The Mountain Dew Ad Tyler The Creator Made Isn’t Necessarily Racist—But That Doesn’t Make It Good

Last week, a controversy exploded over a new Mountain Dew ad created and directed by the rapper Tyler the Creator, one of the most visible figures in the hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, which Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins—who is himself black—suggested was one of the most racist bits ad spots he’d ever seen:

If anything, I think the ad is nominally anti-racist. The cop initially tries to steer the victim to identify a black man in a do-rag as her attacker, which seems more like criticism of him for getting it wrong than an embrace of the idea that black men are criminals. And the entire joke of the spot is that a goat in a suit is much more threatening than a lineup of large black friends. I don’t think necessarily think it’s reasonable for Tyler to expect viewers of a Mountain Dew spot that’s aimed at a broad audience rather than at Odd Future’s core audience to know that the men he cast in the lineup are his friends, or that the goat is, in fact, Felicia The Goat, a bit of ongoing schtick. Even without that, I think the text of the add is reasonably clear, and while not that racist, it’s not particularly uproarious, either.

But what it does provide is an interesting exercise in interpretation and intergenerational communication. Tyler, in a long and intriguing interview with Billboard, said that he believed his differences with Watkins, who later said he believed Tyler’s intentions had not been malign, stemmed from a generation gap. “The things that he had to experience with racism and stereotypes and being a black man in this country, is different from mine,” he told Billboard. “I grew up in a generation where there’s white kids listening to rap and black kids playing hockey, breaking the norms and everything.” And he suggested that he was disappointed by Watkins’ negative interpretation of his work, in part because he believed that it would make it harder for black artists to get access to the kinds of opportunities that Mountain Dew gave him:

He has to realize that it’s a different generation now. He’s way older than me; he’s old enough to be my father. So I totally get why he would think that, but I also don’t understand why in life are you trying to point out the negatives. It’s a young black man who got out of the ‘hood and made something of himself, who’s now working with big, white-owned corporations. Not even in front of the camera acting silly, but directing it. I’m trying to be one of the directors. But instead of looking at the positivity from that, he’s trying to boycott Mountain Dew. Now that he’s doing that, not only is it messing up opportunities for me, but also maybe opportunities for another young black male who maybe looks up to me and wants to do that in the future. It’s ludicrous.

He’s not necessarily wrong that seeing creatively challenging partnerships attract negative attention may make it harder for artists to work with large corporations in the future. But one of the things I find intriguing about Tyler’s arguments is that they reflect a generational gap that I don’t think he’s acknowledging. Watkins may have experienced more direct racism that Tyler has personally. But it might also be that Tyler is less skeptical about corporate interests and corporate power than older people, and more willing to view corporate investment as a sign that racism is irrelevant or non-operative in this case. Making money is nice, but a corporation’s willingness to write a check to a woman or a person of color isn’t necessarily proof positive that said corporation is definitively anti-sexist or anti-racist. And whatever Tyler’s intentions were in making the ad, his interpretation of what he was giving Mountain Dew isn’t necessarily the same as the corporate interpretation of what they were getting from him.

I’m with Tyler that getting more women and people of color in a position to get money from large corporate interests, in part so they can finance their own products and win more freedom from the corporations who govern their day-to-day creative lives. But I also don’t see much of a problem with asking questions about why those corporations want to be in business with certain artists and what the results of their collaborations are. Writing a check buys you product. But that money doesn’t go to the general public. And it doesn’t buy anyone the ability to opt out of the critical conversation.