New York-bred and LA-based model Benny Harlem has skyrocketed into the online spotlight in a relatively short span of time, thanks to both his iconic hair and his adorable Instagrams with his 6-year-old daughter, Jaxyn. Harlem and his halo of hair (or "crown," as he calls it) have now appeared on everything from thirst blogs to memes, but between channeling his inner Prince and pulling outfits to the nines, he's also a pretty normal family guy. As such, PAPER spoke to him about the Internet buzz, maintaining his strength as a black man in America today and, of course, the secrets to hair success.
How did you get started on Instagram? Was it just a fun hobby that soon became much bigger than you initially intended?
Definitely. I just got on Instagram officially last year -- in 2015. There was a picture of me holding my daughter's hand on Christmas morning. It got pretty big, but that's just our daily life. Her mom and I often have days together. I just include her with that because it's my life and she's my legacy. It's almost a family album for her to go back and look at to go, "Look at me when I was this age and that age." It wasn't a thing until other people started noticing it. It was just something to be proud of. She would even start asking me, "Daddy, can we put this on Instagram?"
When did you start to notice your Instagram going viral?
I really don't know when it started. I guess every picture that was of her and I generated a little buzz. People were relating to it, saying "Oh my gosh, it makes me miss my father more" or "I want a father figure or it makes me think of my dad. Let me call my dad." I started seeing a lot of that, but as far as it going viral, I couldn't tell you really. There's a photo of when we were on the beach and Jaxyn kissed my forehead. That's something that she does every morning, really [but that photo went crazy].
Absolutely. Your photos and the father-daughter relationship they portray are really reassuring and beautiful, especially when placed on such a prominent platform.
I mean, it's [unfortunately] not common. But [I hope] me and my daughter's relationship could help another young man who has a baby and a mother. [A young man who may be] thinking about skipping out, [could see] our relationship and see how things can be and the great side of being a parent. That could affect and influence the next man. But as you said, I'm very proud of my daughter, I'm very proud to be her father.
Okay, so you know that I have to ask: What is your hair secret?
I mean we have a regime. We wash our hair every week. We make our own shampoo and stuff like that, which consists of natural [ingredients like] coconuts and certain berries and things. I think it's really just what most people do to their hair. [But we also] take care of [our] bodies. I think a lot of it is positive self-image and great thinking. What we consume in our minds and our spirits has a lot to do with our hair as well. People might not believe it, but I really think that's the truth. Of course, take care of yourself, take care of your hair, wash your hair. Really, I'm not going to make up some elaborate thing. Other than the castor oil and coconut oil that we use, there's really no secret.
I've seen some of the memes people have made with your hair. You seem to have a good attitude about it all because you repost them. What do you tend to think about being made into a meme?
I think everything is all about attitude. We live in a day and age today where people make a meme out of a hamburger. I know I don't look like your next door neighbor, so it's cool, I can't take it too seriously. I can't take myself too seriously. You're really doing yourself an injustice if you take yourself too seriously. A lot of the memes are funny to me. I show my baby. Even she is like, "Well daddy your hair kind of does look like a makeup brush." So, I really have to laugh. We laugh together.
It goes to show, not just from the memes, but the reactions you get in general that the Internet is enthralled with how unabashed you are in owning your natural look. Like you said, you don't look like 'everyone's neighbor' but how does this translate into your everyday life? Are people just as supportive in person?
Well Jaxyn has situations at school where girls try and touch her hair. In our home, we have a rule that we don't let people touch our hair. We don't do too well with that. And she just says no. Jaxyn also just has her own style and she gets that from me. She watches me, how I handle reactions in public and when I get people saying, "Is that your real hair?" or "What is that?" We get people that love it, we get a lot of love. All in all, you've got to know how to roll with the punches and keep it going. I taught her really well because she gets stuff at school from girls -- or haters, as we call them -- and she handles it very well. She says "Don't touch me. I'm gonna back up" and she keeps it moving. I get it all the time; she's watching me and learning how to deal with the same kind of response.
A photo posted by bennyharlem (@bennyharlem) on May 31, 2016 at 11:04pm PDT
Discussing Jaxyn, as a young girl of color, we're beginning to see this gradual transition to women of color taking ownership and agency over their 'natural look.' But we don't usually attribute natural hair as something to be important or sought after in black men. So as a man, even if it's not necessarily to spread a message, you are very much participating in owning your natural look.
