I remember my first time watching Goldlink’s video for “U Say,” featuring Jay Prince and Tyler the Creator. The video, set to the jazzy, afrobeat instrumental and smooth vocals from all three artists, is a beautiful, afrocentric creation as Goldlink, Jay Prince, and Tyler glide clumsily through a party. It’s really a beautiful video. Full of black people – we love to see it.
Tyler, with a low-top fade adorned with a black afro pick and a lime green suit a la IGOR, comes in towards the middle of the video with his verse. And to see him in the space of this video made me so excited. Tyler’s relationship with his own blackness hasn’t been something we’ve witnessed so publicly until the last couple of years, around the time Flower Boy came out.
During the early parts of Tyler’s career, it wasn’t uncommon for the overt mentions of blackness from Tyler and friends to come in the form of mockery, particularly at the expense of (dark-skinned, fat) black women. From songs like “Tina” and “Transylvania,” and the more visual instances of the infamous Real Housewives of Atlanta skit from episode 2 of season 2 of Loiter Squad and the video for “Rella,” the caricaturization of black women in Odd Future’s early work made consistent appearances. It’s an act that feeds into ground work that had been laid by white folks beforehand, through things like the Cult of True Womanhood.
Essentially, the Cult of True Womanhood is a litmus test for women. To be considered a woman, a body must be white, dainty, cis, feminine, and necessarily thin. And if she isn’t all of those things, she is not considered to be a woman. As a result, darker-skinned women weren’t allowed to participate in the benefits of the Cult of True Womanhood. This idea moved into things like minstrel shows where white performers would put on blackface and costumes to embody the “mammy” character that is present in many minstrel shows and movies in the 1940s and 50s. From there, we can see a clear throwback to those “mammy” characters through characters like Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma from the Big Momma’s House series and Tyler Perry’s Madea. Outside of that traditional mammy character we have the aggressive, loud, and obnoxious dark-skinned black woman that is the more prevalent in mainstream media over the past couple of decades. You can see her in Martin Lawrence’s Pam (played by Tichina Arnold) and Sheneneh (played by Martin Lawrence), TiTi from a bunch of Blameitonkway’s videos on YouTube, Eddie Murphy’s Norbit and several of Odd Future’s sketches from Loiter Squad. This use of (stereotypical) black women’s bodies and mannerisms for capitalistic gain has been a part of American history forever; people are constantly making money off of pretending to be what white folks and other non-black folks think black women are. The examples that I include are only a few of the many.
So even though you have this group of black kids in Odd Future that are doing this revolutionary/radical act of doing and saying whatever the fuck they want and existing in ways that they are told not to exist, there’s a placing of dark-skinned and fat black women on the sidelines of that work. There’s a use of the bodies of these women by a group of predominately-black boys and men, in order to be radical. Radical blackness, in this way, excludes black women. And that work is perpetuated every time someone listens to “Tina” or shares gifs from that Loiter Squad birthday sketch.
(side note: DaShaun Harrison has a bunch of great articles on the intersections of anti-fatness and anti-blackness, including this one)
I think even the ways, outside of the mocking of black women, that Odd Future, and Tyler in particular, expressed their radical blackness used to come at the expense of other black people. Whenever Tyler would talk about black people escaping the confines of what they’ve been taught to exist in, he would do so in a way that put the blame on black people:
By expressing the hope for black people to exist in multitudes in this way, he’s playing the blame game. “Black people only allow themselves to be this way, so stop it.” However, what this doesn’t take into account is how, while black folks do have the tendency to place each other and ourselves in boxes, those boxes were set up by white folks. Again, blackness has existed in opposition to whiteness since white folks came over here; blackness is not often allowed to be self-defined. Blackness is what whiteness isn’t. So since skateboarding, listening to rock music, etc. were things that were said to “belong” in the white community, blackness was forced to only exist in ways that seemed to be opposite. And while Tyler and friends were offering that black people could exist outside of those pre-set narratives, they did it in a way that made it seem like it was black folk’s fault that they lived the way they do.
