Living and dying for one’s art is a familiar predicament, but has the infamous rapper, Tyler, the Creator gone too far for the sake of ‘keeping it real’?

 

In 2013, an activist named Talitha Stone from the Australian grassroots feminist group Collective Shout went to attend a Tyler, the Creator concert. Stone had previously been part of the CS’ social media campaign to ban the rapper, real name Tyler Okonma, from being able to perform his material live onstage, with specific citation of Okonma’s lyrics. Okonma retweeted from Stone’s Twitter account, where she expressed her intention to protest his appearance at a store, leading to the obligatory hornet-esque plague of rape threats from the rapper’s fanbase.

You could contend that Collective Shout had put action before justification; artistic content can’t by itself merit protestation if unproven as grounded in values an artist bandies about in reality. Luckily for them, and very unluckily for Stone, the justification would swiftly follow suit. Okonma decently enough decided to consecrate the organisation’s original action in the first place with his fans in congregation. Attending the show, surrounded by a Tyler fanbase as braying and aggressive in a closed enclave as they had been online, Talitha Stone watched and listened as Okonma very publicly laid into her, probably but not definitely unaware that she was in attendance. He referred to her attempts to get him banned from performing with the following diatribe:

F***ing bitch, I wish she could hear me call her a bitch, too, f***ing whore. Yeah, I got a sold-out show right now bitch. Hey this fucking song is dedicated to you, you fucking c**t’.

Okonma then chivalrously proceeded to dedicate the song ‘Bitch Suck D**k’ to her, serenading her thusly:

Got the bops in the house, socking bitches in they mouth’

The crowd at the show, which was an all-ages affair, then sang along with the titular chorus.

Needless to say, this led to further lobbying in 2015, most notably by Coralie Alison, and latterly a ban on Tyler, the Creator’s live performances in Australia. Alison was addressed by Okonma on Twitter, where she herself received abuse from disgruntled fans that Okonma did nothing to dispel. Odd Future, a collective of which Okonma is a part, had been banned in 2014 from entering New Zealand to play a show supporting Eminem on the basis that they or their work ‘defiled public interest’.

These events have surely had their part in leading to the latest controversy surrounding Okonma where, as of the 1st of September 2015, he has been banned from entering the nation of Great Britain by the Home Office on virtually identical grounds to those claimed by New Zealand’s equivalent office. This is not the first time a hip-hop artist has found a British visa revoked, oh no: Snoop Dogg may (nor may not) remember being banned from Blighty for brutalising the furniture of a Heathrow duty-free with his boys. Incidentally, Snoop had also been banned from entering Australia, though this time on the basis of the character of his work as opposed to a specific incident.

These instances are where hip-hop artists become casualties of their adherence to one of the enduring dictums of their art: that everything written about them must be essentially grounded in reality. No concept has so pervaded the shifts in this culture like ‘realness’. It is as much the lifestyle that the man born Calvin Broadus embodies, and the certain amount of romanticism about his devil-may-care attitude towards convention, as it is the jaunty cadence or hooky hip-hop singles that makes Snoop Dogg the lucrative brand he has remained for some two decades. In an identical vein, the element of hip-hop that was made its key USP at the start of its commercial dominance was that the tales it told were indistinguishable from real life; hell, when Young Jeezy came on the scene a good decade after gangsta rap’s halcyon period, he was sold as being so ‘real’ that he didn’t even have time to become a good lyricist, so involved was he with his original street life.

Challenges to the need for the real in hip-hop came not only with the rise in prominence of particularly outlandish shock-rap, whose psychedelic or violent ridiculousness was its reason for being, but from ‘conscious’ hip-hop in equal measure. The tradition running through A Tribe Called Quest, Talib Kweli and Blackstar that resulted in the emergence of Kanye West questioned ‘realness’ as a ghetto-based ideology, if you like. The tradition running through NWA, Ice Cube, Koopsta Knicca and Big L that then produced Eminem questioned realness in terms of hip-hop needing to bear any resemblance to reality at all, preferring dark fantasy instead.

You might think that Eminem, for all the controversy he endured (and, indeed, courted) in the prime of his career, should’ve been the first to receive the type of ban that Tyler Okonma will enjoy for at least three years, the one that he says makes him feel like a ‘terrorist’. The most prominent charge levelled at Eminem, aside from outrage from linear moralising bodies at the misogynistic or homophobic words, was that his music was of the ‘Satanic’ or ‘anti-familial’ sort that drove young kids to perpetuate things like the Columbine Massacre.

This was of course a spurious charge put about mostly by those unwilling to commit to the hard yards of reflection necessary to really find out why atrocities like that occurred. And yet, those aforementioned moralisers shirked from an important realisation, which was that, both within and outside the confines of his music, Marshall Mathers distanced himself from the fiction of Eminem. The content of his music, by the artist’s own measure, was fictional and not at all value-based. One can believe that. Often enough in his work does he express sentiments of warmth and support directly towards individuals enduring the same social and psychological struggles he knows so well. By all realistic accounts, outside of his music Mathers is a well-intentioned family-man and single father of three. He’s a workaholic. He might even be a conservative.

Where Tyler Okonma differs is not in his work, in which he is entitled to be as misanthropic or cynical or cruel as he likes. Where this rapper differs is during times like those in New Zealand. It’s not that he merely neglects to distance himself from the idea that what he raps might be a real belief; it’s not that his music has the power to incite abuse by itself; it’s that he has actively incited slander and threat from his fanbase towards those who’ve criticised his work, using his work.

The sentiments of those records have been actualised, in terms of their misogyny and verbal brutality, beyond the acetate. By speaking so foully of someone onstage in a manner akin to his songs, Okonma invites the world to believe that he himself believes in his own words, so he can’t complain: he brought this ban.