On Sunday, August 23, Tyler, the Creator, was riding through France on the nicest tour bus he’d ever rented—a giant TV screen, a circle couch, extra beds—and heading towards the end of what was meant to be a month-long tour of Europe, reveling in the amenities his hard work had afforded him. The 24-year-old Los Angeles rapper and his crew were looking forward to a day off in London, not least because they knew where to find food that was less Euro, more like home; it was one of his favorite places to visit. Just in May, he’d rented out the Prince Charles Cinema in Central London to play a show, host a pop-up shop, and screen Napoleon Dynamite, one of his favorite movies.
After his tour bus pulled up to the French-English border between Calais and Dover, though, his plans to perform at Leeds and Reading Festivals, among other shows, were curbed. He was detained while the border patrol figured out why the name Tyler Okonma was flagged in their system, and after a half-hour spent in a small room with three other detainees and some snacks, he was informed he would not be allowed into the United Kingdom, by personal decree of Theresa May, the Conservative Home Secretary of the U.K. Home Office.
According to papers obtained by Jezebel, Tyler was declined under the U.K.’s Unacceptable Behavior policy, which makes provisions for non-U.K. citizens who “use any means or medium… to express views that… foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the U.K.,” among other provisions including “terrorist acts” and “criminal acts,” to be denied at the border with no chance for appeal for three to five years. (Requests for comment from the British Home Office and Home Secretary had not been returned at press time, though they released a statement: “Coming to the U.K. is a privilege, and we expect those who come here to respect our shared values.”)
The papers instructed that Tyler would not be admitted, and continued: “The Home Secretary has reached this decision because you have brought yourself within the scope of the list of unacceptable behaviour by making statements that may foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.”
The document cited lyrics from the songs “Sarah,” “VCR,” and “French,” which came from Tyler’s 2009 mixtape Bastard, written when he was 17, as well as “Tron Cat,” from his 2011 debut Goblin, written when he was 18. The tracks include use of the word “faggot”; the lyric among them that’s been objected to most since their release is from “Tron Cat,” and goes: “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome.”
“I never perform those songs,” Tyler told Jezebel last week, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, where he’d arrived after a long train ride back to Paris and one flight plan with a Heathrow layover that was sidelined by a call from the U.K. border patrol at the last minute (he was not even allowed to touch London soil). A brief check on the wiki Setlist.fm says Tyler hasn’t played most of the cited songs since 2014, though it says he has performed “Tron Cat” as recently as August 21.
“Everything they’re talking about was from age 19 and before, when no one was listening to anything I had to say,” he said. “And now y’all wanna go back to that stuff that no one gave a fuck about and use it against me? After people finally listened, and I used that to inspire so much and use what I do for good instead of the negative that you’re trying to say that I use it for? They’re making me seem like the most evil piece of shit ever. I’m the total opposite of that.”
But the general public’s image of the rapper was largely set during those teen years, when he was cultivating a Tumblr fanbase for Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, his now-disbanded ragtag crew of musicians and skateboarders—a fanbase that eventually became so huge and dedicated that by the release of his first album kids at all ages shows were already imitating his fashion sense, pulling their extravagantly patterned socks to their calves and pairing them with Vans and golf shorts. He and Odd Future were feature-story fixtures; in 2011, I toured for several days with them for a cover story in Spin Magazine.
Since some of the longform interest faded, he has released two more albums and produced songs and/or directed videos for Frank Ocean and Pusha T, among others. He developed Loiter Squad, a popular sketch comedy show on Adult Swim that consisted mostly of kid-pranks and absurdist bits, and created an ad for Mountain Dew, which was later pulled after controversy. For the past three years, he has staged Camp Flog Gnaw, an actual carnival in Los Angeles featuring rides and performances by artists like Kanye West and Pharrell.
His most recent album, this year’s Cherry Bomb, is largely comprised of comparatively innocuous material, including a handful of love songs, some uplifting self-esteem parables, and tracks that serve as strong PSAs against both gangbanging and drug abuse. Yet the older lyrics are producing a backlash, one that seems to have gained force over the past several weeks.
Even as his career has evolved, feminist activists have been protesting his past work and keeping an eye out for him. In late July, the Australian feminist group Collective Shout lobbied that country’s Home Minister, Peter Dutton, to deny Tyler’s visa for shows he was set to play in September. The group’s express goal is campaigning “against the objectification of women and sexualization of girls,” and it does so primarily by petitions and motions to boycott and ban musicians, magazines, and advertisements alike.
