Flashing the words ‘Flower Boy’ on screens behind him, the artist, Tyler, the Creator appears determined to embody this title. Dressed in a pair of yellow shorts, a blue printed shirt and neon pink cap, he seems to be blooming; his goofy allure evident from the boldness of his choice of attire. There is a certain warmth which radiates from the strength of his presence: zany, eccentric and unpredictable. Lounging across his vibrant stage set, with its certain dream-like quality, Tyler offers refuge from the band of drugged-up, monotonous mumble rappers which headlined Longitude 2018. The screens go black. A cluster of rainbow lights pulsate before an idyllic scene appears; a light blue sky, flecked with the palest of candy pink clouds, an assortment of large and assertive trees and him. A single flower.
Hardly the archetypal criminal… yet in the summer of 2015, whilst attempting to enter the UK for a run of festival performances, despite being in the country just 7 weeks earlier, Tyler was turned away at the border and banned from Britain for 3 to 5 years by then-Home Secretary, Theresa May. Government documents specifically cite lyrics from five songs – ‘Tron Cat’, ‘Blow’, ‘VCR’, ‘Sarah’ and ‘French’ – from Tyler’s first two projects and explain that he was banned under the terms of Home Office policy on ‘behaviours unacceptable in the UK’ – a set of guidelines formed in 2005 to try to prevent suspected terrorists from entering Britain. Tyler is said to have been banned for ‘unacceptable behaviour by making statements that foster hatred, which might lead to inter community violence in the UK’, with his albums B******, in 2009, and Goblin, in 2011, labelled in documentation justifying the ban as ‘based on the premise of adopting a mentally unstable alter ego who describes violent physical abuse, rape and murder in graphic terms which appears to glamorise this behaviour’ and seeming to encourage ‘violence and intolerance of homosexuality’. This wasn’t the first time Tyler has had trouble entering a country. In 2014, he was banned from New Zealand for posing a ‘threat to the public order and the public interest’, and in early 2015 he became the subject of a large public campaign by Australian feminist group ‘Collective Shout’, who referenced early song lyrics in an effort to ban him from entering the country, leading to Tyler’s Australian tour being derailed. Is there any truth to the claims of the supposed ‘threat’ which Tyler poses? How can two such contrasting images of the same artist co-exist?
In an interview with The Guardian in September 2015, Tyler himself admitted that much of the work in question was written when he was ‘super-young’ when ‘no one was listening’. It is undoubtedly true that Goblin, and perhaps even more so B****** (Tyler’s first mixtape), upon first listen appear a nauseating stream of gore and horror, created for the sole purpose of shocking the audience. Songs like ‘Sarah’, ‘French’ and ‘VCR/Wheels’, diabolically twisted and loaded with graphic violent references and homophobic slurs – even 10 years after their release – still don’t sit quite right with me. However, it is important to note that these two projects form part of a trilogy. The third project in Tyler’s trilogy, ‘Wolf’, is the key to understanding his early releases. A far more mature Tyler, ever the ‘walking paradox’, grapples with deeply rooted psychological problems on ‘Wolf’ set to smooth dreamy simple beats. On ‘Answer’, Tyler appears more vulnerable than ever before, addressing his estranged father and bragging about all he’s achieved without him, whilst still praying that if he ever calls his father answers. Tyler also explores the loss of his grandmother, rapping on ‘Cowboy’, ‘ain’t been this sick since brain cancer ate my granny up’, before battling issues with fame and wealth on ‘Colossus’ and ‘Cowboy’ when he raps ‘You’d think all this money would make a happy me, but I’m ‘bout as lonely as crackers that supermodels eat.’ On the penultimate track of the album, ‘Lone’, the storylines of B******, Goblin and Wolf finally come together in a therapy session, with alter ego Dr TC asking ‘So, what’s going on, Wolf? Talk to me, man…what’s on your mind?’ It then becomes clear that the graphic violent images portrayed on Tyler’s earlier projects, through the medium of alter egos, have originated from a mentally unstable mind, whilst talking to a therapist. In the video for ‘Sam (is dead)’, we see Tyler shooting himself three times, leaving three dead Tylers on the floor, representing the death of his alter egos, Ace, Tron Cat and Wolf Haley. The track title also suggests Tyler has already killed the alter ego, Sam. In this way, Tyler’s complex concept album, Wolf, explains the inner turmoil which prompted the creation of such dark alter egos on B****** and Goblin, transforming Tyler from villainous brute to misunderstood misfit; whilst the track ‘Sam (is dead)’ shows Tyler maturing and killing off his dark thoughts to allow for his future brighter albums, Cherry Bomb and Flower Boy, on which Tyler eventually transcends his darkness to emerge into the light by coming out as gay. It is clear that this beautiful, intricately constructed exploration of the complexities of the human condition was lost upon Theresa May, and many other detached listeners, as Tyler seems to reflect on the track ‘Glitter’ on his most recent album, which ends ‘we didn’t get your message, either because you were not speaking or because of a bad connection.’
