Written by:
Christina Oredeko

Kay Rufai: ‘I love seeing people just be unapologetically themselves’

Read time:
10 minutes

Kay Rufai: ‘I love seeing people just be unapologetically themselves’

Last year I was on my way to Waterloo Station when something caught my eye. Perfectly poised along the Thames I was surprised to see several enlarged images of Black boys, smiling. I was lucky to have stumbled upon Kay Rufai’s S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys exhibition.

The S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys project is a showcase of young Black boys being able to express themselves in a way that our society doesn’t always permit. Our young Black Boys are continuously pigeonholed. From being disproportionately stopped and searched, excluded from school, to simply being overlooked, Kay Rufai transforms this narrative by spotlighting the stories of young Black boys so that you feel nostalgia and connection with them all. 

"It’s opened my eyes about things I can change in my day-to-day life to make me feel happier and it’s inspired me to be a leader because I have it in me." - Zion

"It’s taught me not to judge a book by it’s cover – I don’t like it when people do that to me." - Musab

An image of Kay Rufai over a pink background smiling brightly with a wide brimmed hat oni
Kay Rufai

So, who is Kay Rufai? Well apart from his infectious smile and immaculate style, he is an extremely talented immersive artist, who has a wide-ranging portfolio as a photographer, poet, filmmaker, mental health researcher, playwright and author.  

I was fortunate to spend an hour speaking with him to understand his motivations behind S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys. When I ask him what inspired him to do this project, he flashes a quick smile and his eyes light up. He explains a little about the background of the project including his experience growing up.

“There is so much that I needed as a 13-year-old Black boy”. 

Kay mentions growing up without a father and across different places throughout his childhood and teenage years. When asked what he needed growing up, Kay replies “the opportunities to express and understand my identity”.

Kay highlights why it is so imperative for him to do these types of activities. “2021, similarly to 2018, saw the highest numbers of youth homicides and violence affecting young people.” The youngest victim of these homicides was just 14.

“The majority of the narrative [on criminality] is around the victim and perpetrator which is synonymous to Black boys being inherently criminals and gang members. It’s mainly from an incarceration standpoint - increase policing, increase the jail time and do all the deterrence. No one was really talking about the ill mental health that violence is one of the symptoms of.”

Funding cuts over the past ten years have meant that vital services have become virtually non-existent. Youth clubs are a thing of the past and haven't been replaced with an alternative. That’s why the work of the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys is so important. 

“For me, I wanted to create a counter-narrative, a project that actually centred the public wellbeing and public health of these young people.''

The conversation then moves on to what we can do better to support and socialise boys to navigate these negative stereotypes. “Seeing the whole child!” he replies. He repeats the phrase again;

“Seeing the entire child and giving them authentically that.That’s important!”.

For him, it's about creating health, strength, belonging and partnership in ways that allow people to feel heard and valued.

“One of the biggest tools is to cultivate and nurture emotional intelligence and emotional literacy in boys. That is something that is notoriously absent in the ways in which boys are raised. Boys are not given the tools to express their emotions in a spectrum. So, anger is the only emotion boys are validated for either negatively or positively. I think that is one of the first kinds of interruptions that needs to happen around trying to provide them with emotional language.”

“Another one, is really challenging the ways in which boys are raised with affection, with love, and actually validating them for things that are beyond their physicality. Instead validating them for their tenderness, for their softness, for their kindness. All of the things that historically are not seen as masculine traits. By doing this I am actually demonstrating that and giving them the licence to feel like they can authentically be themselves and express who they are”.

When asked whether the pandemic and the rise in support for Black Lives Matter changed the direction of the project, Kay cites peoples’ sudden awareness of the necessity of work.

“I think what BLM and covid really did is expose the realities of what created the project in the first place. People were like ‘oh wow’. Around that time there was a Guardian article on the project using the visual imagery for the exhibition and I think people were all sitting at home and had to really confront these glaringly obvious inequalities. That's what gave a wider exposure for the project which meant a lot of the schools, stakeholders and teachers got in touch to facilitate the project in their institutions.”

“I provide an opportunity for human links and connectivity in different groups of people and I think that really needs to start at school from a very young age.”

Empathy is central to this project and to challenge stereotypes and narratives surrounding Black boys.

“Trying to create a society that is rooted in creating a collective human experience is very difficult because capitalism and all these microstructures that exist force us to sit in our own silos and look at everyone as the enemy. We need to look at how the system plays a role in creating silos in communities.”

When asked how we can challenge these negative stereotypes and what players need to be involved in that process, Kay responds that there are two strands to this - “the micro and the macro”

“What’s imperative is really exploring the non-visible stuff. The stuff that you feel as a person of colour, Black person or somebody who is not of a homogenous gender. You feel these microaggressions, you feel the impact. I think that's the bit that is important for every person who is not of these demographics to really engage with.That internal journey of being anti-racist as an active practice.”

“Obviously that is a very difficult journey for most people to be on but it’s necessary, especially for people who occupy positions of power and influence like teachers, police officers, those who write policies and all of those whose work has a direct impact on shaping people's lives.”

“I visually arrest people with imagery that contests what they are used to seeing around Black boys. My work makes people sit with that information percolating inside of them, to think ‘why did I respond or react like this?”. 

In parts of England, exclusion rates are 5 times higher for Black Caribbean pupils. “It is important that there are top down infrastructural cultures, not just training but an actual cultural shift, from the punitive measures that are used in school around exclusion.”

What does 2022 hold for the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys project?

“Scaling up. At the moment we are working with 25 schools, the plan is by the end of this year to work with 40 schools.” Kay mentions a streamlined alumni programme which will enable his work with the young boys to continue after their session, to ensure they continue to be supported.

He also raises a S.M.I.L.E-ing Girls programme: “It’s going to be massively different, obviously”.

“The reason why the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys is so successful is that it's designed by a Black man with lived experience. S.M.I.L.E-ing Girls will hopefully be ready in 2023, the project will be created solely by Black female artists who will then deliver the programme to Black girls.” I certainly can’t wait to see how that develops. 

As our interview closes off I ask one final question: “what makes you smile?” 


“I love seeing people just be unapologetically themselves - that's definitely something that makes me smile”. He reminisces about a time when he was on the underground  and saw a kid in a batman suit and another wearing wellies that had lights on them.

“I love that! Because they don't care what anybody thinks, they are just being authentically themselves and I feel like if more of us were like that, the world would be a great place.The more I see people step out and just be authentically themselves in anyway shape or form, that brings a massive smile to my face for sure”.

That definitely brought a smile to my face. If anyone wants to find out more about Kay, please visit his website: http://universoulartist.com 

Author: Christina Orekedo is an alumnus of the Runnymede Trust's Unbound Traineeship, which aims to create a sustainable model for developing and retaining talent within the wider sector.

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