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.”
Meanwhile, Odd Future played a show at New York’s Highline Ballroom over the weekend, to somewhat mixed reviews. And oh yeah, some dude named “Frank Ocean” that everyone is suddenly talking about played with them. Seriously, keeping up with the goings-on of Odd Future is f*cking exhausting.
Finally, lesbian sister act Tegan and Sara spoke out against the homophobia and misogyny now synonymous with Odd Future in a scathing statement posted to their website. Sara Quin writes:
When will misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving result in meaningful repercussions in the entertainment industry? When will they be treated with the same seriousness as racist and anti-Semitic offenses? While an artist who can barely get a sentence fragment out without using homophobic slurs is celebrated on the cover of every magazine, blog and newspaper, I’m disheartened that any self-respecting human being could stand in support with a message so vile.
As journalists and colleagues defend, excuse and congratulate ‘Tyler, the Creator,’ I find it impossible not to comment. 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.
If any of the bands whose records are held in similar esteem as Goblin had lyrics littered with rape fantasies and slurs, would they be labeled hate mongers? I realize I could ask that question of DOZENS of other artists, but is Tyler exempt because people are afraid of the backlash? The inevitable claim that detractors are being racist, or the brush-off that not “getting it” would indicate that you’re “old” (or a faggot)? Because, the more I think about it, the more I think people don’t actually want to go up against this particular bully because he’s popular. Who sticks up for women and gay people now? It seems entirely uncool to do so in the indie rock world, and I’ll argue that point with ANYONE.
No genre is without its controversial and offensive characters- I’m not naive. I’ve asked myself a thousand times why this is pushing me over the edge. Maybe it’s the access to him (his grotesque twitter, etc). Maybe it’s because I’m a human being, both a girl and a lesbian. Maybe it’s because my mom has spent her whole adult life working with teenage girls who were victims of sexual assault. Maybe it’s because in this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.
It is not without great hesitation and hand wringing that I enter into the discourse about Tyler, the media who glorifies and excuses misogyny and homophobia, and the community of artists that doesn’t seem remotely bothered by it. I can only hope that someone reading this might be inspired to speak out. At the very least, I will know that my voice is on record.
To which Tyler the Creator responded…