Amidst this divisive political climate, conversations about salient identity-based issues like sexuality, race and gender, among other personal markers, can be particularly uncomfortable. Fortunately, the arts can facilitate our ability to engage in that necessary dialogue. Movies, literature and music have long been platforms from which people have amplified the messages of social movements. But what are we to do when shifts in social norms render beloved media antiquated or prove them to have been harmful all along?
I’ve been thinking about this question over the past few months, as a slew of widely-publicized sexual abuse scandals have demonstrated the continued presence of dehumanizing actions in our culture. Further, it’s a question I have asked myself as I’ve revisited favorite movies and albums in light of the things I have now learned.
Let’s talk about Tyler, the Creator.
I first heard “She,” a sultry hip-hop track by the charismatic-but-controversial rap prince Tyler, the Creator, in 2011. It’s a four-minute song in which Tyler paints a complicated picture. He gushes about a new girl, who becomes his “lover,” and the ninja he tries to win her from. The issue with the song isn’t the love triangle at the fore. Instead, the audience receives little lyrical evidence to believe that the song’s protagonist equally values the woman’s safety as he does the conquest of her body and his new foe.
Things get stickier in the song’s hook, when Frank Ocean warbles on about the “Blinds wide open so he can/ See you in the dark when you’re sleepin’/ Naked body, fresh out the shower/ You touch yourself after hours.” Tyler presents descriptions of stalking and non-consensual voyeurism like this throughout the song’s lyrics as romantic or affectionate, when in reality, they’re inherently violent. One of the song’s more chilling lyrics exemplifies that assertion, when Tyler sings, “Gorgeous, baby you’re gorgeous/ I just want to drag your lifeless body to the forest/ And fornicate with it/But that’s because I’m in love with you, cunt.”
At 13, I recognized that the lyrics were harsh, but I dismissed my apprehension because it was “just a song.” But at 21, I’m convinced that “She,” compared to the more mature, emotionally intentional and genuinely romantic expressions in recent Tyler songs like “GONE GONE / THANK YOU” and “A BOY IS A GUN*,” is dangerous. It presents the central woman as a fleshly silhouette to be exploited and as an object to be won. It glorifies necrophilia. It glorifies abuse. I don’t listen to it anymore.
Creative freedom and expression make art compelling and effective. I would be remiss not to acknowledge that critiques of storytelling within the rap genre and other evocative arts forms have been used to diminish the legitimacy of underrepresented artists. It is not Tyler’s duty to provide rudimentary sexual education to his young fans. The purpose of this article isn’t to write a revisionist review of his work. It’s to mindfully reconcile with the potential legacy of a song I once loved. And to wonder how that song may have further normalized the rhetoric and behaviors that we are trying to combat today.
In the coming weeks, Arts & Entertainment writers will share stories about art that hasn’t aged well with them or art they’ve come to realize as incendiary. We hope to begin a campus-wide conversation on what responsibility, if any, both artists and art lovers have to one another and to the world at large.