“We argued, why does Australia have a national plan of action to address violence against women,” said Melinda Tankard Reist, co-founder of Collective Shout, “at the same time as rolling out the welcome mat to artists like Tyler, the Creator, who eroticize, glorify, and glamorize that very same violence?”
It was the second time Collective Shout, which has over 24,000 Facebook likes, had launched such a campaign—the first was in 2013, when then-24-year-old feminist Talitha Stone decided to protest a Tyler appearance at a clothing store—but this time was successful enough. Tyler tweeted that he was “banned from Australia,” Frontier Touring company announced that they would be refunding tickets for the shows; though Tyler’s visa was never denied, management felt it was risky enough to postpone the tour. (The Australian Home Ministry, Home Minister Peter Dutton, and Frontier Touring have not responded to requests for comment; Tankard Reist also confirms to Jezebel that Collective Shout was not contacted by either the Australian Home Ministry or Minister Dutton.)
When Tyler tweeted about the “banning,” he also tweeted at Coralie Alison, the Director of Operations at Collective Shout, and the feminist who had begun this round of petitioning.
Almost immediately, Tyler’s fans sent a barrage of tweets to Alison, ranging from juvenile name-calling to actual rape and murder threats. By the third day, she had gone to the police department to make a report—a prudent move, considering that, after Talitha Stone’s petition in 2013, she claimed that someone on Twitter had doxxed what they thought was her address, and was close enough to cause alarm.
“He never called off the attack dogs,” says Tankard Reist. (Coralie Alison corresponded with Jezebel, but was unable to participate in an interview by press time due to a personal matter.) “We documented the vitriol, and what we found ironic, is here you have Tyler fans saying, ‘How dare you say he incites violence; we’re going to kill you.’”
This sort of eruption—from jackass teens talking sideways, to strangers posting plausible and realistic-sounding threats—is not unusual for music fans on Twitter. On Sunday, for instance, a Taylor Swift fan essentially encouraged me to kill myself, and fellow Swifties actually ran Grizzly Bear singer Ed Droste off Twitter for simply criticizing her. None of it is excusable or acceptable, but it’s commonplace in the hive climate.
Tyler said that he thought addressing his fans’ threats might actually rile them up and worsen the situation, and insisted that by tweeting at Alison, he was trying to strike up a dialogue with her. “I wanted everyone to see that I was trying to speak to her like a regular person,” he said. “[Coralie Alison] never replied, but she would retweet everything that people would say to her. But she never said anything to me, which made me think, okay, this isn’t about trying to pick my brain or see who I am. Now she’s just trying to point fingers so she can get attention. This isn’t even what I thought it was about. I don’t even think she thinks what I was doing is wrong. She just needs something that gets her some attention, and what would it be? A young black guy who says he hits women in the face.”
But it was not just his lyrics, nor the actions of Tyler’s online fans, that caused the organization to double down on their petition this year, according to Tankard Reist. Instead, Collective Shout was most disturbed by a 2013 show in which Tyler had apparently called out Stone’s original protest and called her a bitch, a cunt, and a whore, before dedicating the track “Bitch Suck Dick,” in which Jasper Dolphin raps that line about hitting women in the face, to her. Stone was in the audience and covering the show for The Guardian, as well as filming the part where he cursed her. (Jezebel attempted to reach Talitha Stone via her Collective Shout email, but her account was disabled.)
“There’s his behavior right there,” said Tankard Reist. “Inciting criminal behavior from his fans who, we’re so grateful, didn’t realize that Talitha was in the crowd. Who knows what might have happened to her? If he’s reformed his ways, he could have shown it, but he certainly didn’t in 2013, and he could have shown it by coming out and saying to his fans, ‘Don’t threaten to mutilate and torture feminist activists.’
“You can see how he’s really whipping up the crowd into a frenzy,” said Tankard Reist, “We would say inciting violence. You can see the names he’s calling her.” The video is below.
According to Tyler, Stone did far more than stand anonymously and silently during that notorious set. “They were outside of our show protesting,” he responded. “And then [Talitha Stone] comes inside of the show and is just causing random commotion. I’m onstage trying to do a show and people can’t watch because everyone’s looking to the left watching her get into an argument with some 15-year-old? Of course I’m gonna say something in a mocking manner. I think she’s highly intelligent, so she knew that was going to rile me up.”
