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With the news that Tyler, the Creator has been banned from performing in the UK for the next three to five years, certain things come to mind. Firstly, it feels like the world has regressed back in time, through the courtroom scenes of the trials of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others. In fact, the basis of the ban, which was purportedly the first two albums of Tyler’s trilogy (Bastard, Goblin and Wolf) bears many similarities to the now renowned, genius of Henry Miller’s own trilogy, The Rosy Crucifixion, the first part of which was bound up in a trial in France for years because of its overt sexuality before being allowed publication.
Why is this significant? Well, the basis of the argument for the publication of all these supposed debauched works of literature was intrinsically connected to the right to free expression. I’m not, at this point, defending the use of certain homophobic or misogynistic slurs. I am defending Tyler’s right as an artist to both express himself and to express the kernel of his artistic ideas in creating this trilogy of albums. It is clear for anyone to hear, if they have in fact listened, that Bastard and Goblin were the expression of an angry, isolated young man. Once you get to Wolf there is a softening of this anger. It is monumentally ridiculous on the part of the UK government to separate the trilogy into two parts, despite the fact that they are bound together as an expression of the passage of time and the softening of emotions that occurs over time.
There have been accusations of ignorance on Tyler’s part, but there is a difference between wanton ignorance, like in the way that some people complain about politics being too boring, and ignorance which is bound up with emotional thought. Where there are emotions expressed, surrounded by ignorance, the emotions should rise to the top as the most important aspect of this unfortunate duality. That ignorance is now gone for the most part, see his latest two albums (Wolf and Cherry Bomb) which obviously don’t let up in all respects, but in which his tone has largely softened to the point of becoming a stream-of-consciousness about living in the real world and not in a lonely introverted bedroom.
It is unfortunate for Tyler that he is so popular. Maybe he should blame his fans, his genius, his ability to create a lyrically and sonically brilliant tune. Or maybe he should blame the fact that he decided to make rap and hip hop music rather than a more typically intellectual genre like classical music. Think about it, you can still go out and buy one of the Marquis de Sade’s books (notoriously gruesome and misogynistic) – Maybe De Sade is tolerated because not many people read his books anymore. On the flip side, rap is a cornerstone of modern pop culture. It is the expression of youth, a relatable genre that has long been clothed in a negative guise by people who feel that the violence exhibited in the lyrics has a direct effect on those who consume said music.
Rap has always been the clearest indicator of the state of our society. There is a reason that the young men and women who stand in the eye of a storm of rhymes write with such anger. This music is historically born out of the fucked-up parts of our supposed civilised and fair world. Tyler’s musings are, again, the product of society, and any willingness to take Tyler’s lyrics at face value are the product of our society, so for a government, anywhere, to turn around and say “Hey! Shut up about it already,” is so far opposed to the aims of this music that is near nauseating and wholly worrying.
So in the sense that there is a fresh new voice like Tyler’s, who comes along and draws up a narrative that is not bound to guns, money and whores, of course the first assumption to be made is that the expletives and the colloquialisms are a direct attack on certain groups of people. Because this is rap music don’t you know?
Why doesn’t he just say “I’m really angry, what should I do, I’m so bloody angry.” But that is a bit boring and not wholly realistic, isn’t it? There’s an oft-quoted interview he did with NME in which Tyler was asked why he used the word ‘faggot’ in his songs. His reply was that the word is shocking and it affects people. Of course not enough to get people thinking, judging by the evidence of his critics. From this statement the consensus understanding seems to be that he is trying to attract attention to himself, rather than the alter-ego in his music. It might just be that what he means is that this word gets across the anger that is a mainstay of his alter-ego in a very pointed way, in a way that will get people to turn their heads and start thinking.
