Why Sara Is Wrong About Tyler
On May 13th, Sara Quin (of Tegan and Sara fame) posted a message on her group’s blog entitled “A Call For Change” wherein she vowed to “enter into the discourse about” hip-hop artist Tyler, the Creator. Quin’s message began:
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.
She goes on to ask:
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?.. 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?
At first blush, it is easy to identify with such high-minded sentiments. After all, who among us would choose to have our children listen to hip-hop yarns about “faggots” and forced fucking? Superficially, Quin seems to have a point.
But only superficially.
The truth is that Quin entirely misses the point here, one not about freedom of expression but instead pertaining to artistic integrity. She conflates Tyler, the Creator–the rap persona–with Tyler Okonma–the man who wears the mask; one needn’t be cozy with the work of Camille Paglia to decipher the difference between the two. In doing so, Quin has arbitrarily proscribed the boundaries of artistic expression for a musician and entertainer according to her own personal comfort zone. This seems a decidedly myopic and hypocritical stance given that Quin’s income is derived via the same means as Okonma’s.
After all, what would previous generations have made of Quin, a female rock star who “flaunts” her homosexual orientation to her young fans? This writer sees Quin’s openness about her sexuality as a blessing to those in her audience who may feel conflicted or ashamed about their own sexual feelings and there is no doubt that she is a role model to many. But so is Okonma, who chooses not to drink or do drugs (while refraining from passing judgment on those who do), as he notes on “Nightmare”:
Now I’m emo, so fuck it, I’m pouring up
But I never had a drink, “Sydney, Tyler’s throwing up!”
My nigga Jasper said if I drink and get drunk enough
I won’t feel the feeling I be feeling when I’m sobered up
One wonders if Quin is as rankled by Tyler’s use of “nigga” as she is by “faggot.” And of course, Tyler’s liberal use of the word “faggot”–not, it should be pointed out, in Quin’s alleged context of “homophobia,” but in the jocular if insensitive way an adolescent might brandish the word “retard”–is the key sore spot.
In 1989, Houston rap outfit The Ghetto Boys (later The Geto Boys) released a song called “Mind of A Lunatic” which inspired outrage on a thereto unprecedented level. During his second verse, Bushwick Bill rhymes:
Lookin through her window, now my body is warm
She’s naked, and I’m a peepin tom
Her body’s beautiful, so I’m thinkin rape
Shouldn’t have had her curtains open, so that’s her fate
Leavin out her house, grabbed the bitch by her mouth
Drug her back in, slammed her down on the couch
Whipped out my knife, said, “If
you scream, I’m cuttin”
Opened her legs and commenced the fuckin
She begged me not to kill her, I gave her a rose
Then slit her throat, and watched her
shake till her eyes closed
Had sex with the corpse before I left her
And drew my name on the wall like helter skelter
Three years before Ice T’s heavy metal project Body Count drew boycotts to the Time-Warner media conglomerate because of the track “Cop Killer,” and nearly a quarter-century ago, The Ghetto Boys were rapping about the same sort of rape scene that has caused Quin such consternation. Of course, when Bushwick Bill did it, he added the following couplet as an asterisk: “Put him in a straight jacket, the man’s sick / This is what goes on in the mind of a lunatic.” One wonders if the absence of this narrative conceit is part of what places Quin on edge.
While Tyler, the Creator’s choice of subject matter may strike listeners as puerile juvenilia run amok, the simple truth is that Okonma is no homophobe. That much is readily apparent by the company he keeps (one of Odd Future’s core members and chief engineer, Syd the Kyd, is a proud lesbian) and his demeanor around his male friends, whom he romps around with, wrestles, and hops atop for piggyback rides. There is plenty of video of Okonma messing around with his buddies to suggest that, if anything, his interactions with them are far more pre-sexual than homophobic.
What Sara Quin seems to miss, as so many did with The Ghetto Boys and Body Count, is the delineation between the private and public personae of entertainers. That she elects to maintain congruity between the two in her own life is a decision Quin makes at her own discretion; she can’t begrudge fellow artists who choose to construct walls between the two.
Does Quin take the creators of the Saw movie francise to task for the sadistic misogyny of their films, especially since they have spawned not just the theatrical releases but also costumes, toys, comic books, and even amusement park rides?
Of course not! Film is anartform more clearly erected upon artifice; we can easily separate actors from their roles and writers from their scripts. When Eminem raps about locking his wife in the trunk of a car, that boundary may lose some of its definition but that doesn’t mean it is any more porous. It may, however, require a tad more critical thinking on the part of the observer.
In her post, Quin wonders if maybe the reason she finds Tyler so prickly “is the access to him (his grotesque twitter, etc.).” I posit that such access is undoubtedly a source of her rancor. However, Quin fails to realize that Tyler, the Creator–the spectacle, the commodity, the brand–resides in a new frontier for artists, one where brand identity is forged twenty-four hours a day, where interaction with consumers is a given, and where larger than life personalities are rendered that much grander given the feedback loops of the internet and blogosphere.
Ultimately, artforms are always made stronger and more enriching by those who push the boundaries of purportedly good taste. Where would painting be without the Futurists or music without its avant garde or cinema sans the nouvelle vague? Sometimes, testing limits for the sake of testing limits is its own reward, too (see: Vicious, Sid or Pop, Iggy). If parents want to protect their kids from themes and images which they find offensive, then they should by all means. It’s not just their prerogative, it’s their responsibility.
Or as Tyler notes on “Nightmare”:
All because a nigga just don’t give a fuck
Parents wanna blame me all because their kid is fucking up
But fuck that, you’re shitty parents, face it, suck it up
That’s what you shoulda did before that nigga bust, huh
We need artists to support one another and to realize that works of art are just that–constructions. They are fabricated through the creative process. Sometimes they are beautiful and sometimes they are horrific, but there is a queer beauty to the latter, too. The sort of “expression” we deem intrinsic to the creative process need not always be an intimately personal one (just as the Saw folks don’t have torture chambers set up in their basements).
Or as Tyler, the Creator puts it: “Life is a movie and you’re just a prop.” Congratulations to Sara Quin on her very brief cameo.