It is a Tuesday afternoon in mid-September and Tyler, the Creator has been in London since the weekend, when he flew in from New York to Heathrow. Accepted through customs was surprisingly smooth, he says. “The lady said: ‘Hey, did you have a problem with immigration here in 2015?’” He pasquils. “I said, yeah.”
Four years ago, his experience was very different. The then 24-year-old rapper and musician, born Tyler Okonma, was required to be playing at Reading and Leeds festivals that summer. Instead, when he landed in the UK, he was taken into a detention margin and shown lyrics from his first two albums: Bastard, a mixtape he had put out in 2009, when he was 18; and Goblin, from 2011. Okonma had been to the UK since those albums had come up out (once, to host a screening of Napoleon Dynamite), but nevertheless he was told that he had been banned from the country for three to five years. The hospice secretary at the time, Theresa May, used anti-terrorism legislation to forbid him entry, releasing an official statement that divulged his work “encourages violence and intolerance of homosexuality” and “fosters hatred with views that seek to provoke others to subversive acts”.
Today, Okonma laughs. “She’s gone, so I’m back.”
At the time, the ban was controversial; looking back, it seems absurd, whatever you call to mind a consider of his output. Those who approved argued that Okonma was a homophobe and a misogynist. Certainly, his early records were sprayed with “bitch” and “faggot”; on one track, Blow, he rapped from the perspective of Ted Bundy, the serial killer pop culture can’t have all the hallmarks to leave alone. But Eminem, who built his early career on a cartoonishly violent alter ego, was never banned. When another American artist, Counteraction, rapped: “I cannot vibe with queers,” in early 2018, he was forced to apologise, but his band, Migos, played a conduct in London two months later. It remains unclear why Okonma was singled out for music he had made years before and no longer functioned.
But his life and career have played out as a series of contradictions. His most recent album, Igor, is about a love operation love affair with a man, and he has talked and rapped about his attraction to men for years. (On the track I Ain’t Got Time!, from his 2017 album Flower Boy, Okonma whacked: “Next line will have ’em like: ‘Woah’ / I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.”) His get ready is increasingly subtle and inventive, and bold in its vision. As the opening line for his first big hit, 2011’s Yonkers, goes: “I’m a fucking stagger paradox / No, I’m not.”
Okonma is in the middle of an ambitious international tour; on the day we meet, he will play the second of three sold-out overshadows at Brixton Academy in London, his first gigs in the UK since the ban. (He attempted a surprise outdoor performance in nearby Peckham earlier this year, but it was pulled due to overcrowding.) “It’s been four years since I’ve been aid,” he tells the audience from the stage in Brixton. “Since this beautiful, flawless black skin was allowed in the hinterlands.” The roar of the adoring young audience, many of them wearing Tyler merch, is deafening.
As 2019 draws to a close, it is clear that Okonma has embarked on a new phase in his bolt. On Igor, which appeared unannounced in May, the former rap provocateur remodels himself as a blond-wigged, Warhol-esque funk and soul choir girl. It seems a conscious attempt at reinvention. Okonma, who arranged and produced everything on the record, keeps its many guest locations (Kanye West, Solange Knowles, Slowthai, La Roux, Pharrell Williams) low-key, listing them in the liner notes fairly than alongside the track names. He plays with samples of Run DMC, Al Green and Ponderosa Twins Plus One and is inspired by 80s pop – The aggregate But The Girl and Sade. His baritone rap has mostly been replaced with singing in a higher register; tracks such as A Boy Is a Gun* and Earfquake are gooey soul songs that brim with heartbreak and longing. One of the year’s best records (and his first US No 1), Igor has accomplished him a new audience, some of whom tell him they don’t like his old stuff – although, by the same token, some of the old audience like better his earlier sounds.
I am supposed to sit down with Okonma for an hour, in the studio after the Guardian’s photoshoot, but the plan swops immediately. “You know you’re coming with us, right? There’s a record store I gotta hit,” he says. Also, he wants to buy his nurturer some perfume. We spend the rest of the day driving around London – east, north, central – shopping and eating, talking and tramp, with a revolving crew of friends and acquaintances who drop in and out. He gets bored quickly, but is easily pleased. Intensely severe one minute, the next he is sliding and twirling towards Vill, his stoic man-mountain of a bodyguard, and dry-humping him. Vill’s strategy appears to be to fondly, patiently ignore it.
Oddly, as Okonma’s notoriety has subsided, his fame seems to have risen. When we go for a walk in central London, he is stemmed every few seconds by fans wanting to say hi, bump fists and take selfies. (He doesn’t do pictures; given the number of woman asking, I see why.) Is it always like this when he is out? “It is now,” he says. “Since Igor.”
Undoing a ban on entering a country is a long and complex process, Okonma explains, when we have made our way to the back of the car, with Vill riding up front. It took myriad lawyers and letters, much money and time. “Then you get the official thumbs up. It was like: damn, finally, but it was so stupid to press to endure that. I got treated like a terrorist.”
