KYLE knows all too well what it means to feel crappy about feeling like men aren’t allowed to express themselves. Before earning success with his early mixtapes and later rocketing into the mainstream after the release of “iSpy,” the Ventura-based rapper and actor born as Kyle Harvey remembers feeling suppressed by the status quo while attending Ventura High School, maintained by jocks and dudes who played it too cool for their feelings. Now, the 25-year-old artist wants young men to know and be comfortable with who they are, without bullying and “locker-room talk” threatening to emasculate them.
Last Friday, KYLE visited his alma mater to start the conversation exactly where it all began for him. The artist led a Senior Orientation workshop presented by AXE intended to challenge toxic notions of masculinity, while co-creating the curriculum with poet and activist Carlos Andrés Gómez and scheduling it during October’s National Bullying Prevention Month.
Sitting with him a few days before the program, KYLE explained how difficult it is for boys to look up to rappers from earlier generations who often projected aggressive, hyper-masculine images, and consider becoming anything besides that.
“We’re either going to end up hating ourselves, or we’re going to end up trying to emulate that, which is not necessarily healthy either,” he says. “Or we’re just going to try and emulate that, won’t be able to and then just be hella negative about it. And just pick on the weakest link; that’s how bullying really happens.”
Being “on the cool shit” in high school brewed a lot of inauthenticity within KYLE, and eventually he didn’t want to deal with it anymore. His narrative feels similar to Zac Efron’s ground-breaking Troy Bolton character in the High School Musical series, where the wunderkind basketball player felt the need to live a double life as a drama kid despite his friends and family warning him that theater would take his head out of the game. KYLE laughs at the analogy when it’s presented to him, awestruck that the Disney Channel Original Movie delivered such a revolutionary message.
But unlike the fictional character, KYLE really found himself in his high school’s drama department. “I noticed after a while it was so taxing trying to hide being nice, trying to hide being sensitive, trying to hide being quirky or weird or funny,” he says. “Through theater, it taught me really how to harness my personality that I was so out-of-touch with and started teaching me things about myself that I didn’t know.”
Coming into his personality in a judgement-free zone helped KYLE become a different kind of rapper— one who was raw and goofy, sensitive and relatable. On his debut album Light of Mine last May, he spills everything he’s feeling when he raps, including depression and other serious issues he’s often told not to touch on as a man.
Even more than just what he raps about, the way he raps about them, too, can come off as “unmanly” because he’s so comical and flamboyant in his music. Spitting verses about self-deprecation feels like getting spat on when no one seems to really listen, but when AXE backed KYLE on his mission to break down the negative stereotypes men face, he finally felt heard and supported. “I was like, ‘Wow, finally somebody’s going to talk about this subject that I’ve been rapping about for hella long,” he says with relief.
He’s been passionate about toxic masculinity since he felt that pressure in high school, and now he has the proper resources to create a space for people in his position to feel justified in, and talk about what they’re going through and who they are. He emphasizes that being authentic helps people be successful, happy and loved by their whole community, kicking off the intro of “Ups & Downs” from Light of Mine with that last key term: “How brave do I become when truly loved?”
What’s interesting with lyrics like that opening line is that Super Duper KYLE uses those personal moments to make him a Super Duper artist with relatability. Later in the first verse of “Ups & Downs,” he interpolates a line from Kid Cudi’s “Just What I Am” to talk about “punching walls, fucking up [his] hand” due to the pressures of fame. KYLE hopes the rap community would be more understanding of how dejected its fans often feel, and not be so rigid with their braggadocio persona of having more possessions, girls and clout than the next guy. “Some of us are punching walls hard as fuck,” he says bluntly. “If all your favorite artists are just untouchable and nothing is wrong about their life, it’s like you have nobody to look to.”
Songs like “All Alright” from his 2015 commercial mixtape make fans come up to KYLE during meet-and-greets and on the street, just to tell him his music helps them remember they’ll be okay. “We’re going to be able to talk about [toxic masculinity] at the school and find the kids that are willing to carry the torch and really help just keep the conversation going,” he says.
Even the way he talks about toxic masculinity in person has a quirky edge to it that doesn’t cheapen the severity of the topic. He looks off to the side of the room, his eyesight slightly fixated on a spot on the floor, and starts to rattle off words of encouragement like he’s talking directly to a young boy. No one is actually standing where he’s talking at, but if you were only to focus on KYLE as he taps into his Troy Bolton-like theater background, his distinctively reassuring voice and ability to hold an audience would have you convinced otherwise.
“It’s okay to be sensitive. It’s okay to go talk with a therapist about your problems. Work that shit out,” he encourages the imaginary child. “Express yourself. Who cares if you’re hurt? Being hurt is okay. It’s okay to not be okay.”
He plans on giving a similar speech as he travels the world during his Lightspeed Tour, spreading his positive message to his fans live and in person.
“I have this one part during the show… and I give this whole speech on appreciation,” KYLE says. “If you have optimism, and you have appreciation for the couple good things that you have in your life, from there you can start to rebuild your confidence. You can start to rebuild your love of life.”