Arts & Entertainment

May 16, 2011

Sara Quin vs Tyler, the creator: On ideas, words, music, and the difference between offense and hate

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Written by: Erika
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tyler and sara

The New York Times describes his new album “Goblin” as “spiteful, internal, confident, vitriolic, vividly bruised stuff, a shocking — and shockingly good album that bears little resemblance to contemporary hip-hop”. The Montreal half of Calgary born lesbian twin sister singing/songwriting duo Tegan and Sara, Sara Quin however calls his lyrics “sickening”, “repulsive and irresponsible”.

We are of course talking about none other than the brilliant Tyler, the creator. Who? Exactly. I had to wikipedia him too.

Now, according to my trusty, trusty wikipedia (STUDENTS! DO NOT DO THIS AT HOME!) “Tyler Okonma (born March 6, 1991), better known by his stage name Tyler, the Creator, is an American rapper and record producer from Los Angeles, California. He is the leader of the alternative hip hop collective OFWGKTA. He has rapped on and produced songs for nearly every OFWGKTA release.” There you have it.

I watched a few of his videos and read what the internet people have to say, and he seems like a pretty goofy, and sort of interesting twenty year old kid. He wears bright coloured knee socks, and says some kind of introspective things in interviews. It is possible that you could take his lyrics as social commentary…. I guess. He has a unique sound, and reminds me of both Will Smith as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Tupac at the same time.

Except that I don’t think Will Smith ever said this: Beat your bitch in her mouth just for talkin’ shit/You lurkin’ bitch? Well, I see that shit/Once again I gotta punch a bitch in her shit

or thisRape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome/You got a death wish? I’m a genie, it’ll get done, or this: I’ll crash that f-ckin’ airplane at that faggot n-gga B.o.B is in/And stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus, or this: I just wanna drag your lifeless body to the forest/And fornicate with it but that’s because I’m in love with you, cunt

It’s easy to see why Sara Quin is outraged, posting on the Tegan and Sara website on Friday, “A Call for Change”.

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.

Meanwhile the New York Times asks: “Are the group’s lyrics reports of literal desires? The goofs of misguided kids? Does the difference matter?” Sara Quin thinks that words matter a lot. When a singer talks about killing women and faggots, their words do matter.

But then you listen to Tyler’s lyrics like this, and you wonder if we are all missing the point. Is it all a critique? If it is, what does it all mean? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? i’m not homophobic….faggot/what the fuck is a good performance? i get on stage and have as much fun as i can.

Even his fans seem to know that his words matter. An NME article states: “It’s an album that leaves you in no doubt that Odd Future’s leader is a rare talent – a brutally funny motherfucker with an imagination that squirms like a tub of maggots, old enough to know that words leave bruises but still young enough not to give a fuck about the consequences.”

Lots of people have been evaluating both Tyler’s lyrics and Sara’s response in terms of offensiveness, which I think is the wrong term, but the appropriate sentiment. I think that we do her critique an injustice just to say that Tyler is offensive or that he is offending women and gays. What I realized when surfing the internets is that we are often misguided about what the difference is between offense and the incitement of hate, and how to evaluate the repercussions of each. Let me put it this way: I think there is a clear and objective utility to offense and to offending.

Rhetoric, music, literature are all mediums in which we discuss and evaluate cultural norms and ideas, in which we offer criticisms and opinions. Offending people, offending others – regardless of how impolite it might be – is not, in my opinion, morally wrong or even dangerous. Attacking ideas and beliefs is what we do in law, in literature, and in music. There is no gravity in offense, so long as offense is an exchange of ideas and beliefs. Yes, words are important. Words have meaning, but those words are what we use to articulate our ideas and beliefs and to argue, to offend, and to attack the ideas of others and to express our own. Offense is a big part of democracy and of the free exchange of ideas.

Now, in an NME interview, Tyler responds to accusations of homophobia:

I’m not homophobic. I just think faggot hits and hurts people. It hits. And gay just means you’re stupid. I don’t know, we don’t think about it, we’re just kids. We don’t think about that shit. But I don’t hate gay people. I don’t want anyone to think I’m homophobic.

