It’s astir 8 p.m. successful London, though you couldn’t archer it’s that precocious connected a February evening by looking astatine creator Kay Rufai. He pops onto our Zoom telephone with specified a question of affirmative vigor — sporting a lime greenish garment with a matching hat, a golden concatenation necklace and a megawatt grin — that you mightiness presume it’s much similar precocious noon wherever helium is.
“It’s been a bully day,” helium said, settling into a self-made soundproof booth successful his home. “It’s been a engaged day, but a bully day.”
An denotation of however Rufai, 38, spends his stuffed weekdays is perched close down him successful the cubicle: a enactment of images of Black and brownish boys grinning from receptor to ear. “They’re ever-present,” helium said pleasantly. He is referring to his groundbreaking S.M.I.L.E-ING Boys Project, a photographic well-being inaugural specifically designed for Black and brownish boys successful the Swinging City who are often reduced to dehumanizing stereotypes with nary interest for their intelligence health. Rufai’s ongoing research-led task helps boys entree their joyousness and different aspects of their interior selves astir which they often enactment up boundaries.
Their guardedness is typically a defence mechanics against a metropolis that, adjacent amid today’s taste reckoning, mostly skirts astir issues of race, peculiarly erstwhile it comes to the police.
“For example, situations astir violence, particularly younker violence, is precise racialized successful the mode it’s reported,” Rufai said. “But erstwhile there’s thing that’s speaking connected the experiences of Black people, oregon radical of minoritized oregon planetary bulk groups, radical get precise uncomfortable.”
Some of the words utilized to notation to Black and brownish boys successful the media, helium says, “are truthful nondescript.” That connection bunches kids unneurotic with nary attraction for who they are arsenic individuals. It peculiarly dismays Rufai due to the fact that helium grew up successful immoderate of the aforesaid neighborhoods wherever these boys live, successful the aforesaid circumstances arsenic galore of them. He has besides worked with young radical who person been successful and retired of situation oregon successful gangs.
“I knew that these are not deterrents,” helium said. “We cognize what the recidivism rates are. I wanted to make a task that was rooted successful centering the intelligence wellness disproportionalities,” since “no uncertainty unit is simply a manifestation of that.”
It becomes wide that this is simply a origin adjacent to Rufai’s heart. “Aggressive behavior, oregon each these different things that are perceived arsenic assertive behaviour oregon unsafe behavior,” helium said. “All these different things were manifestations of deficiency of intelligence wellness provisions for this demographic.”
The S.M.I.L.E-ING Boys Project ― the acronym stands for Send Me Inspiring Loving Energy ― creates a harmless abstraction for boys to beryllium their afloat selves, opening up dialogues astir topics similar aesthetics, money, wellness and masculinity. Ultimately, the thought is to empower the boys to locomotion confidently successful their truths each day.
Rufai captures that consciousness of state by the extremity of this eight-week process, erstwhile the boys’ smiling faces practically beam retired of his photographs. But first, helium has to conscionable them wherever they are psychologically and emotionally ― typically successful a schoolhouse mounting ― and found a communal trust.
“So, I locomotion into a schoolroom with 13-year-old boys, and I fto them cognize that your dependable is arsenic arsenic valid arsenic mine,” helium explained. “You don’t person to respect maine due to the fact that I’m older. You conscionable person to respect maine due to the fact that you bid respect and truthful you springiness the aforesaid to me.”
Once Rufai establishes this level playing field, the boys statesman to behave successful ways that consciousness much comfy to them astatine this signifier — whether that means throwing successful a curse connection present and there, expressing fear, sadness oregon anger, oregon vocalizing a thought that was antecedently hard for them to share. The 1 caveat: Rufai tin situation them connected what they accidental and promote them to deliberation much profoundly astir things, adjacent if the taxable is him.
“Around the 3rd session, I inquire them what they truly thought astir maine erstwhile I archetypal stepped into the country wearing each these agleam clothes,” Rufai recalled. “And a batch of the times they say, ‘I thought you were gay. I thought you was, whatever.’ I’m not going to beryllium offended by it.”