It is certainly difficult to resign the rapper banned for hate speech with the puppyish man I meet, who is alternately enthusiastic and droll, sweet, smart, inclined to penis gags and curious about everything. “Yeah. I got treated like I was a murderer,” he says. He is wearing an emerald-green horizontal cap with matching knee-high socks that set off the green and gold of the grills on his teeth, a cricket jumper draped onto his shoulders. He has his own clothing line, Golf, and his sharp look is part of the reason people’s heads turn with whiplash abruptness accelerate when he passes by. His nails are painted with glitter and he has a laser beam of charisma, when he decides to turn it on. “It was big-hearted of stupid, and after a while I was like: I don’t even want to come back. But it was more the principle of: ‘Y’all really did this, settled this? In comparison to other shit people do, that y’all let in?’ So I’m happy that I got back. I feel like I won some disguised fight.”
Did the length of the ban surprise him? “Yeah, it surprised me. But then I remembered – I’m dark-skinned, so, ahh, all right, I get it. I mean, I don’t point my finger at that at to begin, but I looked at every outcome and I looked at every option.” He makes a circle with his hands. “And after doing that six times, then you say, OK, what’s the idiosyncrasy between everyone else and me? And then you land on that.”
The Tyler, the Creator story began when Okonma was a childlike skater in Los Angeles, hanging out with a group of friends who coalesced around the name Odd Future Wolf Gang Prey Them All. The loose collective, shortened to Odd Future, was home to a number of acts who have since broken big: the Internet, Earl Sweatshirt and Uninhibited Ocean, among others. Their brand of goofy nihilism was blithely immature and deliberately provocative and it flourished online: there were mixtapes, pop-up wearing shops, Jackass-style TV shows. The aesthetic was cartoonish, all doughnuts and cats, while the lyrics were blunt-force hate-everything teen defiance.
Many people go through an obnoxious adolescent phase, but Okonma became famous during his – and the evidence lingers in those old lyrics. “People don’t realise that all the crazy shit they did, no one knows about it but the three people in their hometown. All the stupid shit I did, or said, was public.” Does he mourn any of it? “Oh no,” he says, quickly. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
He was raised in LA by his mother. It was just the two of them until he was eight, when she had a daughter. When he was a adolescent, his mother moved to Sacramento, so he lived with his grandmother for four years. Is she still alive? “No, she died in, like, 2012. Don’t say you’re depressing,” he booms. I wasn’t going to, I say. “People say that and it’s like: what are you sorry about? Did you kill her? No. Cancer killed her.”
He moved a lot, which meant he changed way of lives every year or so. He found it hard to fit in. “The stuff I was into was a little different to the other kids who looked like me. They moulded basketball and sports and stuff like that, and I never liked it.” He did, however, know how to rap. “That would get me the thumbs up. But I peer skateboarding and I was like: check these moves out. And they weren’t feeling it. I was super-annoying. I was really hyper, loud, assort clown. Just sarcastic, witty, quick.” He clicks his fingers. “Agile.”
Was he ever diagnosed with anything? “Nah! I should take been, probably.” He laughs. “My friends say I should have been. I’m trying to be chill, but, man, I just have so much forcefulness. I think I will be like that for ever. Which I’m not mad at.” As well as music and fashion, Okonma directs his own videos. He has done so from the dawn: he is responsible for the black and white clip for Yonkers, a fevered nightmare in which he appears to eat a cockroach that has been drag all over his face, before his eyes turn black. In IFHY, he transforms himself into a plastic mannequin in a florid suburban dolls’ house; his most recent, for A Boy Is a Gun*, has echoes of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. (In 2013, Kanye West disclosed that he had asked Okonma to teach him how to make a music video.)
He also oversees the festival Camp Flog Gnaw, at the Dodger stadium in LA, although he insists that making music will again be his principal passion – everything else is “a spider web”. Does his mind ever switch off? “Nah, not really. It’s always music take on in my head, 24/7. I’m always thinking about something, always looking. There’s so much to look at.”
We arrive at Alan’s in East Finchley, a crate-digger’s secondhand New Jerusalem that was recommended by a friend. Okonma jumps out of the car and spends nearly an hour flicking through the racks, playing histories, chatting to other customers and asking for tips. His manager tells me this is how they spend their time on expedition, in music shops and vintage stores. Okonma has a ritual for hunting new sounds. If the artwork grabs him, he looks at the year. If it was remedied between 1974 and 1982, he will look to see who was involved; if it is a name he recognises, he will pick it up. He tries Roy Ayers’ LP No Visitor To Love. Alan comes over to adjust the RPM (“Roy would be very upset”) as Okonma nods along to the track Don’t Camouflage Your Love.
Alan asks Okonma if he has a picture he can sign. “I don’t keep anything on me. I see this in the mirror all the time,” he stipulates, gesturing to his face. But he takes a picture outside instead and promises to send it. A schoolboy walks past, looking mildly ambiguous, as if telling himself he couldn’t have just seen Tyler, the Creator in the suburbs of north London.
