Courtesy of Roc Nation

November 28, 2018

SWAN | Deconstructing Binaries

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Tyler, the Creator’s sexuality has been debated over the course of his career. While never coming out “officially,” in a number of interviews he has expressed an attraction to other men, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Cole Sprouse (both of whom he also references in 2018’s “Potato Salad”). The rapper appears to respond to and mock these conjectures in his music, toying with the listeners’ expectations; in one of my favorite verses from Flower Boy, Tyler employs a bit of rhetorical play when he raps, “Hi y’all, y’all ain’t hit me all day/What the fuck is the problem? Is it me?/’Cause I’m not solved, I’m…bored.”

Nevertheless, none of these speculative debates, whether about Tyler, the Creator or any other hip-hop artist, avoid assuming an air of banality as they fixate so profusely on one aspect of personal identity, that being sexual orientation. Of course, one might argue that such popular conversations are trite by virtue of being mainstream in the first place, but I think that the problem here is more deeply ingrained. In the exciting and somewhat agonizing midst of writing a thesis about masculinity and hip hop, I’ve done a lot of thinking during this past semester about Tyler, the Creator and the social context in which he and other rappers create their music and personas. Many hip-hop scholars, like Justin Adams Burton or Savannah Shange, locate black hip-hop artists within a neoliberal society where wealth determines some ultimate social hierarchy that places rich capitalists at its peak. While this world is predicated primarily upon money, but various other things, including race, gender and sexuality, compose its controlling power structures and create the very notion of first-class and second-class publics; thus, the neoliberal, cisheteropatriarchy is thrown into a stark relief. So, these circular discussions of sexuality that we see in the media are not simply mundane, but they exhibit a mainstream obsession with its own structural binaries, such as those between gay and straight or black and white.

The problem is that, when we write-off and place artists in such neatly devised dichotomies, we neutralize the productivity of any other positive work they may be doing regarding the formation of personal identity. It is easier to reduce Tyler, the Creator to superficial talks of sexuality than it is to consider the ways in which Tyler has, for instance, deconstructed restrictive notions of hegemonic masculinity throughout his discography, from Goblin to Flower Boy. If a subject is made readable in the eyes of a neoliberal society, then it could not possibly do anything to dismantle these aforementioned power structures and alter the system in a way that’s truly meaningful. Perhaps the most significant mainstream misunderstanding of minority cultures is that they are based around the same legible formulations of the self that characterize expression in dominant cultures. In a brilliant 2017 article about black identity, Marquis Bey points out the fact that, as a result of centuries of messy racial oppression and cultural appropriation, “blackness” has developed as something of a transitory, dynamic “refusal” to mainstream (white) society. Assuming this, we can conclude that binaries and normativities have no place in any identity conceived around something that’s not even so static in the first place. If we stop the constant employing of these archetypes, we can stop restricting people to boxes and allow identities to develop more fully.

For a column that has thus far been fairly theoretical, I would like to step back and do some more concrete, end-of-semester reflecting. I’ve definitely reconsidered the ways in which I think about hip hop over this past semester, and I definitely owe thanks to all of the intellectual discussions I’ve had around my thesis and in courses like Women in Hip Hop. I’d also like to mention the number of rappers who have been on my mind lately, including Tyler, the Creator and his Odd Future counterpart, Frank Ocean, as well as Princess Nokia and Akua Naru, and thank them for doing their thing and helping us all renegotiate and expand the ways in which we can perceive our own identities.

 

Nick Swan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at nwan@cornellsun.com. Swan’s Song runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.