So this is where I take offense… no wait, not offense. This is where I object to the entire idea of offense, and where I differentiate between offense and the categorization and obscenification of an entire group of people. Tyler’s claim that “gay just means you’re stupid” is beyond offensive. It incites hate, stereotypes, and denigrates a group of people. This is what we consider hate speech.

Hate speech is not hate speech because it is offensive. It is the categorical denigration of a group of people based on a shared characteristic and is deemed hate speech because it encourages and incites violence, intimidation, and hatred towards that group. This is what Sara Quin was calling out. Not his offensiveness, but the fact that he is – with laude and congratulations – not insulting, but inciting hatred. And THAT is something by which we should be profoundly offended.



About the Author

|Executive Editor & Co-Founder| A mostly hippy and always hungry cultural critic, closeted pop-culture lover, and food know-it-all. Half cowgirl, half Ivy leaguer. You will find me writing on the crazy sh*t that happens on my teevee, feminism, philanthropy, religion and politics. I like singing shows, high-waisted skirts, scotch, two-stepping, and all forms of breakfast foods (sweet AND salty).



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  1. Heather

    To hide behind the claim that the words that spew out of one’s mouth as “Offensive” and an aspect of freedom of speech is massively ignorant. Because he’s manipulated his way into being a ‘role model’ for people, his words indeed have far more power than if he were just some random individual spewing vile words. He’s now got a public forum where his words that ‘(he) doesn’t think about” cause “we’re just kids” turns his expression into propogation of hatred and ignorance.

    By referring to gay as stupid, which in any real definition of the word, doesn’t exist, he’s shooting himself.
    “I’m not homophobic. I just think faggot hits and hurts people. It hits. And gay just means you’re stupid. I don’t know, we don’t think about it, we’re just kids. We don’t think about that shit. But I don’t hate gay people. I don’t want anyone to think I’m homophobic.”

    Well, dear, Mr. The Creator, if gay means stupid, and you don’t hate gay people, READ: stupid, how would that be homophobic, since stupid people are not identified by sexuality, but by lack of intellegence or common sense, you’re stupidphobic. Homophobia is the hatred and fear of HOMOSEXUALS. We’re not stupid, but we do love people who are the same gender.

  2. bryan

    Heather, and the writer of this article, I hope you’re both being intentionally dense on the part of the “and gay just means stupid” part. He’s obviously not saying “gay people are stupid,” he’s saying “the word gay means stupid” — which, whether you or I like it, it has for many people acquired this meaning. Do you think his producer and DJ, an openly gay black girl, would be best friends with all of Odd Future and perform at all of their shows if they were actually homophobic? Tyler said it himself “It hits.” He’s young. He likes seeing the world burn around him as he scares white middle class america and blog writers. He talks about “niggers in the ditch” in another of his songs…is he racist too?

  3. Jamarcus Frelix

    And even more white people miss the point entirely. It’s very clear that neither Sara nor the author of this column has listened to Tyler, the Creator’s music behind the single Yonkers. That’s fine, but you’re only getting a part of the picture. Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin is unfiltered id, filtered through several characters Tyler, the Creator created. It is not intended to be taken seriously. He even says, quite literally on Goblin, to not do what he says, that he does not want other people to hate either other, that he does not hate “faggots,” that he does not want you to be like him, that he is not a role model. These are not words in interviews, these are not words in the liner notes, these are words he says very literally on the record itself.

    Not all music has to appeal to you or fit your standards; Tyler, the Creator’s music is not for you.

    You’re sounding exactly like the same people who spoke out against jazz and rock and roll when they first hit mainstream, you’re sounding like the people who spoke out against hiphop and heavy metal. You don’t get it. That’s fine — it’s not for you.

    Accept that you’re getting older and socially, culturally out of touch; move on so future generations of not-actually-homophobic and not-actually-inciting-hatred artists can create.

