Adekunle ‘Kay’ Rufai – a man of many hats and most popularly known as the founding director of the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys project is colorfully blending photography, mental well-being, and black boy activism internationally. Kay has successfully fused his photography, poetry, filmmaker, and mental health researcher skills to develop the multilayered S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys programme, which shows a counter-narrative to what people perceive black adolescent boys and black masculinity to be.
The project includes a podcast and a series of exhibitions famously known for capturing smiling images of the participating boys in their secondary school uniforms (see pictures below). However, before they reach this stage, black boys aged 13-14 are selected from 40 secondary schools across London via teacher recommendations. After this, the boys are given a camera to create a photo journal to document and identify aspects of their lives that add or subtract from their happiness. The boys then engage in workshop discussions to discuss these images and areas of their lives to identify what they can or cannot control. Overall, the programme provides the boys with necessary tools that improve their mental wellbeing whilst empowering them to locates their voices to advocate for change in their schools. Images of the boys have been exhibited across London, including at London’s Barbican Centre, Brixton, City Hall, and most recently, in Downtown L.A.
In his TedXLondon in conversation with Ben Hurst [@therealbenhurst], co-host of the Climate Curious podcast, they reveal their mission is to restore the humanity of black boyhood. This is because black boys globally lack safe and secure outlets in schools to express their emotions. Instead, they are left to navigate a world that racially adultifies them and erases their childhood.
Of course, we could not go without asking Kay about his vibrant, colorful aesthetic. He is known as ‘the man that wears many colorful hats.’
GUAP: What inspires your fashion style?
Kay: The earliest memory I have is when I saw a picture some time ago of my seven-year-old self in a purple suit. And I said DAMN – Ma, you knew I was always fly! But what that really reminded me of is that I had this penchant of being expressive from a young age. But being in a very traditional Nigerian patriarchal socialised culture, at some point, that was killed. This idea that I was young and wanted to wear fresh, colorful things.
After dropping out of university to honor his authentic self, Kay expanded his color palette and self-expression with his fashion. Drawing inspiration from the fun and flamboyant parts of his Nigerian heritage, Kay’s aesthetic stands as an activist reminder that one can redefine traditional and harmful narratives in new, healthy ways that serve one’s self-identification. This is the very essence of the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys project’s core mission.
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