Censorship. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the responsibility of artists, or maybe I should say the perceived responsibility of artists by fans or the "public eye." This conversation started to take shape when I was discussing a recent pop icon, Tyler, the Creator, with a few friends.
Tyler is an up-and-coming rapper/producer out of Los Angeles. He is the head of hip-hop collective OFWGKTA, or Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the name of which along with his twitter name @fucktyler is indicative of his personality.
Tyler’s entire stage persona revolves around a paradox. He can be quoted saying, “I’m a (expletive) walking paradox, no I’m not.” His lyrics are often conflicting, whether literally or otherwise. He can be as poetic as, “My father never seen me, the (expletive) probably Stevie, he bought me a hoodie a couple albums, like that’s gonna make up for the years and the tears and the money that my momma spent on rent and clothes,” and as offensive and crass as, “I just wanna drag your lifeless body to the forest and fornicate with it … ’cause I usually just stalk you and masturbate.”
The question that was raised was, does Tyler have a responsibility as a public figure to refrain from certain sensitive topics? I think this is an issue that the public has a hard time with. Whether it be parents taken aback at the sexual content of their children’s music or young adults bickering about the moral fabric that makes music worth listening to, the initial shock at certain words being used seems to have a tendency to overshadow the meaning of a project as a whole.
I, personally, think that Tyler’s use of vulgar language and violent imagery is unnecessary, but I find it hard to say that he has any kind of responsibility to censor himself. Tyler came in to the public eye doing what he’s doing now, talking about rape and murder to shock people. That is his gimmick. If he’s doing what he’s always done, can anybody really blame him if they’ve decided to watch or listen?
I had a second run-in with this train of thought a little more recently. The much-anticipated debut of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s new collaboration, "Watch the Throne," was met with thousands of blog posts and Tweets and reviews.
A particular review by Nitsuh Abebe of New York Magazine was brought to my attention by a friend of mine. The review was mostly fair; it offered balanced perspectives of social issues that the album dealt with, and addressed many different aspects of the music. However, in the first paragraph the author says, “Have you heard the one about two rappers who dwell on their wealth and power in a moment where other people are watching theirs slip away, while the market’s crashing and London’s in flames?” This is out of context of course, but in context it’s a sarcastic stab at the album’s overall content. That sentence ruined the entire review for me.
Whatever a given artist does, he or she does it from within. Art, or music in this case, has to be created. What Kanye and Jay did on "Watch the Throne" was create music from within themselves and record it for people to buy/hear. They rap about the worries and problems they experience on a daily basis, such as how to raise a child in an environment as harsh as Los Angeles or friendships ruined by success.
Jay and Kanye are both past the point financially where worries about money would enter their daily lives or thoughts, which is why you don’t hear much about the collapsing economy, or "London burning" in their most recent work. The lack of money is a concept that is no longer within them.
To me, this statement made is sound as if Nitsuh was essentially discrediting the album as a whole and dismissing it as insensitive because the album didn’t touch on certain topics. He made a common mistake that I see recurring in my conversations and readings about music — he confused the role and responsibilities of a public figure with the role and responsibilities of an artist. The celebrity status that some musicians achieve puts them in the public eye, but it doesn’t necessarily make them public figures.
I think that it’s sad to see artistic responsibility confused like this. Where are the days when art could be appreciated and judged on its own terms? When Da Vinci sketched the Vitruvian Man, did people scoff at it and say, “I can’t believe he sketched the penis, too…”? When musicians record albums, or when any artist creates, they are creating in their own voice.
I’m not saying that anybody has to be all right with all music or even give any of it a chance. I’m just saying, or asking rather, that before you dismiss something or deem it unworthy because you think that it’s crude, insensitive, explicit, anything — remember that every project says something, and that just because it may not say something that you agree with doesn’t diminish it.