Banned from the country by Theresa May for ‘posing a threat to public order’, the Odd Future talent shines even brighter in Spain.
Last Friday (June 1) Tyler, The Creator’s set at Primavera Sound wasn’t just a stand-out set from the entire festival; for the droves of British fans who board their budget flights and descend on Barcelona’s powerhouse music bonanza every single year, it was much more than that; a rare chance to catch a jaw-dropping live show from an artist who hasn’t played on UK shores since 2015 due to circumstances outside of his control.
Three years ago, Tyler, The Creator caught a flight of his own, heading towards the UK to play Reading & Leeds and a handful of other dates. But when he arrived at the border, he was turned away. The rapper was rejected entry for ‘posing a threat to public order’, and banned from the country for at least the next three to five years. The ban was issued on the basis of lyrics from songs of his dating back to 2009. Specifically, the Home Office took issue with Tyler, The Creator’s use of homophobic slurs on early songs, and his depiction of a “mentally unstable alter ego who describes violent physical abuse, rape and murder in graphic terms which appears to glamourise this behaviour.”
The fact that he was playing with nothing more than an alter ego meant absolutely nothing to Theresa May, the then-home secretary. The profound irony of a now-Prime Minister who gleefully skips about hand in hand with Donald Trump – a man who actively enables hate with every word he utters – banning a mere rapper from the country on the basis of a few controversial choice lines is crystal clear three years on. Theresa May’s first act as home secretary was ensuring that public bodies did not have a responsibility to combat inequality, and historically, she has a record of voting against policies that counter discrimination. These days, as PM, May’s support for the LGBT community extends to being wheeled out every Pride month with the disgusted expression of somebody who has just eaten a dog food sandwich (last year she just about managed to wish “everyone a happy Pride in London,” through gritted teeth) her role as a gatekeeper for what constitutes homophobia in the UK breaks the eye-roll-o-meter. And when it comes to inciting racial hatred, it doesn’t get much plainer than May’s especially cruel “go home or face arrest” billboard vans.
The Home Office’s short sighted assessment grows all the more idiotic when you actually bother to witness Tyler, The Creator’s art first hand. Surrounded by warm tones of orange and violet on a balmy Barcelona night, his bleached and cropped hair spotted like a leopard’s coat, the Los Angeles-based rapper brought the ‘Flower Boy’ universe to the coast of Spain and entranced the main stage without a hint of braggadocio or arrogance. Glancing sideways across the sea of arms swaying blissfully along to the infatuated ‘See You Again’ – a heat-hazy slab of Rn’B with cupid’s arrow stuck firmly through its heart – and hearing the most throwaway revelation of last year (“next line will have ’em like woah/I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004”) briefly pepper ‘I Ain’t Got Time’, it’s baffling to correlate the subtle, multi-faceted and graceful artist on stage tonight with the hate-spewing tyrant that border control depicted in their off-the-cuff letter.
It’s certainly true that Tyler, The Creator’s early material is highly abrasive stuff; the skin-crawling cockroaches of ‘Yonkers’, and the sheer abundance of homophobic slurs and violent imagery on his debut studio album ‘Goblin’ left many listeners rightly wary. Yet over the years, he’s shown himself to be the opposite of the caricature he depicted early on. Asked about his thoughts on LGBT rappers in one interview with Larry King, Tyler responded ‘why does that shit matter?’. And on ‘Flower Boy’, he appears to allude to the closet with a tenderness and honesty that is otherwise unheard of, particularly from an artist of his profile and stature. ‘For the garden / That is where I was hidin’,” he raps tonight, stalking amongst flowers, and glowing bright in his fluorescent tabard. “That was real love I was in.”
Flashing the words ‘FUCKING LONELY’ on the screens behind him, colliding frankness with a parody of the sloganry and bombast of empty festival sing-alongs found elsewhere, lying relaxed across his vibrant stage set like a meditative Peter Pan, and bringing on A$AP Rocky for ‘Who Dat Boy’ – marking the briefest, most understated cameo in ages, the ban becomes laughable. It’s rare to see an artist embody such an effortless warmth on stage.
Tricksy to pin down, frequently provocative, and as Primavera proves, often beautifully intricate as an artist, his early explorations of masculinity, and his dissections of words like f*ggot were difficult ones that the Home Office perhaps felt it was easier to brush away. At the end of it all, you have to wonder if Tyler, The Creator was banned from the UK for hating queers, or for being the wrong kind of queer.
Tyler’s landmark set winds up with a dreamy flourish. The planned festival headliners for that night, Migos, (who once said that drag queens make them uncomfortable) don’t bother to turn up for their set later on, and so Offset never gets to rap his line “I cannot vibe with queers” as a result. Still, they’ll be returning to London next month and cruising straight through border control. Tyler, The Creator’s still awaiting his appeal. What a strange world we live in.