Here’s video of Tyler at that same show asking sarcastically, “How many people here are having a good time, and how many people are going to rape and kill people because of my lyrics?” After the fans cheer, Tyler says, “All you idiots! You’re supposed to say ‘No!’ All you guys are stupid.”
In 2014, New Zealand barred Tyler, the Creator, and the rest of Odd Future from entering the country to perform at Eminem’s Rapture Festival as they were “deemed to be a potential threat to public order and the public interest for several reasons, including incidents at past performances in which they have incited violence.” Yes, Odd Future was deemed too violent and sexist to play a festival put on by Eminem. (Collective Shout protested Eminem and the Rapture Festival as well, adding to campaign efforts that have also included Robin Thicke, Snoop Dogg, Brian McFadden, and Redfoo.)
Tankard Reist claimed Tyler’s 2013 Australian concert influenced the New Zealand decision, though the statement issued by Immigration New Zealand focused on a police officer being “hospitalised following a riot incited by Odd Future.”
In February 2014, Border Operations Manager Karen Urwin told the Guardian:
“It’s not a decision we take lightly and not one that happens often,” Urwin said. She continued to explain that it was rare to ban musicians under rules that cover character concerns, stating that those provisions have previously been used to stop white supremacist group leaders or high-profile Holocaust deniers rather than the group’s often aggressive and controversial lyrics.
Both Collective Shout and Tyler, the Creator, believe the actions of the British Home Secretary are a domino effect of the events in Australia, though there’s no official direct link between the two. Now, Christian Clancy, Tyler’s manager, has informed Jezebel that he’s received emails from a group in South Korea threatening to boycott upcoming performances and pop-up shops scheduled in early September.
Tyler, the Creator’s troubles raise different, and conflicting, concerns. One, obviously, is the overarching problem that many feminists have with Tyler’s lyrics—and, more alarmingly, the fear that some women may have at his shows. Collective Shout cited in a campaign that a “young woman was also raped” at the 2013 show in which Tyler called out Talitha Stone, something Tankard Reist seconded. “After one of those Sydney concerts a woman was sexually assaulted. It didn’t get a lot of attention but police told us that’s that’s what had happened,” she said. Jezebel has not yet been able to independently corroborate that statement. (A separate assault, however, occurred at the same theater in January at a YG and Ty Dolla $ign show.)
Second, what does it mean when performing artists are banned for art they created in the past? Is there ever a point in which a person can redeem himself? And third, what does it mean for an artist to be banned at all?
One of the main complaints about the recent controversies is that, again, the lyrics being targeted are several years old, and that it is unclear why they’re being invoked now. On Cherry Bomb, the album which Tyler would have been touring the U.K. and Australia to support, there are the aforementioned love songs; there is a pro-cunnilingus song; there is a song about being friends with a girl he likes but won’t pursue because she’s too young for him, written from the perspective of both Tyler (or, “Tyler”) and the girl, as embodied by Colombian-American soul singer Kali Uchis (who, for what it’s worth, is 22). Charlie Wilson, everyone’s favorite uncle, also makes an appearance on the record, as do Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, and Clementine Creevy, 18-year-old singer of L.A. garage-punk band Cherry Glazerr.
Tyler does still use the pejorative “faggot.” The one lyric that asserts any direct violence against women is in “Cherry Bomb,” in which he boasts he’ll “choke your dad, hit your mom,” though it’s one of the most common throwaway “threats” in rap, thought to be largely symbolic, and has its roots in the Black American tradition of the dozens, which formed the basis of “yo mama” jokes of the past 90 or so years.
These controversies already happened when the lyrics were newer. In 2011, Tyler was indeed called out for his words; most famously, Tegan and Sara’s Sara Quin wrote an open statement directed at “journalists and colleagues” who “defend, excuse and congratulate Tyler, the Creator”:
In any other industry would I be expected to tolerate, overlook and find deeper meaning in this kid’s sickening rhetoric? Why should I care about this music or its “brilliance” when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible? There is much that upsets me in this world, and this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve drafted an open letter or complaint, but in the past I’ve found an opinion – some like-minded commentary – that let me rest assured that my outrage, my voice, had been accounted for. Not this time.
