In 2015 The United Kingdom, by decree of Theresa May, denied Tyler, the Creator’s entry, citing “a threat to public order.” May elicited several of Tyler’s lyrics, claiming they undermined societal values and glamorized problematic behavior. Tyler was forced to cancel several shows, turn around and head home. Since then Tyler has produced and recorded three studio albums, and he has collaborated with some of the most prolific creatives of his time. He has influenced streetwear, skate culture, fashion, design, and broken historic new ground with the release and success of Igor, his latest album. In May of this year, the ban was lifted.
The arc of Odd Future, a creative collective Tyler co-founded, parallels his own in its exponentiality and controversial tint. Despite a captivated following, the group faced criticism over violence-saturated lyrics which often invoked and trivialized traumatic experience. Members of the group have expressed displeasure with their public demonization, claiming it was unwarranted, hypocritical and targeted.
And yet, like Tyler, Odd Future’s longevity and commercial viability bested initial backlash. The group was taking—indeed, making—the pulse of a new generation incubated in internet culture. The popularization of the skate brand Supreme was largely their doing. Their fashion aesthetic evolved into Golf, another critically acclaimed brand. They had their own show on adult swim. Their influence on skating culture is as significant and well documented as their internet footprint writ large. Several of their members have achieved solo superstardom—think Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt and Syd the Kyd. Odd Future has been inactive since 2015, yet their ghost is inescapable. The group, assumed to represent the violent fringes of pop culture, seems to have realigned to the very center.
This is starting to sound like a known story. It is the story of the artist ahead of their time, of changing conceptions of decency, of institutionalized bias, racism, sexism, religion and homophobia. It’s the story of Wilde, and Stein; of The Odyssey being put on trial for obscenity; of Ice Cube and Easy E sowing a multi-billion-dollar industry but reaping political persecution. It’s a story whose last chapter yet evades, riding the back of oppression, fear and narrow-mindedness into the foreseeable future. Indeed, it’s a story that has been playing on repeat in the UK and US for centuries.
This isn’t to say that artists should be granted total immunity. Unsettling satire is one thing; material glorifying violence and bigotry is another. To many of Tyler’s early adherents his lyrics likely fell in the latter category. The point isn’t to celebrate artists regardless of what they say, but to consider artists’ messages within the historical and cultural context that produced them.
Here’s some more context: Tyler classified much of the group’s output as satirical and fictional, an attempt to emblemize cultural indifference towards violence rather than marginalize it. To Tyler, the lyrics May pointed to were already being condoned in a culture that allowed the behavior to exist in the first place. To Odd Future, the status quo was accusing them of the very facet they sought to protest simply because they did so loudly.
This irony wasn’t lost on Tyler. In an interview with the Guardian in 2015, Tyler observed, “There are rallies of neo-Nazis in parts of England. And then you’re telling me I can’t come there because of some bullshit song?” It’s a fair point. There were Nazis at rallies, there were white nationalists in parliament and there was little media coverage of either. People weren’t talking about those things; they were talking about the young black creative from California who spoke slang they didn’t understand and wore clothes they didn’t like influencing their kids. They were talking about the satirical artist while a decidedly non-satirical white supremist ideology seeped into their government.
When we consider this context, the advocacy of Tyler and Odd Future fits nicely with the historical tradition of creatives. It’s reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s “A Modest Proposal”—which involved eating children and was, in fact, satire—and if Wilde’s unjust jailing and untimely death teaches us anything it is this: we can’t neglect context. We can’t forget the propensity of the status quo to punish a subversive form of expression, or who that punishment disproportionately effects, or the artistic affinity to push boundaries. We can’t accept a dead-pan Theresa May stopping Tyler at the border while swastikas billow on the other side.