How Teen Rap Group Odd Future Turned a Posse of Nerdy White Male Critics Into Rape Apologists
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Last summer, buzz began to swirl around a mostly teenaged Los Angeles rap collective named Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (Odd Future for short). Gradually bubbling up from the annals of the Internet, they caught the attention of bloggers and rap fans first for their precocious styles—they were cynical, depressed and extremely talented, particularly for their young ages—and second for their outrageous, often cringe-inducing collection of videos.
The first one I saw, for “Earl” by then 17-year-old Earl Sweatshirt (real name: Thebe Kgositsile, son of celebrated South African poet/activist Keorapetse Kgositsile), featured a gang of friends pouring a concoction of various disgusting liquids into a blender and then drinking enough to make them gag—teen boy mischief to the max. Barfing featured prominently in their videos and performances, as did death-defying feats of stage-diving, and I still can’t watch the part in the “Earl” video where he tears off his thumbnail. Odd Future was, in short, a group of fairly typical thrill-seeking teens, raised on Jackass and skateboarding videos and doing whatever they could to top their latest shock-value-baiting antics.
As blog buzz tends to, the hype spread quick and fierce—and after we’d all had enough time to listen to their back catalogue and go to their shows, it didn’t take long for Odd Future to become the most debated musical group of the past two years, if not in the entire history of the internet. They were incredibly prolific and had released scores of material via their Tumblr and YouTube channel, and their nihilistic ways spoke to a generation of kids born into the Internet’s middle age. They were depressed, disenfranchised and equipped with rebellious fuck-everything attitudes. (In light of the London youth riots, you could almost call their rage mantra—”Kill people, burn shit, fuck school”—prescient.)
Within that nihilism, they spat quite a few lyrics about violent rape and murder, along with epithets like “faggot” and “bitch.” Earl Sweatshirt, the aforementioned babyface in a barbershop with a bum thumbnail: “She mad as fuck/stuck in the back of a black Acura/Fed her acid now that the duct tape quacks back at her/ Hello Heather yellow feathers/now you ain’t laughin, huh.” Previously in the song, his celebrated cohort and Odd Future leader, Tyler the Creator, had rapped about raping nurses.
I am not here to indict nor to excuse Odd Future. I was the first person to tout their talents in a national magazine, in August of 2010, and I similarly might have pushed along the discourse against their more violent lyrics (see second Twitter annotation in this great piece). As a progressive, anti-racist feminist, I have had a complicated relationship with music I appreciate for its aesthetics and disdain for its content for as long as I can remember.
Anyone with a cursory sense of language can read/listen to Odd Future lyrics and see that the syntax and cadence is exceptional—and that the content is sometimes quite gnarly. But after approximately 900,000 think pieces were written on the topic of Odd Future’s “vile” lyricism—a large chunk of them by rap dilettantes who have apparently never listened to much hip-hop beyond radio and club staples—what became more enraging to me than the detailed artistic output of a group of youths were the scores of critics, largely middle-aged white males, who not only tripped over themselves justifying the lyrics, but who also seemed to ridicule or mock those who might have a problem with them.
Odd Future’s producer and DJ, Syd tha Kid, was held up as an example of why the group simply could not be homophobic or misogynist—she was a lesbian, after all, and she said in interviews her male cohorts treated her no differently. That argument was, of course, bullshit—single-person representation does not equal diversity, and besides, Syd “ slapped bitches” too. What the apologist critics were inching toward was what The Root called “black male rage as entertainment,” which got to the heart of what many (self-aware) non-black rap fans have reckoned with since hip-hop went corporate (or at least since 50 Cent got famous): Do you love this for the art, or do you love it for your ability to channel through it? Do you love listening to violence in rap because you do not have to live it?