It did not help the then-19-year-old Tyler’s case that his response to Quin’s thoughtful post was a tweet exclaiming, “If Tegan and Sara need some good dick, hit me up!” Back then, he told me, “When I said that shit, I thought it’d be funny... I guess my dark side comes out in my music, but it’s just weird that so many people think I’m such a fucking evil person. I don’t fucking hate gay people. I’m probably one of the least homophobic rappers in the world. I don’t discriminate, because that’s what the fucking whites did to the blacks back then, and that’s what kids did to me at school, because I listened to different music and shit. So I don’t fucking discriminate.”
Now, Tyler reiterates that he was playing a character in those songs, dreaming lyrics from an alter ego when he wrote the songs the U.K. banned him for—like 2009’s “Sarah,” which includes the line, “Bitch, you tried to play me like a dummy/Now you stuck up in my motherfuckin’ basement all bloody/And I’m fuckin’ your dead body/your coochie all cummy.”
On the phone from Los Angeles, he said, “The way I had it, my alter ego was the one who just thought of the fucked-up shit. Growing up, I would read about different serial killers, like Ed Gein and Ted Bundy, and would write songs from their perspective. Same way on ‘48’ off Wolf, I wrote a song from a drug dealer’s perspective. I don’t fuckin’ sell drugs! But it keeps the art interesting, and this is how I’ve always made music. I have a song on Cherry Bomb that’s strictly about my car. I write music about what I’m interested in at that moment, and back then I happened to be reading about Ted Bundy and Dahmer and Ed Gein.”
Tyler brings up the idea that gory books and movies are just as macabre and dark as his songs, if not more, but they’re not banned in the way he has been—an analogy that has been made since rap music started being banned. It’s a good point, though; the heinous acts of Ed Gein, the American serial killer who Tyler says inspired those early Bastard and Goblin lyrics, were the inspiration for classic films like Hitchcock’s Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs, among others.
It is, perhaps, a double standard—those films are more clearly able to be viewed by the world-at-large as fiction than, say, the disturbing creative ramblings of a troubled black teenager from Los Angeles working in a genre that’s only recently been seen as “family friendly” in America, and often only if purveyed by whites like Iggy Azalea and Macklemore.
For United States feminists like Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School and the first woman President of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008, it doesn’t matter how “offensive, how vile” Tyler’s lyrics or persona might be—under the Constitution, it’s protected speech. “Censorship always does more harm than good, including and especially to the groups that are supposedly benefiting from it,” she said, referring to the premise of her 2000 book Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights. “It ends up being ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst to the admirable goals of safety and equality.”
The U.K.’s free speech laws are closer to the United States’ than Australia’s—Australia has broader provisions for what constitutes hate speech—but as Strossen points out, none of these laws and protections apply until a person is allowed in a country. She does, though, present to me one of the most powerful arguments to fight censorship that I’ve ever heard.
“Any form of censorial power is wielded by the power structure in a way that is not at all sympathetic to those who are relatively powerless,” said Strossen. “To use the feminist pro-censorship faction in the pornography debate a couple of decades ago, they argued that we have a pervasively racist and a pervasively sexist society, as a patriarchy. I accept those factual statements, and therefore the last thing I want to do is hand over to the patriarchal, racially discriminatory power structure an inherently vague tool.”
She continued: “Historically, every censorship law that was supposedly passed for the benefit of women, starting with Anthony Comstock in the late 19th Century, has been used systemically, through the so-called feminist anti-pornography laws in the US and Canada, has been used disproportionately but not exclusively against feminist expression.”
Censorship laws were used to keep Margaret Sanger from distributing information about contraception, Strossen said, and, ironically, to keep Andrea Dworkin books out of Canada. With this in mind, at what point do we stop censoring people with whom we disagree? Melinda Tankard Reist has identified herself as a “pro-life feminist,” a position I personally don’t hold. Nor do I agree with some of Collective Shout’s targeting and methods, though I wholly share their announced goal of eradicating the rape culture and ending violence against women. In this disagreement, I have the right to counter-speak—same as Collective Shout uses its voice to speak up against the speech of Tyler and other musicians.
