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The Banning of Tyler the Creator Reveals a UK Government Struggling to Define 'Terrorism'

Hasty decision making keeps taking a dump on our freedom of expression.

by Joe Zadeh
27 August 2015, 4:47pm

This morning, news broke that Tyler, The Creator had been banned from playing in the UK for a period ranging from 3-5 years, under the pretense that his music “fosters hatred with views that seek to provoke others to terrorist acts” and “encourages violence and intolerance of homosexuality.” These statements are - according to a post by Tyler’s management, who received letters from the British Home Office - based on lyrics written between six and seven years ago for the albums Goblin and Bastard. The post continues by claiming that the Home Office even acknowledged that they were lyrics written from an alter-ego perspective, but this did not affect their decision to ban him. According to the Daily Telegraph, this makes Tyler, The Creator the first ever musician to be banned from the UK because of his lyrics.

The choice of Tyler as the scapegoat for such measures feels bizarre. Early next year, a national socialist black metal band called Satanic Warmaster, who have aligned themselves with neo-Nazi imagery, and penned lyrics about the “torching of the Jewish creation” and “one state, one folk, one leader” are set to play their first ever UK show in Glasgow. Tonight, at the Islington O2 in London, Young Thug - who has been previously arrested for terroristic threats, felony gun possession and drug possession in 2015 - will play a sold out headline show. What makes these acts legitimate for the UK, and Tyler, The Creator not so?

These examples serve to highlight the inconsistencies of today’s decision, because it makes no sense at all really. Still, the specific move to classify rap lyrics as a form of hate speech sets an incredibly volatile precedent, and shows how poorly the enforcers of our laws understand a concept like freedom of expression in the arts. But today’s news is also not out of the blue. It is indicative of a growing atmosphere over the summer of 2015, that has seen a paranoid UK government become ever more vague and reckless in the way they define exactly what is extremism and what can provoke terrorism, and how words like those are becoming multi-purpose terms, it seems, for anything we just don’t really like the look of.

Four months ago, David Cameron said one of the most disturbing thing he’s ever said in his power: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It's often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that's helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance. This Government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach.”

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That is worryingly close to what is happening right here with Tyler, the Creator. Of course, hate speech exists and it should be dealt with, and there are laws in place for doing so - laws which many, including the campaign group Liberty, think are already too overbearing - but the seven year old lyrics of Tyler the Creator do not constitute hate speech. They do not incite hatred or provoke terrorist acts. Tyler the Creator is not Anjem Choudary with a megaphone, and he’s not Katie Hopkins with a Sun column either. He's a young rapper, and his persecution is a perfect example of Cameron’s raison d’etre above: to start targeting those we’ve been too passively tolerant to, to crack down on those who are law abiding, but not the kind of law abiding we like to see.

Something like this has been coming. Just a few months ago, in May, home secretary Theresa May - responsible for the decision to ban Tyler - was condemned by many, including her own Tory cabinet colleague Sajid Javid, for attempting to introduce counter-extremism powers that would give Ofcom new powers to vet and censor British television programmes before they are ever shown to the public, effectively introducing a new level of control into what we are allowed to see with our own eyes, on our own televisions. The idea would be that instead of people complaining afterwards about programmes we disagree with, a higher power would decide for us what we’re allowed to see before our opinions are even given the chance to be formed.

At the beginning of August, a controversial play called Homegrown (a product of workshops with British young people aged 16-25), about radicalisation in Britain’s youth inspired by the three London schoolgirls who travelled to Syria to join Isis, was in rehearsals. The play aimed to open a conversation around a topic that is currently shrouded in hysteria. But it was cancelled abruptly ten days before its first preview, supposedly by the National Youth Theatre themselves, who were unwilling to go any further on transparency about the topic. A letter published in The Times a week later was signed by leading figures in the arts world, and questioned the cancellation, citing reports that pressure had been applied to the NYT to cancel, stating: "We fear that government policy in response to extremism may be creating a culture of caution in the arts."

These points may seem tenuously linked to the story of Tyler, The Creator, but they are all born from the same frantic atmosphere that is currently being cultivated by the Conservative government, this reckless new attitude to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism that means plays, television programs, and now rap lyrics can be deemed as sufficient targets for hasty, hardline censorship. Yes, Tyler The Creator shows are expressive, passionate and controversial. But we as human beings, and citizens of the UK, should be the ones who decide whether what we are seeing offends us or not. We should not have that decision so hastily made for us. And 25 UK shows in three years without a serious incident speaks louder than any lyrics, old or new.

At least, if the artist in question was wildly racist or anti-semitic or hateful in any way, and used their shows as opportunities to preach and influence their thoughts upon others, then there would be a debate here. Perhaps if the lyrics cited weren’t from seven years ago and didn’t come from the fictionalised voice of an alter-ego, then we may have a discussion on our hands. Perhaps if the person themselves was a criminal, then we should talk about this. But the government didn’t just ban a rapper here because of their lyrics, they banned a rapper because they misunderstood them. Even by their anti-rap, anti-free speech standards - it feels like they picked the wrong guy. If they wanted to pick on a foreign artist for encouraging violence against women or gang activity or homophobia, then, well, there’s a long queue ahead of Tyler The Creator. Instead it feels like Tyler has been tarred with an archaic brush that saw some old lyrics and rustily computed: “Hip-hop? Provocation? Black kids? Ban it.”

How this even happened - maybe Theresa May was just casually scanning through Rap Genius archives looking for her favourite Drake bars when she strolled upon “Yonkers” - is now irrelevant, but how the Home Office and the UK government deal with the aftermath could decide more about the future of censorship in this country than bears thinking about. As Jodie Ginsberg of Index on Censorship responded when I questioned her on this news story: "The British government has talked repeatedly in recent months about the importance of free expression and yet shown again and again through its actions that this commitment is half-hearted. Free expression includes allowing those whose speech others find offensive to express themselves. Tyler, the Creator, should be allowed to perform."

You can follow Joe Zadeh on Twitter.