Tyler, the Creator: Goat or Generation Hero?

May 3rd, 2013

(Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images)

(Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images)

By Gee King

When Dr. Boyce Watkins’ critique of Tyler, the Creator’s “Felicia the Goat” commercial got Mountain Dew to pull the ad from the airwaves, it was hard to tell whether the controversy was the result of hateration or a generation gap. Now that both perspectives have been shared (Tyler’s through a Billboard article, Watkins’ via a YouTube vlog), hip hop must address issues way deeper than corporate sponsorships and racial stereotypes. With Tyler dedicated to protecting the free expression of his creativity and Watkins desperate for rappers to rethink the long-term consequences of their art, MCs and fans have to revisit the age-old question: “What are we really doing this for?”

Tyler dismissed Dr. Boyce Watkins as an “older black dude” in his Billboard interview, claiming that he was nitpicking and pointing out other ads that featured racially progressive situations. But Watkins’ YouTube explanation proved a sincere familiarity and concern for the future of hip hop that made it impossible to overlook him as an out-of-touch hater. Watkins apologized for going so hard at Tyler in his blog, explaining that “the words flew off my fingers because I was so mad,” and compared himself to rappers getting lost in the creative zone when they step in the booth. Watkins went on to call Tyler “a brilliant dude” who reminds him of his daughter and assured viewers that this was not a case of a brother hating on another brother getting money.

But while Watkins reached out to bridge a generation gap by comparing Tyler and his Odd Future crew to A Tribe Called Quest, he refused to back down from the message behind his blog post. “I’m not trying to get in the way of anybody trying to get money,” he explained, “but we can’t get money at any cost.” Watkins, an economics professor at Syracuse University, goes on to remind viewers that “money can liberate you, or money can enslave you,” and challenges Tyler to make a choice about the kind of man he wants to be. He even gives suggestions for avoiding future critique, saying “put two white boys in the line-up” or “an Asian with buck-teeth.”

Throughout his vlog, Watkins refuses to buy into Tyler’s post-racial attitude, saying bluntly, “the white man has convinced you that racism does not exist,” before referencing stats that illustrate the greater consequences of “systemic racism backed by capitalism.” Watkins points out that it’s the corporation’s responsibility to oversee the ad and make sure it wasn’t offensive and said their failure to do so proved his greater point: “these big corporation don’t have no problem insulting n—-s.”

After addressing Tyler, Watkins turned his sights on Lil Wayne, who he says was the original target of his anti-Mountain Dew movement in the first place. Comparing Wayne to Malcolm Little (had he never met the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and become Malcolm X), Watkins calls him “only a fraction of the man he could have been” who is “going through the world destroying instead of building.” Watkins gives props to the extraordinary minds of hip hop artists, including Wayne and Tyler, while still holding them accountable for the responsibility that comes with their great creative powers. “You’re not a victim of your circumstances anymore,” he reminds them, urging them to uplift their people instead of allowing Blacks to continue to “sing and dance to the tune of our own destruction.”

Whether you love hip hop for its aspirational messages or its raw creative energy, there’s no denying that there has always been a greater purpose driving this culture from its humble Bronx roots to its current global reach. Tyler, the Creator’s rise to stardom is no different, molded by teen angst and creative intellect that couldn’t fit neatly into any box that the hood or suburbs tried to squeeze him into. But like hip hop in the early 1990s as corporate America was rushing to capitalize and rappers were forced to decide between selling out or remaining powerless, Tyler’s influence has become a burden that will require him to make tough decisions about the kind of artist he wants to be. In this case, he would be wise to at least consider Watkins’ perspective unless he’s fine with being viewed in the same light as Lil Wayne when it comes to moral and ethical issues. “Any young person that doesn’t listen to old people is stupid,” says Watkins at one point in his vlog, “because eventually you’re gonna go through the same stuff that some older person could have warned you about if you were willing to listen.”

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