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Gordon Campbell on the banning of Odd Future

February 14th, 2014

So the Odd Future rap collective have had their visas revoked because – according to the Immigration Service – they pose a threat to public order in New Zealand. (Allegedly, their visas were not revoked because of their lyrics.) Yeah right. Leaving aside the traces of 1950s style moral panic in the term “threat to public order” the claim that public safety would be at risk if Odd Future performed in Auckland is patently ridiculous. Odd Future performed at the Powerstation in Auckland in 2012 without incident, and one of its key members (Earl Sweatshirt, who would not have been making this particular trip) performed in Auckland and Wellington only a fortnight ago. I saw his performance: we all had a genial good natured, good time. On the available evidence, rugby events like the Sevens tournament pose a far, far bigger threat to public order – and to the safety of women – than hip hop concerts.

There’s a pattern here. Every few years New Zealand has a spasm of moral outrage about what the kids are listening to – it’s all about the kids, right? – and tries to ban the music and the opinions that it doesn’t like. The modus operandi tends to be the same. Twenty years ago at the height of the controversy over the rapper Ice T’s “Cop Killer” song, the police trawled through the criminal record of every member of the group to see if they could find a reason to ban them from entering the country, and sought to prosecute a record shop owner (selected at random) caught selling Ice T’s album. More recently, the Clark government banned the Holocaust denier David Irving from entering the country. In 2009, gay activists managed to get the Jamaican dancehall artist Beenie Man removed from the Big Day Out line-up, because some of his lyrics were alleged to constitute incitements to violence against gays. The Beenie Man incident was particularly ridiculous, given that the lyrics in question would have been in an unintelligible patois delivered at warp speed – such that the crowd would have had no idea whether Beenie Man was singing the offensive songs or not, and would have needed subtitles to know what they were being incited to do, and to whom – much less whether they would act on the lyrics, in any case. To state the bleedingly obvious: songs don’t dictate action. As I pointed out at the time, Bob Dylan said in one of his songs that everybody must get stoned. But you know what? They didn’t.

In the case of Odd Future – as with Ice T – the authorities ranged far and wide to find a pretext for a pre-determined decision to ban them. They eventually found a three year old incident at a record shop signing in Boston where a police officer slipped over during a rowdy fracas and hurt his hip; yet no one from Odd Future was prosecuted, and none of the group have criminal records. The whole ‘public order’ rationale is a farce. If Odd Future are a public menace, why were they given visas back in 2012, when in the wake of the Goblin album, they were far more popular than they are today? What has driven this incident all along has been a concern in some quarters about Odd Future’s lyrics. Their appearance at the Rapture festival became at risk only days ago, after a pressure group alerted the Council to the lyric content of some of their songs. Some of Odd Future’s lyrics certainly are ugly, misogynist and homophobic – and other artists (such as Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara) have challenged them on the content of head honcho Tyler the Creator’s album Goblin. I reported her comments in Werewolf back in 2011:

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.
As journalists and colleagues defend, excuse and congratulate ‘Tyler, the Creator,’ I find it impossible not to comment…Why should I care about this music or its “brilliance” when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible? There is much that upsets me in this world, and this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve drafted an open letter or complaint, but in the past I’ve found an opinion – some like-minded commentary – that let me rest assured that my outrage, my voice, had been accounted for.

Not this time. 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? I realize I could ask that question of DOZENS of other artists, but is Tyler exempt because people are afraid of the backlash? The inevitable claim that detractors are being racist, or the brush-off that not “getting it” would indicate that you’re “old” (or a faggot)? Because, the more I think about it, the more I think people don’t actually want to go up against this particular bully because he’s popular. 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. No genre is without its controversial and offensive characters- I’m not naive. I’ve asked myself a thousand times why this is pushing me over the edge. Maybe it’s the access to him (his grotesque twitter, etc). Maybe it’s because I’m a human being, both a girl and a lesbian. Maybe it’s because my mom has spent her whole adult life working with teenage girls who were victims of sexual assault. Maybe it’s because in this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message. 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. I can only hope that someone reading this might be inspired to speak out. At the very least, I will know that my voice is on record.

That, I’d suggest, is how you best combat the likes of Tyler the Creator: you engage with him and you denounce him. You use your free speech rights to rebut his use of free speech. You don’t pressure the authorities to shut him down entirely, and deny him a visa. Sure, you can tread a fine line here and say that you’re under no obligation to provide Tyler a platform – but the venue in question is a public utility, and the pressure group who got the Council to act on their behalf do not speak for all Auckland ratepayers, many of whom will now be feeling outraged by what has transpired. Indeed, what are the grounds for the selective discrimination that has been exercised against these artists? Arguably, Tyler the Creator is a character in a work of fiction. This “in character” argument is one of the reasons that Sara Quin was reluctant to enter this arena in the first place. In our post-modern universe, we’re all in character and Tyler the Creator is – like Eminem’s Slim Shady – a fictional creation meant to shock and awe, and to be the mouthpiece for feelings that are (unfortunately, but genuinely) part of the social fabric. Controversy feeds the beast, and speaking out will usually abet the likes of Tyler the Creator, almost as much as colluding with him via silence. Either way, it can still feel like collusion.

