When Art Is an Immigration Issue

The rapper Tyler, the Creator’s words, not his actions, have gotten him banned from the U.K.

Steve C. Mitchell / AP

Someone employed by the U.K.’s immigration authority has, very clearly, had Tyler, the Creator’s music on repeat. When the 24-year-old rapper was stopped while trying to cross from Calais to Dover last month, an English official reportedly presented him with a piece of paper listing lyrics from some old songs of his, along with this statement: “Your albums Bastard, in 2009, and Goblin, in 2011, are based on the premise of your adopting a mentally unstable alter ego who describes violent physical abuse, rape, and murder in graphic terms which appears to glamourise this behaviour.”

Wow! “A mentally unstable alter ego”—that’s an observation that could only come from a close listen to his early albums, which indeed establish a complicated world of fractured personalities (they even have names: “Wolf Haley,” “Dr. TC,” “Ace the Creator,” “Tron Cat,” and on). When Tyler (whose real name is Tyler Okonma) and his friends in the rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All started drawing major music-press attention in 2009 and 2010, a backlash ensued based on the vile words about women and gay people and Bruno Mars their songs contained. Not a lot of Tyler’s critics focused on the mental-illness conceit behind his words (the albums were essentially dialogues with a therapist), but half a decade later, someone working for Home Secretary Theresa May gets it.

But getting it, alas, is not the same as legally welcoming it. “Coming to the U.K. is a privilege, and we expect those who come here to respect our shared values,” the Home Office said in a statement about why it banned Tyler from the country, as reported by The Guardian. The decision, which cannot be appealed, will keep Tyler out of the U.K. for three to five years.

It’s a bizarre situation, seemingly without exact precedent. Among other things, it can be added to the pile of examples through history of rap not being afforded the same freedoms as other art forms—the right to fiction, the right to offend.

Lyrics and other forms of expression get artists banned from places all the time, but usually only certain kinds of places. Private venues and festivals have responded to public pressure to disinvite performers, as was the case with Action Bronson in Toronto earlier this year. In parts of the world where governments more comfortably police morality—examples include Russia and Indonesia—performers of all kinds have faced legal problems for their work.

M.I.A. once blamed her U.S. visa troubles on official disapproval of her songs, but that version of events has never been publicly confirmed. England has made a recent habit of excluding certain celebrities—Martha Stewart, Snoop Dogg—but almost always on the basis of their criminal records. Last year, the professional pickup artist Julien Blanc was prevented from entering, but that was because he was literally selling how-to guides for behaviors that could be considered as sexual assault. And when New Zealand banned Tyler last year, its authorities cited not his lyrics but an incident in which a police officer had been injured by the crowd at one of Odd Future’s concerts.

The U.K., though, has apparently excluded Tyler on the basis of his words alone. At Jezebel, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd has a thorough and smart piece delving into the implications the ban has for feminism, free speech, and art; her takeaway seems to be that even if his old songs are inexcusable, censorship is likely to backfire. At Noisey, Joe Zadeh puts the situation in the context of Britain’s efforts to crack down on possible terrorists and points out the bafflingly arbitrary nature of this decision—Tyler had performed in the U.K. mere months ago, and other controversial performers, like Eminem or the National Socialist black metal band Satanic Warmaster, can visit freely. Meanwhile, Tyler and his manager have emphasized that the rapper has mostly stopped performing his ugliest old songs and has instead started making albums radiating positivity.

But all of these issues seem secondary in light of what the British government admitted it recognized—that aggressive lyrics are artistic expressions. Novelists whose narrators espouse dark or hateful thought aren’t being targeted in the same way. Heavy metal, video games, and movies have all been blamed over the years (with varying levels of credibility) for provoking bad—or even murderous—behavior, but artists in those genres aren’t being handed government notes saying their work “might lead to inter-community violence in the U.K.”

It’s hard to avoid the thought that the controversy comes down to the same attitudes that make hip-hop arguably the most legally embattled art form in the world. In Straight Outta Compton, viewers see the foundational hip-hop group N.W.A. threatened with arrest by American cops for performing their song “Fuck Tha Police,” a song that’s less about incitement than dramatizing a community’s frustrations. And around the globe, emcees facing criminal charges have had their lyrics used against them as evidence, despite the fact that fantasy has long been understood to be part of the genre. “In all of these situations, the underlying assumption is that rap is not really art, that there’s no distinction between author and narrator, so the lyrics must represent the sentiments of the artist,” says Erik Nielson, a University of Richmond professor and writer who has served as an expert witness in trials involving rap, in an email. “Tyler, the Creator is right to insist that his lyrics come from an alter ego, but it sounds like that argument fell on deaf ears. As usual.”