This week’s New Yorker devotes 8000 words by Kelefa Sanneh to Odd Future, specifically to “Earl Sweatshirt,” the 16 year-old member of the group who seemingly dropped from the face of the earth months ago. On its News Desk blog, the magazine’s Nicholas Thompson detailed Sanneh’s long, exhaustive attempt to track Earl down, eventually choosing to write a piece on the group’s possibly psychopathic figurehead Tyler the Creator instead, before finally circling back to Earl.
But as Sanneh researched the story, his curiosity about Earl grew. No one seemed to know much about him or where he’d gone. The group, meanwhile, had a complicated relationship with the absent prodigy. Fans chanted “Free Earl” at concerts and Tyler created graphics with that slogan; one flyer for a show had his name crossed out and the words “Will not be there due to mom.” But no one in O.F. would discuss where, exactly, he was.
In April, Complex magazine reported that it had found Earl, at a school for troubled boys in Samoa. About that same time, Sanneh was digging into Earl’s background and learning about the origins of his startling talent. Earl’s real name is Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, and his father is Keorapetse Kgositsile, one of South Africa’s most celebrated poets. Sanneh spoke with Kgositsile, and learned that the father knew of Earl’s success, but had not listened to the music. “When he feels that he’s got something to share with me, he’ll do that,” Kgositsile said. “And until then I will not impose myself on him just because the world talks of him.”
The person most responsible for Earl, however, is of course his mother, whose marriage to Kgositsile fell apart about a decade ago. She asked that The New Yorker not publish her name because she feared that Earl’s fans would harass her, and she is fiercely trying to protect her teen-age son from the exigencies of sudden fame. “There is a person named Thebe who preëxisted Earl,” Earl’s mother told Sanneh. “That person ought to be allowed to explore and grow, and it’s very hard to do that when there’s a whole set of expectations, narratives, and stories that are attached to him.”
Eventually, Earl’s mother relented and allowed her rap prodigy son to converse with Sanneh via email for his profile. The entire piece is behind the magazine’s paywall, but my fancy New Yorker subscription gave me access to it. In short, the piece details how Earl’s mother was alarmed by the growing fame that was beginning to come with her son’s online musical dalliances — stuff she initially viewed as little more than a kid’s hobby — and became fearful that too much fame at a young age would result in him becoming the next Britney Spears or Michael Jackson or something.
“I just felt like, given the record that we have of sort of crash-and-burn situations of young people who get eaten up too soon, that he just deserved a chance,” she told Sanneh, insisting that the popular narrative — that “he’s been snatched out of the limelight by someone, by his mother, with ill intentions to squash his creativity” — is patently false.
Earl told Sanneh in an email: “Please listen: I’m not being held against my will … I’ve had to do a lot of growing up since I left, so naturally my perspective has changed.” He adds that he’s troubled by the “Free Earl” movement and the online vitriol directed at his mom, writing, “Now with the ‘Free Earl’ chants come a barely indirect ‘Fuck Earl’s Mom.” When asked when he’ll be back, Earl wrote, “Hopefully soon … I don’t have any definite date though. Even if I did I don’t know if I’d tell you. You’ll hear from me without a doubt when I’m ready.”