“I have gay fans,” Tyler, the Creator told MTV earlier this week. “They don’t really take it offensive, so I don’t know. If it offends you, it offends you.” This was his latest response to the accusations of homophobia that have dogged him over his short career, accusations largely catalysed by his persistent and casual use of the word “faggot” in his rhymes and his Tweets. “If you call me a nigger,” he continued, “I really don’t care, but that’s just me, personally. Some people might take it the other way; I personally don’t give a shit.” The implication: they’re just words. But here’s the thing. Words are precious, powerful things. We dismiss and devalue them at our peril. And Tyler, the Creator needs to a) grow up and b) think about what he says.
In a way, Tyler’s bluster is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a 20-year-old with the world at his feet and a bunch of people telling him he’s the best thing to happen to hip hop since, well, the last big thing to happen to hip hop. As kids (and given America’s ever-extending adolescence, that’s exactly what Tyler still is), we all said stupid things that we now regret, and we often responded aggressively when someone called us out on it. But that doesn’t change the fact: Tyler, the Creator needs to grow the fuck up.
As a rapper, Tyler’s stock in trade is words. And yet he throws them around with no thought for what they mean. This is a problem in a number of ways. First, of course, it’s just plain lazy. If the best you can use your words for is shock value, then perhaps you should just say nothing. More importantly, though, the fact that you think a word means nothing, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Words carry a whole weight of historical and cultural baggage, and it’s baggage you open every time you utter them.
Before he tweets casually about “that fag BET cahnnel”, Tyler would do well to remember that there are still parts of the world where you can be sentenced to death for being gay. He (and, perhaps, the gay fans he’s allegedly spoken to) are lucky enough to live in a country that isn’t Uganda. America isn’t this way by accident; it’s this way because people have stood up against the sort of prejudice and hatred Tyler tosses off so thoughtlessly in his rhymes. And so, perversely enough, the fact Tyler and his fans are in a position to think the word “faggot” could ever be harmless can ultimately be traced back to Stonewall and the gay rights movement. And even with the benefit of generations of hard work, growing up gay in America can still constitute a death sentence. Consistent use of words that equate homosexuality with negative connotations don’t exactly help.
You can draw a parallel with the other word that Tyler dismisses so easily – because perhaps he should be upset if someone calls him a nigger. For all that its mutant misspelled counterpart “nigga” has become part of a different lexicon, the original word still carries all the connotations it ever has. Used as an insult, it carries the weight of centuries of prejudice, and oppression, and discrimination. As the scion of a comfortably middle class black family, Tyler is lucky enough to be in the position to be able to just blow it off if someone racially abuses him. We suspect that Rosa Parks might have felt differently. That Tyler can be so blasé about the use of the word “nigger” is, again, down to the work of generations of civil rights activists who refused to accept oppression and discrimination on the basis of race. Again, not everyone is so lucky.
These words aren’t as harmless as Tyler thinks they are. When you open your mouth, when you choose your words, you embrace the weight of their meaning. And when you’re speaking to anyone apart from yourself in the mirror, that choice carries a responsibility. We don’t want to come over all curmudgeonly uncle here, but here in America, we’re lucky: we can say whatever we want. We take our First Amendment rights very seriously, and rightly so. We’re less inclined to consider their attendant responsibilities, which can be conveniently summarized in about four words: “Don’t be a dickhead.” When we use our hard-won freedom of speech for shock value, to purvey racial and sexual epithets for no purpose other than proving how naughty we are, we devalue that freedom.
Words are powerful things. And Tyler knows this. As the Wall Street Journal noted perceptively in their review of an Odd Futures show last month, “[Tyler] uses epithets like “faggot” in a way that seems to recognize how hurtful they can be, but without acknowledging why.” And, just as importantly, without asking why. And as far as we’re concerned, that’s the worst sort of intellectual cowardice there is.