Young men can come along and enjoy it as just a great show – but they’re also opening all these discourses in their heads,” he says. “The floodgates burst open. An amazing camaraderie develops in the room. I watch all these men laughing and putting their arms around each other. I feel like there’s not enough of that with young men. We’re constantly competing – and I feel, in that world, we all lose.”
Gómez first worked with young people from Ballymun in New York in 2008, when Axis brought its fusion of hip-hop and sean nós, Hip-Nós, across the Atlantic. He came to Ballymun in 2009 to work on a spoken word and dance project. “Working with Axis through Hip-Nós and Write On and all these great initiatives, I see these young men come into bloom,” he says. “This is their spring. This is their time. Maybe it’s their first time being able to say what they feel.”
Are there similarities between life experiences in Dublin and New York, or are they totally different?
“I’ve lived in Brooklyn and in Queens, and a lot of the guys I know in New York have the same concerns as the young men I’ve met in Dublin are struggling with,” he says. “In a place like Ballymun there’s so much that I find very familiar. I find men who have these deep reservoirs of intense feeling. No matter what you see on the surface, there is a lot happening inside of them.
“It’s not an accident,” he adds, “that you find such an incredible amount of talent in Ballymun. Axis has provided a forum where they can share what they have with the community and feel appreciated.”
The director of Axis, Mark O’Brien, says it has been the centre’s job to sow seeds of creativity wherever and whenever it can. Those seeds, he says, are sprouting in all sorts of ways.
“There has been a great surge in writing poetry, rap and prose in north Dublin – in Ballymun, Finglas, and the surrounding areas,” he says. “Just last month, two guys in their early 20s came in looking for a space to explore and develop their own writing.”
This week Gómez will workshop with the current crop of dancers and MCs, who will open his show on Friday night. “It’s a very powerful thing.” says O’Brien, “to be standing in a theatre with a group of men in their 20s and 30s rapping about philosophy and spirituality and mental health – exactly the stuff you wouldn’t expect them to be rapping about.”
Man Up is at Axis Ballymun on December 13 and 14, 8pm