On Carefree Black Boys

Understanding the appeal of the ‘carefree’ aesthetic to black male musicians from Young Thug to Chance the Rapper

Becoming a father gave Chance the Rapper a boyish glow. You can hear it in his voice. “My daughter look just like Sia / You can’t see her,” he teased on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” midway through the verse of a lifetime. Her spirit consumed him on the opener to his mixtape Coloring Book, too: “Man, my daughter couldn’t have a better mother.” The 23-year-old was already disposed to exuberance, but the baby girl flustered him anew. She unhinged him, all while sparking him to put down roots with her mother, his city, and his art — to become more concrete, for her sake and for his happiness, which are now melded into one. After she was born, Chance released a fantasia that approached gospel. “Lil Chano from 79th,” the diminutive nickname, is now a complete persona. He’s older than the early, “Wonderful Everyday” period, and yet the signature overalls, the wide-eyedness, and an obsession with the emblems of urban juvenilia endure brightly. This past weekend in Chicago, at the festival to which he gave the children’s fantasy name “Magnificent Coloring Day,” wily-looking puppets and invented cartoon characters popped up during his set. His purpose seemed alchemical, to turn the city America calls a war zone into a playground.

Chance has found a slogan to represent what is irrepressible in him: #BlackBoyJoy. Following his appearance at the 2016 VMAs, he started sharing photos of himself at the event, preening, dancing, and posing, with the hashtag. He was a natural spokesman. Others followed suit, posting photos of boys and men frolicking and grinning.

The #BlackBoyJoy hashtag preceded Chance’s use of it, and its origins are in the broader, voguish idea of “carefree blackness.” Like the loose digital community that bore it, this carefreeness has an ambient quality, a collection of aesthetics and identities that many laud as a generalized form of activism.

The trend was first sketched around a visual type, called the Carefree Black Girl, that emerged on user-produced sites with adolescent black pockets, like Tumblr and Twitter, in the early 2010s. Crude physical tropes of a certain kind of “alternative blackness” identified the CFBG among the sea of regular black girls who weren’t like her: loosely curled natural hair, quirky-but-respectable physical flaws, a lifestyle that supported an expensive diet and vacation. Her carefreeness, which exalted formless emotions like joy and happiness, developed ties to material tokens of upper-class, “bougie” existence. She had obvious avatars, actors like Tracee Ellis Ross and singers like FKA twigs. She actively resisted sexualization, was more focused on maintaining mental health. She lived contemporaneously, although her bravery could be anachronistically applied to matron saints, like Zora Neale Hurston. She was always smiling. “An important aspect of the Carefree Black Girl is motion, movement that is un-choreographed, unmitigated, exuberant, sometimes languid, but always full of life,” wrote Patricia Ekpo in 2014, when the hashtag reached peak saturation.

Now, the CFBG is a stock character in photography. Writing for The New Inquiry, net art curator Aria Dean sensitively addresses the false bottom of selfie politics, a larger digital trend that encompasses CFBG iconography: “So long as the feminist politic with the most traction enjoys this uncomplicated relationship to visibility, it will only sink into further aestheticization and depoliticization.”

In 2015, the CFBG became a man, or rather a boy. The timing was right, the timing would always be right — the steady deluge of visual media showing black men in some variation of state-sponsored provocation has both impoverished and depressed the public record. This is what Frederick Douglass, who was the most photographed man of the 19th century, believed: that sitting for stately portraits would present a challenge to the white perspective of American history. More recently, on the internet, a sense has emerged that if a boy looked different, he would feel different, and therefore be different. He could wear thin childhood braids into adulthood, and he could identify anywhere on the spectrums of sexuality and, more recently, gender. If carefreeness in black women loosened strains on femininity, then in black men, it could slacken masculinity. Interestingly, this new designation developed to be much more class- and region-inclusive than the original. #CarefreeBlackBoy and other similar tags took off, a parade of beards and flower crowns, and were called radical.

