An uneasy intersection with Odd Future

Friday 14th February 2014

You, among other regular listeners of Radio New Zealand, might have been taken aback to hear Geoff Robinson introduce a heavily redacted excerpt of hip-hop collective Odd Future on Morning Report today. You might also have picked up on Robinson’s brief, but unmistakable pause: “This report, by Ceinwen Curtis, starts with some of their… music.”

Immigration New Zealand has revoked the visas of six members of Odd Future.
Six members of Odd Future have been refused entry into New Zealand.
 

AFP

The group were a talking point on the show this morning following the announcement that Immigration New Zealand had refused members entry into New Zealand, ahead of their scheduled performance at Rapture festival in Auckland on Saturday.

There are two perceived issues at play here: firstly, the band’s violent and explicit lyrics, and secondly, their posing a “potential threat to public order”. Though the band’s appearance at the Big Day Out in 2012 was cancelled after protests about the former, they were permitted to enter the country (and perform a solo show). This time, they weren’t – on character concerns, informed by incidents at past performances in which they’ve incited violence.

Yesterday afternoon, Immigration New Zealand confirmed that six group members had their visas revoked, not because of their lyrics, but because they posed a “potential threat to public order and the public interest”.

Odd Future’s visas were revoked because of their “potential threat to public order”, not because of their objectionable lyrics

As Border Operations Manager Karen Urwin has allowed, it’s rare to ban musicians under rules that cover character concerns, provisions that in the past have been used to block the entry of white supremacist group leaders and high-profile Holocaust denier. In the past, Immigration New Zealand has exercised its right to withhold permission of entry for performers and celebrities on former heavyweight boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson, and little-known singer-songwriter David Rovics.

The authority’s decision to bar Odd Future was informed by an incident in Boston in 2011, when an autograph signing by Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator, was cancelled at last minute, resulting in a “riot” in which some witnesses claimed group members incited fans to attack police officers. (Whether or not that’s true, matters weren’t helped by Tyler’s subsequent tweet “F… POLICE F… YOU ALL I HOPE YOU DIE”.)

Odd Future’s visas were revoked because of the threat of sedition, not because of their objectionable lyrics. (On that front, Rapture headliner Eminem’s record is hardly clean, as many have been quick to point out.) But as music writer Duncan Greive said on Morning Report today, the group has performed here without issue in the past – and the ban is bound to ensure tensions are high at Saturday’s show.

“In terms of the threat to public order, I would say there’s a much greater chance of there being trouble … now that they’ve been banned,” he said. “Artists have a history of sticking up for their own and Eminem … is very likely, I think, to try and defend his co-artists’ right to free speech, and incite something based on there being a ban.”

To an extent, too, any event that’s attended by vast numbers of people, many of whom are intoxicated, is on the precipice of dissolving into chaos; it’s not limited to hip-hop or even music. It’s a cheap trick to point out the discrepancies in treatment of sport and other forms of culture in New Zealand, but given the “mayhem” that police, paramedics and members of Wellington’s public make allowances for on an annual basis to cater for the Rugby Sevens, revoking a performer’s visa based on a “threat” (rather than, say, a conviction – and despite past performances running smoothly) seems a lazy, reductive response.

But even before Immigration New Zealand’s decision, the group’s appearance at Rapture was under threat, after Auckland Council was put under pressure to pull them from the bill by the Stop Demand Foundation, a group spurred by “the vision of a world free of sexual violence, sexual exploitation and sexual denigration”, which said the band’s lyrics were hatespeech and desensitised people to rape. (The Human Rights Commission also called on to Auckland Council to better manage the band’s performance.)

Though there’s no known connection between Immigration New Zealand’s decision and Stop Demand’s lobby for a ban, spokeswoman Denise Ritchie told Morning Report this morning that the Foundation had been subject to a clearly unacceptable torrent of abuse since, which she appeared to take as evidence for her belief that the band’s world view has rubbed off on its fans.

“Given the amount of vitriol, the hate and the threat that our group has been under … in the last 12 hours, we would say we rest our case,” she told Simon Mercep. “I mean the kind of language, the threats of rape and murder that I’m receiving are almost identical to the lyrics in these songs. Now people have to start connecting the dots.”

As well as the work Stop Demand does to reduce (“the male demand for”) sexual exploitation worldwide, it has also campaigned against a urinal shaped like The Rolling Stones’ lips logo and identifies Snoop Dogg with the epithet “rapper, misogynist” on its website – and, as per the rules of third-wave feminism, any foundation that draws parallels between sex work and sex trafficking, and rape and pornography, is already on shaky ground.