Instead, helium empowers them to explicate however they came to that perspective: “I’m conscionable truly funny successful what you thought. ‘We thought you were truthful non-masculine due to the fact that you wore yellow, pinkish and each of this.’ We commencement to unpack that.”
Rufai’s ain younker is portion of wherefore he’s made it his life’s enactment to embolden Black boys to usage their voices to unlock who they truly are, careless of what they judge oregon person been told to judge astir themselves. A lad of Nigerian immigrants, the artist, calved with the archetypal sanction Adekunle, was ever taught 2 things: Go to university, and go a doctor. “Make your beingness worthy living,” helium said.
To beryllium fair, Rufai tried that route. He took immoderate coursework and was connected a way to survey medicine. But by the 3rd year, helium became frustrated and restless. “I didn’t privation to survey that,” helium recalled. “I perfectly hated being successful the university.”
He channeled that agitation into his then-untapped originative side. “While I was there, I spent a batch much clip penning and expressing myself,” helium said. “I would conscionable escape. Even though [I was] successful the carnal confines of a lecture hall, I would mentally and emotionally and spiritually beryllium elsewhere, penning and creating.”
This allowed Rufai to pat into, and yet nurture, his creator passions similar poetry, photography and music. But it besides meant helium would person to dive into immoderate of his ain vulnerabilities that helium protected from the satellite astir him. These included increasing up without his begetter and navigating beingness arsenic a Black lad and young man.
It wasn’t until aboriginal successful beingness that Rufai realized helium was utilizing these outlets arsenic his ain way toward intelligence health, and “as a instrumentality to assistance process immoderate of the analyzable emotions that I had,” helium said. “Because I was precise alert of the scope of emotions that I was navigating through, but I didn’t really person connection for astir of it.”
But helium recovered himself much and much drawn to these creator expressions arsenic helium continued to acquisition beingness ― chiefly successful London, but besides successful Nigeria and the United States. It gave him thing helium felt helium was missing for a agelong time. “I truly gravitated to music,” helium said. “It benignant of filled that void. I listened to voices of radical similar Lauryn Hill and Tupac [Shakur], who were important staples for maine increasing up successful presumption of knowing myself and my individuality arsenic a Black kid and truly navigating those expressions.”
You could picture what came aboriginal for Rufai arsenic double-edged. He dropped retired of assemblage to statesman performing and honing his art, which filled him with unbridled joy. But that displacement was met with his mother’s disapproval, which helium says made it “a precise pugnacious period.”
Still, betting connected himself ended up being an invaluable determination for him, and for truthful galore others similar him. Because erstwhile Rufai, restless erstwhile again, decided that helium wanted his creation to prosecute with Black boys similar him connected a much intimate level, helium gave them support to actively and intentionally question their ain happiness with initiatives similar the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys Project.
“I created this task due to the fact that the 13-year-old mentation of myself needed it,” Rufai said. He admits that looking aft his intelligence wellness is inactive a conscious effort connected his portion each day. Since helium hasn’t been capable to question arsenic overmuch arsenic he’d similar successful the pandemic, he’s relied connected walking on the stream adjacent his location and turning connected immoderate euphony and dancing successful the surviving room.
“I’m moonwalking and conscionable being afloat of joyousness successful my carnal being and my body,” helium laughed. “I truly conscionable bask listening to euphony that brings joyousness to my soul. Knowing that a batch of the enactment that I bash is outwardly exerting, I admit that I person to provender this truthful that I tin beryllium of service.”
Still, being successful a schoolroom with boys, seeing them statesman to unfastened up, remains his astir important root of joyousness — 1 that took him overmuch soul-searching to accomplish, and 1 that has talented him with other taste initiatives astir London successful summation to his ain self-fulfillment.
“This enactment that I bash is simply a extremist reinstatement of joyousness successful my life,” Rufai beams. “Curating a abstraction of Black boys that look similar maine and similar each other, for them to beryllium playful, fun. For maine to get to beryllium a kid again — due to the fact that I’m determination jumping connected chairs, and we play games together.”
He pauses, earlier adding proudly: “We talk openly. We bond. That brings truthful overmuch joyousness to me.”