It is hard to make a credible case that what Tyler is saying is an incitement to action. Rape fantasy (among 19 year old boys) and homophobia is rife in the entertainment industry – and is thus located nowhere where it can be banned or contained ; and it cannot be confined in any useful sense, to a CD by Tyler the Creator. Plainly, not all such art is acted upon by its audience. What Tyler is doing is (a) art (b) a persona and (c) ingrained in the social fabric – and to repeat, it cannot be construed as a call to action, or imitation. Yes, such “art” may serve to deaden society to the rights of the vulnerable. But so does a vast swathe of art and so do a vast number of art forms left untouched and insulated by selective action against Odd Future. Which does raise the question – why is this group, and why is this particular art form, being targeted? Does it make any difference at all that Tyler is black, thus changing the power context for some of his revenge fantasies in a way not relevant for white rappers like Eminem and Yelawolf? Why is Nick Cave allowed to hide behind a persona when singing about murdering women, when Tyler is being denounced? You be the judge. Except that you can’t, because they’ve been banned. That’s a loss to everyone, as Auckland University law professor Bill Hodge said at the time, when David Irving was denied entry to New Zealand:

Freedom of speech is really the freedom to read, the freedom to hear and the freedom to listen. It is far more important to the listeners, the readers and so on than it is for the speaker. Everybody is losing. If you go back to John Stuart Mill, we might know the truth of it [the Holocaust], but it might be dead truth, if we do not allow it to be challenged.

The selectivity of the action against Odd Future is absurd, even if one accepted the logic that is being deployed against them by their critics. The authorities are banning Tyler while giving a platform to Eminem to entertain the vulnerable innocents at an ‘all ages’ gig ? That’s really weird. Eminem frames his more offensive lyrics as belonging to his persona, Slim Shady. We all remember the lyrics of “Criminal” right ? And in case that’s seen to be his old material, how about these lines from “Rap God” off his latest album?

They’re asking me to eliminate some of the women hate
But if you take into consideration the bitter hatred I had
Then you may be a little patient and more sympathetic to the situation
And understand the discrimination
But fuck it…..if I can’t batter the women
How the fuck am I supposed to bake them a cake then?

Yep, jokey puns about ‘battering’ women. Or worse. That’s always been his schtick. It is weirdly selective to be so outraged about Odd Future as to whip up a moral panic that bars them from re-entering New Zealand – when the show at which they would have been appearing is being headlined by the most successful, most misogynist, most homophobic rap star in history. And so far, without a peep from Denise Richey and her pressure group. If Eminem and his Slim Shady persona is acceptable, why isn’t Tyler the Creator’s bad ass persona ? It is always politically convenient to target black hip hop and dancehall performers – who will have few defenders on free speech grounds, even in liberal circles. Consider by way of useful contrast, how jealously the white middle class will defend and rationalise the misogynist/ homophobic art that it wishes to consume at say, the annual International Film Festival. A film like Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible was praised ten years ago in these glowing terms:

…this disturbing but deeply interesting French film, which won the Cannes Critics’ Week Award in 1998 is…..genuinely controversial….That’s a long way from saying it should have been banned, of course, though my view is that the chief film censor is right to have maintained the prohibition against its release in home video formats with all the attendant risks of it being seen by kids.

Right. Dutifully, the state and its censorship apparatus will take care to ensure that the film festival elite can still get to see such films, and can consume their “controversial” art in the manner and venue of their choice – but such freedoms are not of course, to be extended to the hoi polloi and to the kids. Gotta keep our art porn, but got to protect the kids from their vulgar hip hop. You bet. Well, it shouldn’t be this way. At base, art that is said to be ‘hate’ speech is still art. whether I like it or not. It should be engaged, not vetoed. And newsflash: it is all around us. Pick on dancehall or hip hop as an easy target, but spare me the righteousness. And deal with that elephant in the room. Why haven’t activists gone after Eminem in the same way they have gone after Beenie Man or now, Odd Future ? Take those lyrics in Eminem’s song ‘Criminal.’ Sample: “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ That’ll stab you in the head / whether you’re a fag or lez/ Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest/ Pants or dress hate fags? The answer’s ‘yes’.” Or, what about the songs in which he fantasises about murdering his wife Kim, or raping his mother? As I said with respect to Beenie Man:

To be fair, Peter Tatchell who spearheaded the global campaign against the dancehall musicians, did denounce Eminem. Yet interestingly, some prominent members of the gay community did not. Elton John, who lamented the anti-gay culture that he felt had contributed to the infamous hate murder of Matthew Shepard in Texas, did a duet two years later with Eminem on the hit song “Stan” and has stood by him resolutely through his recent personal and career troubles. Melissa Etheridge, a self declared lesbian, has spoken admiringly of his artistic merit. Liberals such as Sheryl Crow have done likewise. Boy George, one gay celebrity who has consistently criticised Eminem has explained the double standard this way : “Nobody wants to sort of battle against success. It’s one of those things; if you slag him off, you on the one hand will appear bitter, and on the other hand you will appear uncool,” George said. “If Pol Pot had a successful record, people would probably be running around him as well.”

Plainly, the same cultural latitude and forgiveness is not to be extended to less successful black hiphop artists. Back then I posed this question: “Now that Big Day Out has buckled, who will be the next marginal black performer with antisocial lyrics who is financially vulnerable enough to be forced into submission?” Well, the next target has turned out to the Odd Future collective. It may be politics, but it has very little to do with principle.


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