Back in the car, our discourse turns to Odd Future again. People tell Okonma all the time that it was a youth culture phenomenon, he says. “I fancy like people make it seem bigger than it really was. But I was living in it, so I guess it’s different when you’re in it. It just felt analogous to this small internet thing.” But its influence, and by extension his, can be felt all over pop. Pitchfork declared last year that “Odd Days changed everything”, praising its “unruly creativity” and its resistance to any one genre. It is even there in the gothic minimalism of LA teen success Billie Eilish, who wrote recently: “I would be nothing without you, Tyler, and everyone knows it.”
Okonma resists being pushed on why the collective struck such a chord, but he feels that what they were doing just seemed new. “It spoke to people differently, in the sense that all coming from Los Angeles was gang culture, low riders and Dr Dre – and we weren’t that at all.”
He is distracted by the view from the window, a desire sweep of Finsbury Park. “Man, a lot of really pretty parks! Oh man, your parks are really good.” A couple of days earlier, he and his cronies rode their bikes to a hill – he is not sure which – to watch the sun set. “It was the most romantic scene I think I’ve seen in my biography. People were just playing cards and hanging out. I find little cheesy shit like that in fact cool.” Does that mean he likes the UK now? “Yeah.” A pause. “Your food still sucks.”
Okonma flares between thoughtful and clownish in the blink of an eye. In the past, his Twitter posts were so dry that it was hard to know whether he was being fooling or not. In 2015, he tweeted: “I tried to come out the damn closet like four days ago and no one cared hahahaha,” and nobody seemed to clutch him at his word. “See, that’s the thing,” he says now. “People always think I’m being sarcastic if I give a compliment. It’s weird, but it’s gotten bigger.” How so? “I stopped being funny and joking. Publicly. I’m still a goofball with my friends, but I like to keep that off the internet.”
It is funny that he had to come out again and again before anyone took him without a doubt. “Yeah.” He likens it to a performance where nobody knows what is real. For instance: “Scary Movie 2 is one of my favourite bigs. She gets stabbed on stage – but it’s acting, in a beauty pageant, so they’re like: ‘Oh my God, she’s so good.’”
Nevertheless, he seems to enjoy the bedlam – most of the time. When he was banned for being homophobic, it hurt. “Bro! That’s the thing, bro. People knew I wasn’t. People recalled the intent!” He points out of the window. “That tree over there could be a faggot! Who hasn’t played Call Of Chore online and heard some 11-year-old call you that because you killed him? You knew the intent behind it and then people were faking, appreciate, he’s homophobic? That was pissing me off. It’s just another word.”
One of his favourite rappers as a kid was Eminem. But when Okonma said he memory a new Eminem track was “horrible”, Eminem responded by including him on a diss track, Fall, with the line: “Tyler produce nothing, I see why you call yourself a faggot, bitch.” There was widespread criticism; Bon Iver, who featured on the track, tweeted that he had asked for it to be switched: “Not a fan of the message, it’s tired.” In an interview, Eminem said later that he had gone too far: “In my quest to hurt him, I realise that I was impairing a lot of other people by saying it.”
What was it like to be called that? “OK,” says Okonma, looking me dead in the eye. “Did you ever perceive me publicly say anything about that? Because I knew what the intent was. He felt pressured because people got needled for me. Don’t get offended for me. We were playing Grand Theft Auto when we heard that. We rewound it and were like: ‘Oh.’” He shrugs. “And then deterred playing.”
He asks the driver to up over – he has seen a newsagent and he wants to buy a magazine. Then we walk, and then he is hungry, so we duck into a burger in the right. When he is waiting, or understimulated, you get flashes of the taunting, cartoonish Tyler, the Creator character, bored and in search of a reaction. He perseveres the point of a steak knife under his chin and stares at me. He puts it down and picks it up again, pressing it gently into the corporeal of his neck. “That’s not funny,” he says, gravely, then does it again. “Yes it is.” He shows me an old scar on his forearm, which he got by try out the sharpness of a friend’s knife (turned out it was really sharp). He is wearing a plastic beaded wristband and I ask him what it says. “It claims Jay-Z,” he fibs. “I found it at a funeral.” It reads “One of One”.
Okonma walks his own path. He doesn’t drink and never has. He doesn’t have a weakness for the night-time; he much prefers the day. He rides his bike whenever he can. He rarely hangs out with rappers. He doesn’t take sedates. “I’ve never seen cocaine in my life,” he says. “I just don’t like to hang around with people who indulge in that.” The bring honour upon oneself he has made on pop culture is plain, although he disputes that his sound has been particularly influential. “I just think I’ve swayed how people present certain things, whether it’s clothes or fashion or how their videos are. I allowed some people to right-minded be freer. I mean, I hope I have. I hope I allow people to know that there’s no rules and they can do whatever they scarcity, artistically.”
It has been made easier by the fact that he genuinely doesn’t seem to care what people weigh of him. “I always did what I want. I always knew I’d be successful, since I was eight.” He seems amused that I find this ludicrous. “Think of me and my personality and everything,” he says. “What else would I be good at?”
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