Tyler, the Creator, was recently banned from the U.K. because, according to the Home Office, Tyler’s lyrics did not respect the U.K.’s “shared values.” While some may see this as a triumph—Tyler’s lyrics are often criticized for inciting violence, using homophobic words and phrases, and for degrading and demeaning women—it raises some broader questions about censorship. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd asks, “What does it mean when performing artists are banned for art they created in the past? Is there ever a point in which a person can redeem himself? And third, what does it mean for an artist to be banned at all?” I think these are important questions when thinking about Tyler’s case in particular, but also more generally about artists whose work is seen as “offensive.” Tyler is the only artist I have heard of who was banned for his words alone, which begs the question, was it really for his words alone? Tyler himself has stated that the lyrics in question are from his “alter ego,” and that they do not represent his personal views. This seems perfectly reasonable, and had Tyler written a novel or a poem, even, perhaps people wouldn’t be questioning his motives. But there seems to be something else at work here as well.
Since the Ferguson case last year, the media has been inundated with cases of unarmed black men being targeted by white policemen. According to a Washington Post database of fatal police shootings, 24 unarmed black men have been shot and killed by the police so far this year, and black men accounted for 40% of the 60 unarmed deaths. These deaths are not new, and reflect a continuing fear of young black men. Though Tyler was not shot, his banning from the U.K. seems to reflect this societal fear of young black men and the stereotype that they are angry, violent, and uncontrollable.
Tyler’s censorship is in no way a victory. While I do not listen to his music, and do not enjoy violent or derogatory lyrics, that does not mean his music deserves to be censored or stopped. Censorship can never be empowering. As Nadine Strossen states, “Censorship always does more harm than good, including and especially to the groups that are supposedly benefiting from it…It ends up being ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst to the admirable goals of safety and equality.” In this case, I can’t help but think that censoring Tyler in no way creates a safer or more equal space—especially since most of the lyrics in question are from many years ago, and the current album has been toned down—and instead perpetuates the stereotypical image of the uncontrollable, violent, black man. One who needs to be silenced by the authorities so that he doesn’t disturb our “peaceful” societies. Tyler is rightfully unapologetic, stating that he knows it is not about the lyrics, which were from many years ago, and that “out of nowhere, the UK has a problem with me coming into their country?…I don’t know what it’s about now, it’s deeper than that.”