Why the Odd Future Protests Failed

Pitchfork Festival organizers cannily defuse tension around controversial rap group

Hodgy Beats of Odd Future surfs the crowd during the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois.
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Last month, teenage rappers/controversy magnets Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All were in the sights of Chicago-area domestic violence and rape victim advocacy organizations that questioned their booking at the otherwise progressive Pitchfork Music Festival. (Odd Future has come under fire for misogynistic lyrics that frequently invoke rape, murder, cannibalism and necrophilia. Their frontman Tyler, the Creator, caused a minor storm in May by responding to Tegan and Sara's critique of him with the tweet, "If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!") Then Pitchfork invited the protestors inside the festival gates, gave them booth space and drafted a joint press release — effectively stealing their thunder.

The result? The groups stopped using the word "protest," instead focusing on promoting the message that rape and violence – not Odd Future per se – are bad for society. It came across as ideological jiu jitsu at its finest, each side skillfully defusing the other's momentum as they alternately seized and ceded the high ground. It seemed that Tyler, the Creator, Odd Future's barely 20-year-old frontman, wanted actual protesters to be there – or at least wanted the crowd to believe there would be. On July 17th, he tweeted, "Protesters Tomorrow About My Lyrics. Sick."

"I dedicate this beautiful song to every person who don't like me," Tyler announced before starting "Radicals," the last song of Odd Future's set on Sunday afternoon. "To every protester supposedly here, to every organization, every faggot-ass who's writing a review, I want you to suck my dick. To everyone else, you should go fuckin' crazy!" The crowd roared on cue, chanting, "Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!"

Odd Future and Tyler, the Creator, are known as much for their vile lyrics as their distinctive delivery and interesting music. In Odd Future's world, women are bitches and sex is rape, usually followed by murder (and sometimes dismemberment, cannibalism and necrophilia). At the show, Tyler and company spewed a continuous cascade of one-note profanity, a repetitive Mad Lib where the subject is always "bitch," the verb is always "suck" and the noun is always "dick."

While their music has attracted critics, their booking at Pitchfork seemed an odd move for a festival that values its ethic of social responsibility and its rarified musical community over controversy. But unlike the Twisted Sister video in Tyler's imagination, there was no placard-toting mob of outraged feminists. The middle fingers of the overwhelmingly white male crowd were thrown in solidarity, not defiance, which made Tyler's rallying cry of "I'm a radical!" almost . . . cute.

For their part, volunteers got radical by genially handing out paper fans reading "Cool it! Don't be a fan of violence" and distributing literature at their booth. There was little dialogue between the two sides, unless you count Odd Future's performance of "Bitch Suck Dick" as a counterpoint (yes, that's an actual song).

"We're not really interested in Odd Future," Colleen Norton, prevention and education manager for advocacy organization Between Friends told Rolling Stone. "We're not saying they shouldn't play. If we didn't have violence in our culture and it wasn't normal in our society then we wouldn't have music with violent lyrics. We're interested in being able to raise the issue of violence against women and LGBT people."

Tom Windish, owner of Odd Future's bookers The Windish Agency, chose his words carefully. "I give the agents that work here free reign to pick up whatever they want," he said. "If the agents have a good feeling, then they're welcome to go for it."

Would he book a white power band with a charismatic lead singer?

"I guess I'd have to hear it and really analyze the lyrics to determine whether or not I wanted to do it," he said. "Do I have a line I draw in the sand about lyrical content by an artist that determines whether or not I work with them? Basically, no, I don't. I focus on talent and keep my personal politics out of it."

Odd Future chose to remain silent. Their PR rep, Heathcliff Berru, emailed, "Hi! Tyler won't speak on the controversy. For me all I have to say to the media here is 'lol.'"

What Tyler didn't tell the crowd was that just before their set, he and his bandmates brought red velvet cupcakes to the Between Friends booth. Unlike Eminem doing public penance for his homophobia by performing a duet with Elton John, Tyler couldn't, shall we say, come out of the closet. He didn't – or couldn't – tell the crowd that maybe he's just a good kid.

Or – to glance at his twitter feed – maybe not.

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