“ “Harlem World”
Photograph Brad Elterman, CR Men’s Book Issue 3
Words Marc Jacobs
It’s easy to spot Benny Harlem over the cars of a North Hollywood parking lot, where he stops after his CR photo shoot before relocating to an outdoor table at a nearby Jamba Juice for the interview that follows. The social media star’s famous hair, that he has been growing out for more than 12 years, stands 18 inches over his head in an exaggerated hi-top fade. It’s one of several signature styles that appear in his self-portraiture, which has attracted more than 200,000 followers. The 24-year-old model and musician began posting stunningly beautiful photos of him- self in January 2015, proudly posed in coordinated looks with his six-year-old daughter, Jaxyn. “After my third year of growing my hair, I had a revelation that this was a crown,” says Harlem, who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and lived between New York City and Miami before moving to Los Angeles four years ago. Unsurprisingly, he also attracts the attention of passersby, who unfailingly stop to warmly engage him. “I see you all over social media, you and your daughter. That is so dope,” says one man. “How do I get my hair like that? I don’t think my hair will grow like that.” Harlem responds, “It will, brother. If you keep it up. I promise you.”
An image of the two from May 31 of this year immediately entered the Internet canon: Harlem holds Jaxyn, whose hand grasps his shoulder, her head against his chest, both locking eyes with the camera (the photographer is often Jaxyn’s mother—Harlem’s wife and creative collaborator—who rarely appears), both wearing all black, with a pan-African flag necklace visible over Jaxyn’s shoulder, with black berets topping a fantastic volume of natural hair. “It’s not about a Black Panther thing. It’s not a White Panther thing. It’s not a Green Panther thing. It’s a Human Panther thing,” Harlem explains. “We should be fighting for one another. That’s what the picture really represents.” It also demonstrates Harlem’s devotion to his daughter and his wholehearted support of her feminine power. “When I take pictures with my father I try to do the same thing he’s doing because he inspires me,” Jaxyn says. “He’s taught me to be a strong young lady.” Harlem adds, “I’m about making dreams come true—especially my daughter’s.” It’s a vision beyond typical masculinity and stereotypical black masculinity.
Harlem is extraordinarily charismatic with a light that is difficult to deny; in fact, one can easily forget to check in with the 3-foot tower of hair that gently sways above his eye line. He speaks in a stream of consciousness that dependably loops back to universal love and other similar themes. “My whole thing is humans and how we love each other among each other,” he explains. That the world has access to his message and that it can achieve such popularity without prior approval from more industrial media is “an honor that I could not have foreseen happening,” he says. And then there are the looks. “My family loves fashion. This is every day. We just love to look amazing,” he says. “When I look in the mirror every single morning, I say to myself, You have to go out there and do this. You have to be who you are. You have to wear your crown proudly. Some people will laugh and some people just might bow. Some might not bow, but they might smile. And if they smile that’s all the difference.”