In music, no black man embodies the trend — literally incorporates it — quite like Young Thug in 2016. This is because he is an unlikely subject. Darker-skinned and an acolyte of Gucci Mane, Thug isn’t a clear analogue to the rich, mixed-race girl with billowing hair. He is her opposite, a subversion of a subversion. And yet fashion houses love him more fervently. He dressed himself with imagined grace, gesturing femininely in Japanese shirt-coats and a sky-purple petticoat on his mixtape Jeffery. “I feel there is no such thing as gender,” he announced in his Calvin Klein campaign. Later, he told us there would be “two brides” at his wedding to a woman, Jerrika Karlae. Next to his eccentricity, he also nurtures trauma: The rapper has mentioned that his father used to beat him for wearing his sister’s clothes as a child. Thug’s perceived asymmetry — hood and high fashion, ultraviolent and peaceable, gangster in a dress — make him a surface on which to project a hopeful future for black masculinity. Even when he takes pains to dress like an asexualized girl, the freeness with which he flouts conventions of appearance looks like the mischievousness of a little boy.

There are others, too, younger than Thug’s 25 years. Rae Sremmurd, the fearless leaders of party rap for the foreseeable future, show a sensitivity and refreshingly jejune world outlook that is endlessly attractive. Lil Yachty just turned 19; he often wears the color red and googly-eyed glasses, with plastic red beads stacked up along his braids. His playful insolence, shrugging off canonical heroes like Tupac in radio interviews while sampling the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song, has driven a generation of rap classicists off the proverbial cliff. Pushing the line between carefreeness and respectability is a constant for artists like Yachty, who are skirting the expectations of adult burdens, even rendering them irrelevant.

Creating a type, inevitably, will stoke an exercise in opposition. For every artist who satisfies the floating requisites for carefreeness in 2016, there is an artist who does not, who cannot. Take Kodak Black, who, like Yachty, is 19. Prior to a few months ago, his storybook rise to Floridian folklore, Lisa Simpson–esque hair, and gash of a grin endeared the rapper to a carefree ideal. His recent legal problems have ricocheted reality back into the picture. That has always been the unsettling irony of the carefree aesthetic. Rhetorically, it denies the full unpredictability of black experiences in America. It is a stereotype, albeit one intended for benevolence and created, perhaps lovingly, by black people. As Danielle Henderson has written, “I’m also worried that the emphasis on being carefree just gives us another set of rules to follow.”

Besides the limits of language, “carefree” also diminishes history. Black masculinity has been loaded with policing myths, but it has never been monolithic, in reality. Queerness, femininity, slyness, daintiness, and strength drive the spirit of the masculine, even when this multiplicity isn’t visible, isn’t meant to be discernible to many viewers. Part of what animates this push to elevate black idiosyncrasy above “regular” blackness in the digital age is both white and black viewers coming into contact with, and then gamifying, the lives of other black people. There is a current of exoticized shock in the fact that Thug, a street rapper, admires swishing skirts. That he is complicated, layered; that he has an inner life.

The internet has deemed this aesthetic “radical,” meaning unprecedented, but it is a variation on a pervasive sensibility in the progression of black style. We have only to look at recent music history to find its arbiters. Outkast, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, and Aaliyah are just a few of the acts who have used elements of cybergoth, Southern dandyism, and skateboard cool in plainly mainstream endeavors. Before them, James Brown, Little Richard, and Stevie Wonder all exhibited qualities of what is now marginalized as “radical” blackness. Aesthetic radicalism will always have an antecedent in black culture, which is to say, heteronormativity is enforced on, but not necessarily natural to, black people in America. This is a lesson we tend to learn in adolescence. But that visceral, personal revelation does not cancel the universality of the thing. What has changed in this digital age is the presence of the archive. What is new is the ease with which we can categorize the multivalence of blackness, via hashtags like #CarefreeBlackBoy. But the desire to fabricate freedom — that was always there.

“Boy” doesn’t always mean youth, or freedom. The word can send a wince to the black men who hear it, for the enforced servility it invokes. There was a time when black childhood only existed as an invective to emasculate adults. That’s the recurring bind of black history, and the omnipresent struggle endemic to black aesthetics. A word can be reclaimed, or reconstituted, only so far as the environment allows. One is carefree only for as long as the public projection stands, for as long as some outside threat bids you to worry.