So I think where folks in the group have moved is this more empowering approach, rather than the previous paternalistic approach. Instead of just telling black folks to stop being stereotypically black, Tyler is showing dark-skinned black boys in his Golf Wang fashion media and Earl is speaking out publicly in support of black women and other black artists. There’s this uplifting quality in what they’ve started to move towards doing that I think is beautiful to see, especially as a black woman who essentially spent the majority of her high school years listening to Odd Future and seeing Tyler as a bit of a role model. Part of a person’s work as an artist with a platform is to empower, rather than to be paternalistic. To be paternalistic in public creates further opportunities for other folks to think it’s ok to criticize blackness without having any actual attachment to the community.
I think it’s this attachment to the community that Tyler still has some work to do on, though. I remember watching his interview with Funk Flex when it came out a couple months ago, and he has a line in his freestyle where he questions why when people mention black-owned businesses they don’t mention him. And I while I think the answer to that is layered, I think it essentially boils down to the difference between him and Jay-Z. Jay-Z is the quintessential black businessman and self-made mogul. He went from selling drugs to owning multiple businesses. He is one of the black folks that black people look to as an inspiration, in hopes that paying attention to the way he moves will offer folks the key to success.
Then we have Tyler who grew up relatively low-income, essentially started the Odd Future brand by himself, with the help of some friends, started creating music that pushed people into concert venues and to buy clothes and merch, and is now the owner of several successful businesses, has had 2 television shows, and a bunch of super successful albums. And though this trajectory isn’t the exact same as Jay-Z’s, Tyler has the potential to be just as big of a role model for black folks as Jay-Z, if not more.
The problem comes from the sort of race-neutralness that he and the rest of Odd Future existed in for so long. The radical blackness that they embodied was something that white folks (read: white men and boys) attached themselves to easier than black folks did because there was not an intentional move, by the group, to make blackness a centerpoint. And because the things they did and liked didn’t automatically make them the poster kids for black identity, that was grounds for them being scooped up into radical whiteness. There was a rebelliousness that the bodies of the black men (and Syd) of Odd Future had that white people loved – it’s the same reason why Miley Cyrus’s rebellious phase came with twerking and rapping and Justin Bieber’s came with hanging out with Lil’ Twist (remember him?).
“Minstrel performers gave this pattern an American spin. Most of them were minor, apolitical theatrical men of the northern artisanate who pursued a newly available bourgeois dream of freedom and play by paradoxically coding themselves as “black.” Marginalized by temperament, by habit (often alcoholism), by ethnicity, even by sexual orientation, these artists immersed themselves in “blackness” to indulge their felt sense of difference. It was an avenue that allowed them certain underground privileges (and accrued many demerits) which a more legitimate course would not have provided. Indeed, if for men sexuality is where freedom and play meet, “blackness” was for antebellum bohemians its virtual condition – that fascinating imaginary space of fun and license outside (but structured by) Victorians bourgeois norms.”
“To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool.”(Eric Lott, Love and Theft)
Watching Odd Future videos and rapping along to songs at their concerts gave white folks the chance at a experiencing the freedom of blackness. And they took/take up all the space they need in order to do that.
So I think that part of the work that needs to be done on by Tyler, in particular, has to be spatial. Of course, since white folks already have built their mansions on the land that is Odd Future and Tyler the Creator, there is a chance for Tyler to be a role model to black kids in different ways, as he has exhibited already as something he’s into. It’s not enough to make songs that include lines about telling black kids they can be who they are, if there are no black kids in the audience or it’s white folks standing the closest to the stage. He has to create opportunities that allow him to come into contact with blackness and black folks in ways that might not be typical for him. It’s a way for him to move forward and reconcile with things he’s said and done in the past, in a way that doesn’t mean he has to be apologetic or erase what he’s done before (I mean Goblin and Bastard are legendary in their own right), but in a way that continues to show the way that he has grown.
Featured image credit: https://www.okayplayer.com/music/watch-goldlink-tyler-the-creator-u-say.html
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As Steve Biko describes in “Black Souls in White Skins?,” it’s easy for white people to take a paternalistic role in the movements for black liberation, and this is especially true for white people who hold marginalized identities. However, there are many examples of white allyship that focuses on the horizontal work that white people … Continue reading TAKE #4: Decentering Whiteness in Black Resistance