This sort of investigation into our humanity is a commonplace of literature and film, recurrent throughout history, so why is it that when this same topic is approached by a rapper it is immediately attacked? Although not a traditional medium, rap is still a means of expression and art, communicating to a whole new generation; an art form judged by Theresa May, based purely upon presumption and ignorance. Rap is a genre with a long history of positive influence – from the anti-drug message broadcast to millions of youths on ‘Say No Go’ by De La Soul, to the reality of inner-city poverty and crime revealed in ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash – and an even greater potential for influencing the youth of today. Yet it has long been cloaked in the negative guise of a testosterone fuelled bombast by those who do not listen to, or understand, or wish to understand the sentiments expressed in the music. If Tyler’s same concepts had been expressed through the medium of opera, traditionally perceived to be a far more ‘intellectual’ form, would he have been attacked with such fervour? Or would he have been attacked at all? ‘The Rape of Lucretia’, an opera by Benjamin Britten, in which the voice of ‘Sextus Tarquinius’, a rapist, is adopted was not only not banned, but was in fact met with praise from critics. Surely this proves the deeply unjust and snobbish mistreatment of Tyler, and more broadly of rap as an art form. Art should be provocative and controversial. It is a means of pushing boundaries and re-defining societal norms. Why should this responsibility be reserved solely for orthodox mediums? Tyler himself queried ‘Why don’t they ban authors? Writers who write these mystery books about people getting raped and sabotaged and murdered and brainwashed – why don’t they ban them?’ Marquis de Sade’s books, notorious for their misogyny, sadism and gruesome details, are still widely available for consumers. Yet Tyler was detained for a piece of art, a dissection of human nature. It is undoubtedly wrong to restrain an artist’s expression in this manner. Tyler himself reflects this, stating ‘Now freedom of art and speech are at hand.’ In our current political climate, surely there are larger threats to British peace than a young artist’s means of self-expression, discovery and acceptance?
There is a particular, inane irony that it should have been Theresa May who made this ‘moral judgement’ on behalf of the country. This is a woman who, since becoming Prime Minister, has cowered to the will of Donald Trump, proclaiming her faith in her ‘special relationship’ with a man who actively facilitates hate. If May’s desire to protect LGBTQ rights is so strong, why is it that she prances about with Trump, whose transgender military ban does anything but offer support for the community? The implications of Tyler’s homophobia appear even more comical following his own ‘coming-out’, made explicit on his recent album Flower Boy. Yet, even prior to this, these accusations were largely nonsensical, clearly coming from a place of blatant ignorance. OFWGKTA, a hip-hop collective founded in 2007 by Tyler, himself, boasts notable LGBTQ alumni, Frank Ocean and Syd, with whom Tyler has repeatedly collaborated closely and undoubtedly regards as close friends. The profound hypocrisy of Theresa May’s stance becomes clear given the fact that her own past concerning LGBTQ issues is partially marred with murk. In 2010, May’s first act as Home Secretary was to ensure that public bodies did not have to actively try to reduce inequality. Whilst just last year, May hosted Ugandan MP, Jovah Kamateeka, who hopes to pass an anti-homosexuality law in Uganda which would introduce life-long imprisonment for gay and lesbian couples. Tyler, based on deliberately provocative acts of rebellion and artistic expression from his teenage years, which, unlike those of most teens, were lived under the microscope of the media, has been identified, targeted and morphed by May into a scapegoat for societal evils which he does not, and has not ever represented. May’s eagerness to seize the opportunity to vilify a young black gay artist, who is in fact blooming into an ironic gay icon for this generation, may be evidence of her ongoing, innate discomfort with the LGBTQ community.
May’s chequered past with LGBTQ issues – voting in 1998 against the reduction of the age of consent for homosexual acts from eighteen to sixteen to bring equality to the law affecting heterosexual and homosexual acts, voting against a Bill allowing gay couples to adopt in 2002 and remaining absent from four votes on the Gender Recognition Bill in 2004, before finally voting to introduce Civil Partnerships for LGBT couples in 2004 – suggests her act was a means of disguising her past disapproval of homosexuality. With the drastic evolution of May’s own stance, her decision to deprive an artist, who carries the possibility of creating a massive positive influence upon the youth of today, from the opportunity of sharing his own evolution with the public, is baffling. Was this evolution simply a convenient mask which May wore to fit in with David Cameron’s more ‘inclusive’ brand of Conservatism? Was her ban an act of good will or merely a quest for a tangible villain? May’s actions seem likely to have been a means of ‘proving’ her progressive thinking on LGBTQ issues to the world by banning someone who seemed to be attacking the community; an act which she undertook without bothering to take into account the whole truth behind Tyler’s body of work, and an act which, in fact, ironically ended in attacking a member of the LGBTQ community.
Was the decision to ban Tyler from the UK ultimately a reflection of an ultra-sensitive, overly-prescribed society, in which influential people keen to be seen to be doing the ‘right thing’ act on knee-jerk reactions and superficial interpretations rather than really listening to what ‘provocative’ artists are trying to say? Tyler conveys this himself, explaining, ‘It’s like the world is scared of everything. I feel like everyone is so sensitive to everything, and if they don’t like something it’s like: Oh my God, I don’t like the colour yellow – let’s get yellow banned from every country, let’s sign a petition – let’s start a hashtag to make sure this colour is never seen, because I don’t like it and I don’t understand it.’ And this is what Tyler wants to do – paint the world yellow, inspire and excite fans. From the nauseating darkness of his Goblin days, to the brightness and optimism of Flower Boy, his evolution is a potent one, reflecting the reality of the vagaries of life, and the struggle with acceptance of one’s sexuality. Who would’ve thought that the obscenity-filled works of B****** and Goblin would plant the seeds for Flower Boy to grow? Whether it be telling ‘black kids they can be who they are’ on ‘Where This Flower Blooms’ or supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement on ‘Foreword’, Tyler truly has bloomed into a role model for his fans.
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