And when do we choose to forgive an artist—or a person, for that matter—for past transgressions, as they get older, evolve, hopefully mature? The Beastie Boys’ first album, License to Ill, was notoriously sexist, and was originally almost titled Don’t Be a Faggot. It included the cut “Rhymin’ and Stealin’,” which made reference to “rapin’ and robbin’.” As a group, though, they were able to publicly evolve into human rights activists and feminists (recall Ad-Rock’s famous VMAs anti-rape speech, from a person who at one point told the NME that he “hates faggots”). And plenty of other artists who have a history of actual violence against women are allowed to travel freely—Sean Penn, for example, or Dr. Dre.
Meanwhile, Eminem has only been banned from performing in Hyde Park in 2014—suggestions to bar him from Canada and the U.K. in the early 2000s were unheeded by then-liberal governments, who allowed him in on the grounds of free speech. And while Tyler has toned down his music immensely, Eminem is so concerned that this year, at the age of 42, he rapped the line “Ain’t no one safe from, non-believers there ain’t none/ I even make the bitches I rape cum,” on Dr. Dre’s Compton—a companion piece to the Number One film Straight Outta Compton.
But in the U.S., all of this is protected under the constitution. One of the few ways to suppress would be to argue “incitement” which, said Nadine Strossen, is “impossible to actually meet that, with maybe two exceptions that I can think of in all of U.S. jurisprudence. And short of that, the answer to speech you disagree with is to ignore it and/or answer back—and that’s effective in dealing with any pernicious ideas.”
For me personally, Tyler’s lyrics—even the line “raped a pregnant bitch, tell my friends I had a threesome”—seem more cheeky than toothy, particularly now, considering those feel like such absurd caricature. It’s understandable why others feel differently. Tyler’s voice is deep and rich, with a gravelly affect that can make lines about rape and murder sound even more vitriolic. His harshest lyrics also occupy the sort of purgatory space some of us learn to navigate as feminists and huge fans of hip-hop (and rock, and pop, and every inevitably misogynistic genre); you build up a thick skin if you want to keep listening, make judgment calls as to the rappers’ intent with every lyric that feels like a barb.
For me, Tyler’s lyrics never felt as hateful as, say, those of Eminem, or even the meaner lines in some Kanye West songs—especially as he’s grown as an artist, he strikes me as a gifted lyricist and producer with an extremely fucked-up sense of humor. It’s obviously an imperfect argument, an incomplete one, to go on instinct, but sometimes I’ve just ended up throwing up my hands and panning out to look at the bigger picture. It’s the larger sociopolitical culture that influences rappers, not the other way around—anyone who’s ever looked deeper into gangsta rap can attest to that—and, as Professor Tricia Rose put it rhetorically and sarcastically, “What wouldn’t I listen to over a hot beat?” as I transcribed it in 2005, at the University of Chicago’s Hip-Hop Feminism Conference.
“He’s created a music legacy,” says Tankard Reist. “Do we think boys aren’t listening to music after a certain period? Hardcore fans? This stuff has a legacy that goes on forever. If an artist like him isn’t going to do those lyrics anymore, does that mean he’s going to regret what he did before? Does that mean he’s going to pull those items off the shelves, that he’s gonna ask iTunes not to play them anymore? Even if he isn’t writing those lyrics anymore, those lyrics still exist.”
It’s this crux of maturity that Tyler seems to feel he’s at, but he bristles at the suggestion that he could send out a press release and an apology and it would probably resolve at least some of his woes from a PR perspective. “I’m not about to have my PR write up some fake press release with some shit I didn’t say. I can speak for myself, like I’m speaking to you right now,” he said. “And the thing is, when I was young, at the time, that shit sounded tight! I put out an album, and I put a lot of work into it, and I’m not that guy. I’m not going out hittin’ girls or doing other fucked up shit. It’s a song, bro!”
There’s another dimension to the element of why Tyler is facing international bans, and people like Eminem (or Sean Penn) are not. He’s not only outspoken, and hammers home his sense of absurdity with vulgar speech that is read as either straightforward or sarcastic—he’s unapologetic for the music people think he is supposed to be apologetic for. “If it was a movie, y’all wouldn’t have said shit. I’m not about to write a press release and play they game, saying, ‘I’m so sorry for the shit that I did when I was 18.’ No, that’s in the past! Like, y’all wasn’t trippin on that in 2011, or 2012, or 2013, or 2014, or half of 2015. But out of nowhere, the UK has a problem with me coming into their country?”
“I don’t know what it’s about now,” he said. “It’s deeper than that.”
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Image by Brick Stowell.