I’ve never been exceptionally compelled by the provocateurism of hip-hop group Odd Future, particularly given the collective’s penchant for disturbingly unempathetic talk about rape. But the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica has a profile of Earl Sweatshirt, a member of Odd Future whose mother sent him to school in Samoa just as the collective was taking off, and who has now returned to the United States. And there’s an interesting anecdote about both that rape talk, and Earl’s time away:
As part of the Coral Reef curriculum he also performed community service, spending time working at Samoa Victim Support Group, a center for survivors of sexual abuse, including children.
“That was a pivotal moment,” he said one afternoon at Bristol Farms, a supermarket near his manager’s office. One of the things Earl Sweatshirt had been prized for as a rapper was his extreme imagery, bordering on vile. “You can detach imagery from words,” he said, adding that he “never actually pictured” the things he rapped about. (“Lyrics About Rape, Coke, And Couches Will Be Blaring In Your Ears,” was how “Earl,” the album, was advertised on Odd Future’s Tumblr when it was released in March 2010.)
By the time he began working at the center, “I had already come to the conclusion that I was done talking about” that sort of subject matter, he said, but coming face to face with young people who had suffered in that way was overwhelming. “There’s nothing that you can — there’s no — you can’t evade the — there’s no defense for like — if you have any ounce of humanity,” he said, the feeling swallowing the words.
Sensitivity and sympathy aren’t just things we inherently have. We learn them, often most effectively by directly facing other people’s pain. And I’d be really interested not just in hearing what Earl talks about when he’s set that old attitude and subject material aside, but to see him make music about that process of growing into sympathy, and into greater experience of the world.