As much as it’s in questionable taste to urinate into a sculpture of a woman’s mouth; as much as Snoop and his predecessors, his peers, his successors pour bile over women; as frustrating and perverse it might seem that some women want to be sex workers, it’s clear that Stop Demand has no interest in making allowances or exceptions for the (by definition, ‘popular’) pop culture that shapes and reflects the world we live in.

In many ways, that uncompromising position is to be celebrated. As much as the rules of feminism change, the goalposts largely remain the same; our thoughts, words and actions reflect those we consume and observe, and profile, popularity or even talent should not excuse a person for their hateful attitudes.

The outraged reaction to Odd Future’s ban that Denise Ritchie spoke of on Morning Report prompted another backlash – that against so-called “hipster feminism”, where self-identifying feminists, often white and middle-class like me, buy into the masculine hegemony ironically or self-servingly, cherry-picking those examples of misogyny and manifestations of rape culture to be offended by as and when it suits them – calling for a boycott of Chris Brown one moment, for example, and heaping praise upon Blue Jasmine the next.

While no member has been charged with or convicted of such crimes, it’s hard to entirely dismiss their words as shock value or ironic posturing, even if that would make them acceptable

Indeed, many of the same people who have leapt to defend Odd Future’s right to enter and perform in this country are the same people who so vocally, so angrily, rose up against the “Roast Busters” and the subsequent manifestations of rape culture – in our media, at the highest levels of police and government – that incident threw into relief.

It’s hard to reconcile the two stances. Odd Future’s lyrics are, to the vast majority of men on the Clapham omnibus, completely unpalatable in their sometimes deadpan, sometimes gleeful depiction of violence, in particular sexual violence against women – and, while no member has been charged with or convicted of such crimes, it’s hard to entirely dismiss their words as shock value or ironic posturing, even if that would make them acceptable.

Ringleader Tyler, the Creator is the kind of person who thinks it’s acceptable (or, more likely, funny) to respond to Canadian indie duo Tegan and Sara’s “Call for Change” against the music industry’s enabling of Odd Future and others’ misogyny with the tweet, “If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!”; the kind of person who abused a 23-year-old student who petitioned against the band’s Sydney show last year, and invited his 1.7 million Twitter followers to do the same.

(Without Tyler in tow, it’s reasonable to assume – given that Earl Sweatshirt and a couple of other members of the collective performed at Auckland’s Laneway Festival and a Wellington sideshow earlier this month without protest or problem – Odd Future would have been let into New Zealand.)

This latter incident also informed Immigration New Zealand’s decision. It seems facile, if not unforgivably callous of me to defend a performer who unleashed a torrent of abuse on a woman, like me, with the feeble rebuttal, “But I like his music” – or, worse, an explanation of the group’s thrilling approach to the form and their gleeful trolling of mainstream society befitting of my Media Studies degree.

But here we reach an intersection that modern (again – white, middle-class) women who identify as feminists find themselves at daily (more often, if they’re fans of hip-hop and rap*). Can we reconcile our belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes with our love of the creations of artists, authors, performers and high-profile people whose words – and in many cases actions, proven or unproven – that explicitly and unequivocally go against it? And if so, how?

There is no easy answer, and, as such, it tends to vary between individuals. The vast majority of the music I listen to is “problematic” in its depiction of women; on occasion, I listen to R. Kelly and Chris Brown, both of whom have either been charged or convicted of crimes against women. There are feminists who would be extremely critical of me for doing so – and, to them, I don’t have a satisfactory response.

It seems counter-intuitive to call for consistency on an issue where there’s no black and white, but Immigration New Zealand’s decision, at least, presents some glaring double standards – not only between our nation’s prioritisation of sport over music, but in the lines our local and government authorities draw between genres (and, often, white musicians and black musicians).

If you’re in favour of the ban on the basis of Odd Future’s lyrical content, run the same test over the guitar bands you listen to; if you believe the group pose a threat to public order befitting of an outright ban, remember the riots, and in some cases deaths, that occurred at shows by Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, to name but a few across a number of genres and time periods. Remember that a stampede at the Love Festival in Germany, which no one could have predicted, injured 80 people, and killed 17. Remember that five Michael Jackson fans have just won damages for “emotional suffering” after he died.

Music is polarising. It’s subjective. Denise Ritchie and Penny Hulse may not like Odd Future, and we can’t blame them: their lyrics are obscene, their music and attitudes, abrasive. Plenty of other New Zealanders know this, feel uneasy about it, and consciously struggle at the awkward intersection of feminism and hip-hop – but were nonetheless looking forward to seeing them perform on Saturday. My question is: Should Immigration New Zealand have made the call for them?

 

* Or, really, any popular music


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