I guess it is a message. When I started growing my hair out, there really wasn't a message. I'm pretty spiritual, I guess you could say. So the man above kind of had me grow my hair at age 15. Gradually, I see more people around me growing their hair out. Back in the day people grew their hair out with no issues -- the '70s, '80s, men just grew their hair out and did what they wanted to do with their hair. We wore it as our crown -- a crown of glory -- that's just what it was.
I see black men doing a lot with their hair and it's incredible, whether it's the braids or the Kendrick Lamar situation. I don't think the movement of men growing their hair is as big as it can be, but I'm hoping more men will find pride in growing their hair out and wearing it as a crown of glory. You look in the mirror and you see your crown. For me, I look in the mirror every single morning, especially when my hair is up in the crown box type of style. It reminds me to stand firm in who I am and go out there. So I wear it proudly.
A photo posted by bennyharlem (@bennyharlem) on Apr 3, 2016 at 4:57pm PDT
Your body is intrinsically political and your image doesn't fit stereotypical ideas of what black men are 'supposed' to look like. How has combating that narrative with your own image taught you about being a black man in America right now?
That's real. I've seen a lot of hate because of the way that I look. Not even from the opposite race, but even from my own. How I choose to wear my hair, how I choose to present myself, is not a typical look for black male at all. Especially with a daughter and a whole family -- as a provider and artist. But I stand proud in everything that I am. My hair is nappy as hell, and I'm proud of that.
Like I said previously, I get a lot of love, I get a lot of hate. Even in that hate, we have to stay firm in loving ourselves, loving who we are, loving where we come from, loving our roots, loving the way that we look. I have very, very kinky hair. I have to make it work for me. That's who I am. I don't know what we're going to be up against in the next couple of years, especially with Obama leaving office. What I do know is that we have to stand up in who we are, love ourselves and love one another. I'm not even just talking about blacks loving each other, but all races. I believe everybody should love who they are. Love thyself and love everyone around you. Love yourself first.
I don't look like the 'everyday black guy' and that's fine with me. I love the fact that I am who I am. Many men who look the way I look don't get the platform that I've been blessed with to showcase it. I also hope I'm one of the ones who stands firm in my looks, as an artist, as a man, as a father, and so help other men come out unapologetically, with their hair and everything. I shouldn't look the way Wall Street wants me to look. I should look like how I feel inside. I feel like a big fire. We should make that the new standard: Coming out of what people expect, coming out of that box.
I used to wear my hair very short. It wasn't until I started growing my hair that I developed my true personality. It's a new day and age to express ourselves in our looks, the way we need to or want to, the way that our souls are telling us to.
Since your hair has become somewhat of a symbol, but do you think you would ever cut it?
I don't see myself cutting it, but things happen and things change. I don't know if I would do that, but I don't want to speak too soon, either. It's a crown. Why would we shave our crowns?
I noticed your Instagram creates this platform for other young black men to find more colorful forms of expression whether that be through their hairstyle or apparel. I see your look and I think of Prince, this icon who helped curate safe spaces for young black artists, and creatives and all black men to explore identity and what that meant to them. Is there anyone who inspired you to be your most authentic or natural self?
Wow, that's a great question. There are so many people that have.
Listen, my grandmother. She was a model in the '70s and had this look about her. She's still here, God bless, and one of my best friends. She wears furs: Short furs; long furs; $12,000 furs; every kind of fur. It's just what she does. I used to watch my grandmother and think there is no limit on what you can wear and how we should look. I remember when I was in the sixth grade I went to school wearing a dark purple fox fur--this was a little bit after Cam'ron did his thing. It was my grandmother's and everybody went crazy. I got all the girls with that fox fur. It was incredible and I didn't care. I love being different.
Back in the early '00's, listening to Prince, Michael Jackson, Grace Jones, a little Earth Wind and Fire. I used to listen to Prince while getting ready for school. I just want to be different, creative, crazy, fun and fly and swagged out at the same time. I've loved David Bowie since I was seventeen. He reminded me so much of how I always felt like inside. James Brown and even Jim Morrison, in the way that he just dumbed everything down. Sometimes I just wanna wear my bleach bell bottoms and no shirt and just go outside and meditate and chill and be free. Somedays I feel like Cam'ron and I want to wear my Timbs, my long white tee, and just don't talk to me about nothing, a regular Harlem dude and just chill. Harlem is [also] flamboyant and big, it can be that sometimes. You can be who you want to be. You can be flamboyant, you can be down to earth. I'm just a gumbo pot of all of that.