Rap group Odd Future and leader Tyler, the Creator, stand ambiguously in the always ongoing debate about depictions of violence against women in rap music.
Odd Future burst onto the music scene earlier this year and so far, the group has been incredibly well-received and critically acclaimed. Most recently, Tyler, the Creator crowned Best New Artist at MTV’s Video Music Awards show.
Unfortunately, Tyler, the Creator’s music (including the song for which he was nominated in the Best Video category) is profanity-laden and bursting at the seams with homophobia and sexism.
As Rolling Stone puts it:
Odd Future and Tyler, the Creator, are known as much for their vile lyrics as their distinctive delivery and interesting music. In Odd Future's world, women are bitches and sex is rape, usually followed by murder (and sometimes dismemberment, cannibalism and necrophilia). At the show, Tyler and company spewed a continuous cascade of one-note profanity, a repetitive Mad Lib where the subject is always ‘bitch,’ the verb is always ‘suck’ and the noun is always ‘dick.’
In fact, Tyler, the Creator actually has a song titled “Bitch Suck Dick,” which features the lyrics:
I'm loud as fuck, I'm ignorant
Beat your bitch in her mouth just for talkin' shit
You lurkin' bitch? Well, I see that shit
Once again I gotta punch a bitch in her shit
I'm icy bitch, don't look at my wrist
Because if you do, I might blind you bitch
When Odd Future performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Between Friends Chicago, a non-profit that works to end domestic abuse, passed out fans (reading "Cool it! Don’t be a fan of violence”) and information to the crowd instead of actively picketing the group’s performance.
In a surprising move, Tyler, the Creator brought cupcakes to the Between Friends Chicago booth before his performance. But then, taking three steps back, he began his performance by announcing, "To every protester supposedly here, to every organization, every faggot-ass who's writing a review, I want you to suck my dick. To everyone else, you should go fuckin' crazy!"
Sara Quin, one half of the openly gay musical duo Tegan and Sara, caused a minor media storm earlier this year when she publicly denounced Tyler, the Creator on her blog, writing:
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.
Quin specifically called out those who will not speak out against homophobia and sexism in the music industry:
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? … 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. … 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.
He replied via Twitter, writing: “If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!”
This year’s VMAs also included a performance by Chris Brown, who famously pled guilty to felony assault of his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009.
While some celebrities have continued to call Brown out for being a domestic abuser (and Jay-Z refused to clap for Brown’s VMA performance), for the most part Brown continues to be celebrated: He’s landed several movie roles since his arrest and received a mostly-full house standing ovation for his VMA performance.
Tyler, the Creator has proven that the media (including television giant MTV) will celebrate and reward men who glamorize misogyny and violence against women while Chris Brown has proven that media will forgive and continue to celebrate men who actually perpetrate violence against women.
Of course, there’s a difference between the artist and the persona that the artist presents—one need only look at Lady Gaga to remember that self-presentation can be a very real and significant part of an artist’s work. As Jay-Z writes in his new book, Decoded, “The rapper’s character is essentially a conceit, a first-person literary creation.”
When asked about the inspiration for his lyrics, Tyler said, “It’s the first shit that comes to our heads, seriously. I’m interested in serial killers’ minds and shit, so I rap about it at the moment.”
Is it possible that, through his music, Tyler is presenting a kind of schadenfreude reality in which he glorifies horrible violence for both the pleasure and disgust of his audience?
It seems possible and even likely that this combination of horror and pleasure is a key component to his work. Perhaps Tyler sees his audience as two sides of a coin—one, that gets and likes him, and the other that is purposefully repelled by him.
“They don't get it ‘cause it’s not made for them,” Tyler says about his music—but then tweets: “I Want To Scare The Fuck Out Of Old White People That Live In Middle Fucking America.”
Certainly there’s a high level of self-consciousness present in his work and I believe Tyler is aware of the impact his lyrics will have. That’s part of the point.
It’s worth noting that many reputable, thoughtful music critics have wrestled with this very issue regarding Odd Future and Tyler, the Creator. Most have come away ambivalent about the lyrical content, but undeniably in awe of the quality and avant-garde quality of the music itself.
Even if, as it’s been argued, Tyler, the Creator et al are merely commenting on misogyny and homophobia rather than actually espousing misogyny and homophobia, even if he doesn’t really mean it—does it matter?
As the Chris Rock joke goes, when confronted with the blatant misogyny, homophobia, and violence we encounter in some rap music, we simply say, “He ain’t talking about me!” and keep dancing.
But maybe, like Sara Quin has done, it’s more productive to enter into a dialogue with the music, interrogate its messages, and stop making excuses and looking the other way.