The misanthropic content of his songs is the problem. Tyler’s music is anti-social. So why should he be allowed to release it into society? Well, what if every anti-social, misanthrope was to go on the same basis as this judgement seems to have gone? Would they ever talk about their feelings? Rather than talk about homosexuals and women who are offended by his lyrics, why not talk about all those lonely alienated people who will see this judgement and feel even more alone, even more at odds with society. As far as art goes, isn’t it all about reaching out to people and making those with feelings less discussed feel more at ease about talking about things that they may feel are reviled? We can’t all be Taylor Swifts. Not everyone in the world can just sing about shaking it off and be able to do it.
I don’t want to get all Otter from Animal House, but rather than focusing all the blame on one individual rapper, who was made to think that free expression and originality was not a crime, why don’t we focus on the dearth of imagination and insecurity that makes people think that any slight mention of a certain word or a certain image is either a direct indictment on themselves or a call to arms to commit the same such crimes? Instead of blaming Tyler why don’t we blame the educational system that puts more emphasis on the immediate effects of memorisation than on creative and compassionate instincts, or why not talk about the prevailing trends in modern culture? Art is not supposed to be created out of a wish to appeal to the highest possible amount of people. Of course art should be shocking, in that it should rouse us enough to take notice of something. That shock seems, in the past few years, to be something of an insult to listeners with high-minded ideals. Tyler, as a young man, is naïve, is unexperienced, and he expresses himself in the way he knows how to and as a result his music becomes the basis of a witch-hunt. His lyrics set out a scene. He is not telling people what to think, he is imploring listeners to draw their own conclusions. In this sense, would it not be the listeners themselves who are at fault for drawing the wrong conclusions about what he is trying to say?
Or perhaps he should align himself more to the centre so that he can seem nicer. A false sort of niceness that hides away the turmoil of inner emotions, which have nothing to do with homophobia or misogyny by the way. It feels utterly trite to have to say this, but Tyler started out as part of a collective called OFWGKTA with Frank Ocean and he was one of the first to come out in support of Ocean when he revealed that he had had a relationship with another man. But say this you must, to put the naysayers at their ease.
The supposed offensive words are just words. For decades we as a society have been trying to take the taboo out of offensive slurs, so as to move forward. Rihanna reclaimed ‘bitch’ and instead of taking it as an insult, began to own it – to show herself to be a strong woman, a person who would not let people run over her easily. NWA reclaimed the N-word, and began to own it, showing themselves to be strong enough to take on anyone who had the gall to use the word against them. The same goes for homophobic slurs like ‘queer’, which has been the basis of a broad reclamation movement that has expanded to assert a form of pride in the LGBT community, in politics, in cinema and also in TV shows like Queer as Folk. In terms of what these words mean, it is all about perception.
I don’t know if there will ever come a time when we can bridge the gap of history and overcome these stigmatic and offensive terms. I would never use the N-word or the F-word but I respect wholly those in the know who can reclaim such words to create a new sense of community and pride on the basis of these words. Is it wrong for Tyler to use such homophobic slurs? Of course, but while that is the case, the fact that his own perception of the word’s meaning has nothing to do with the LGBT community is heartening in that the viciousness once associated with it is beginning to dilute and that a younger generation is growing up, not necessarily tolerant, but completely unaware of some of these horrifying crimes in history. It’s a tricky topic, but when the intention is innocent is there the possibility of some room for understanding?
As far as this whole case goes, the UK government went the complete wrong route in trying to remedy something that they seem to have no knowledge of. Instead of investing money into parts of society that perhaps are naïve enough to take Tyler at his literal word – because obviously these people are at risk – they have deigned it correct to isolate one instance for the whole world to see. If this government are not fans of free expression, that’s ok, but how is it all right for a governing body to take on the views of a certain group, which seem to be established on a complete misreading and general ignorance of what art is, and to make it law. This precedent has all the threatening insidiousness of the colour beige. I don’t want to be beige, I’m absolutely certain other people out there don’t want to be beige. So drop the hypersensitivity and come back into the fold with us – the people with a grip on their personality.