  4. Mel

    To be perfectly honest, I am a little torn on this issue. As an artist and lover of music and big fan of freedom of expression, it’s hard to fault an artist for creating what they want to create. (We all remember the controversy surrounding Eminem – now a highly regarded artist.) The thing is, art is incredibly subjective. That being said, as a firm believer in women’s rights, gay rights and equality in general, I find these lyrics to be excessively hateful. I don’t care if he says in his lyrics that people should not look up to him as a role model. (News flash: those aren’t the words that are going to stand out on that track). The truth is, as an artist, he IS a role model, whether he wants to be or not. His lyrics are irresponsible and display the immaturity of his youth. But for the younger, more impressionable listeners, they also propagate dangerous stereotypes and validate hateful speech by shrugging it off as just being kids who “don’t think about that shit.”  Maybe I am old, out-of-touch and missing the point. But I can guess that the kids who are listening to his music might also miss whatever profound social insight he’s secretly getting at and just hear that it’s cool to be racist, homophobic and beat women. Not all kids (or adults) are smart enough to see past the surface and that is the danger of words. 

  5. Elie

    You won’t find a bigger advocate for an artist’s freedom of expression but I’m really effing tired of the same excuses being used over and over to defend such hateful and ignorant lyrics in rap and hip/hop music. Is he smarter than all of us and is his work genuine commentary on society? I’ll pretend that it is. But as Mel put it, I highly doubt the kids listening to his music are really going to grasp the depth of his work. He’s young? So is Taylor Swift. How would the world react if she started using the ‘N’ word left, right and center? Or if innocent, young Justin Bieber started singing about beating his bitch in the mouth just for talking shit?

    Something tells me the reaction would be slightly different.

  6. bryan

    That’s because they (Swift, Bieber, etc) market themselves through an image of purity. Tyler never pretended to be anything other than a foul-mouthed kid. And it’s not like those performers are really doing it for any other reason than to preserve the largest possible fan-base. It takes video footage of Miley Cyrus smoking a bong full of salvia for reality to present itself.

    • Jenny

      i don’t think either of them (bieber and swift) “market” themselves on purity, but i think the kids they target are most likely seen as “pure” (even though i totally disagree) by the media. but lets give a different example that doesn’t involve “kids” artists. lets say John Mayer. John is the same definition of an artist that you are saying Tyler is. He never presented himself as an image of purity, but how come when he says something stupidly racist in an interview, he gets the talking to and the backlash? you can clearly tell he was not in his normal state of mind, but somehow rap and hip hop artists no matter what race they are gets the pass, which they get over and over again. i totally agree with Elie. I am sick of the same excuses over and over again. I am sick of the double standard with “artists” and just ignorant people. If any teen said what Tyler said in class, they would have gotten suspended or detention, but Tyler is labeled and “artist”. You can’t punish one group of people for using hate speech and then turn around and idolize another.

  7. Just because Tyler uses gay and fag doesn’t mean he hates gay people. A lot of kids use the term gay when they are referring to something being dumb or stupid, but you don’t go up to a kid and straight up call him a homophobe. The author of this article doesn’t even know what she’s talking about. She quotes Jasper Dolphin when she said ‘Beat your bitch in her mouth just for talking shit. You lurking bitch? I see that shit. Once again I gotta punch a bitch in her shit.’ If she actually knew what she was talking about, she would’ve known that was Jasper in the song ‘Bitch Suck Dick.’ I’m not saying that what Tyler says about a lot of things in general isn’t offensive, all I’m trying to say is that he in no way hates gays. Frank Ocean and Syd, 2 of his fellow Odd Future members are openly gay. And if you don’t like his music, then simply don’t listen to it, but don’t write a blog saying completely biased and untrue things, trying to provoke people. Golf Wang.

  8. Anna

    I think Tyler’s work cannot be judged by a few lyrics that have been twisted across the internet. His work is intricate and layered. I understand that at first glance Tyler may seem to be just angrily insulting large segments of society but if you LISTEN to the music and not just HEAR the words he’s saying you being to understand that there is a lot of depth to Tyler and his work.

    I can also understand the sore reaction to his use of offensive words such as ‘fag’ and ‘faggot’. I, too, don’t particularly like the use of these words and in my own life am strongly against the use of them. However, Tyler is rapping to a community of people whose vocabulary these words are unfortunately a strong part of. For example, the original comment about Tyler saying being gay is stupid when he said ‘and gay just means you’re stupid’, was said because currently the meaning of the word ‘gay’ hardly has anything to do with homosexuality at all. The definition has morphed into meaning stupid or silly. THIS is what Tyler meant when he made that comment.

    I encourage people to either listen to his music fully and try to gain an understanding of each concept album is before publicly posting a somewhat negative and ignorant evaluation of Tyler and his work.

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