A ripple of excitement passes through the hall at Kelmscott School in north London. Doc Brown, former rapper, comedian, youth worker and younger brother of author Zadie Smith, is here – a surprise guest – to give the first lesson of the day. His audience, 75 teenage boys, most of whom know Brown intimately via his prolific YouTube output, are hanging on his every word.
He kicks off with a few thoughts on the day’s issue of The Sun. ‘On the front page there’s a naked woman and across her breasts it has the words “Hello boys”,’ he says. ‘This is the number one selling newspaper in the UK. Not 30 years ago, now, when we’re supposed to see women as equals. Imagine if it was a picture of a black guy in a loincloth with bare feet and it said, “Yes boss”. There would be outrage, we’d have a race riot on our hands. But when it comes to women, they’re expected to just shut up and take it.’
Brown, real name Ben Smith, is here as part of a new initiative called Great Men. He describes himself as an ‘accidental feminist’ – a man brought up by women, who now, aged 35, as a father to two girls, is increasingly incensed by the casual misogyny and sexist attitudes around him.
Explaining the imagery
He tells the boys about trips to the newsagents to buy sweets for his daughters that have ended with awkward questions about the pornographic imagery they see there. His youngest is five. ‘I don’t know how to explain it to them,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to end their childhood early, and they wouldn’t understand. It’s hard.’
I have three young sons and this issue has been worrying me, too. How do you explain to a child why that woman has no clothes on? What is the right age to do it?
He also talks about the pornification of pop music, which has spread even to the likes of Justin Timberlake. ‘This isn’t Snoop Dogg we’re talking about, this is Justin Timberlake,’ he says. ‘He’s family-friendly. He does the voice of Boo Boo in the Yogi Bear film. I sat down with my seven-year-old to watch a video of his and it was like woah – naked women. I’m not talking scantily clad, I’m talking naked.’
‘I think we have forgotten to explain to boys how to be men,’ says Ruimy. ‘In ancient society they had a rite of passage, it was a sacred moment. We don’t have that now. We just send them to school where they learn maths and English. There is a void about their identity. I think it’s really important.’
‘These days, so much is excused as banter,’ Brown adds, ‘but it’s more dangerous. We’ve made it such that if you say anything against it, you’re a prude. You’re the party killer.’
The Kelmscott boys, however, are enthused and inspired. ‘We should have more talks like this,’ says one. ‘We have sex education, but that doesn’t cover any of this. It’s really made me think.’
Brown ends his talk with a rap sending up egotistical hip-hop stars who brag about all the bitches and hos they’ve slept with. ‘These boys’ minds are constantly manipulated into thinking that women are second-class citizens. It’s a human rights issue – this is the next step in the civil rights movement. It’s amazing we’re still fighting on such a basic level,’ he says. ‘It’s like racism or religious differences – you’ve got to bring these things out in the open and discuss them. Honesty is the key. Someone has to facilitate a process of communication in these groups. We’ve got a very long way to go.’
Read Lessons for my teenage son by Sam Cleasby on LifeLabs