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ACL Fest, rapper Tyler, the Creator and the case against cancel culture

Rapper Tyler, the Creator performs as a headliner at the Austin City Limits Festival, Sunday Oct. 10, 2021.

Tyler, the Creator’s Sunday closing set at the Austin City Limits Music Festival left me with many things to ponder. 

The sparse crowd was one of the smallest I’ve ever seen for an ACL Fest headliner set. Was this due to schedule shifts (Tyler and Duran Duran were slotted in as replacements for DaBaby and Stevie Nicks), ongoing COVID-19 anxiety, niche appeal of Tyler’s lush R&B grooves and confessional rap songs, or a combination of the three? 

Tyler paused to sit on the steps or in a boat on his set for conversation breaks several times. Would the man once known for his acrobatic stage dives be happier in a smaller venue where it would be easier to establish a real connection with the audience, or at this point in his career, does he appreciate the separation? 

How cool would this set have been with a live band?

And mostly this: When Tyler said Austin was his favorite city in Texas, was he just pandering the way artists do, or was he being serious? 

Weekend one at ACL Fest:Tyler, the Creator gets ACL Fest in its feelings in love fest

Tyler’s relationship with Austin is, to say the least, complicated. 

In 2011, when he was a gleefully profane 20-year-old agitator, his crew Odd Future stormed the South by Southwest Music Festival. They blew the lid off that year’s event with raucous side party sets at the Fader Fort and the Scoot Inn, marked by anarchic energy and testosterone overdrive. They bailed on their official SXSW set 12 minutes in, balking about the sound and berating the (almost entirely white male) cadre of bloggers who were making them famous. It was the beginning of a stratospheric rise. Later that year, the crew was a huge draw at Fun Fun Fun Fest, where they were pelted with water bottles and at least one sex toy during a chaotic set. 

Tyler, the Creator plays at the Scoot Inn with Odd Future during SXSW 2011.

When Tyler returned to Austin as a solo artist in 2014, more chaos ensued. That year, a crowd mobbed the Scoot Inn, trying to get access to his day party set. 

“All y’all outside the games, y’all push through,” one police officer on the scene said he heard Tyler shout from the stage before the crowd pulled down fences and pushed their way in. In the resulting melee, a bartender trying to protect a woman from being trampled was punched in the face by an unidentified man, according to an arrest affidavit issued after the incident. The rest of his gigs that week were canceled and he was arrested at the airport on his way out of town and charged with inciting a riot. (He eventually pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and paid a $100 fine.

More ACL Fest:5 things you missed from Duran Duran's ACL Fest headliner set

This seems like a good time to disclose the fact that I hated Tyler, the Creator during this period of his career. I hated him like I’ve hated few artists in my lifetime. The appeal of his horrorcore raps was completely lost on me, and his rabid fan base had all the charm of an early social media era version of an incel subreddit. When he played the Pitchfork Festival in 2011, he delivered cupcakes to a group of anti-domestic violence activists protesting Odd Future’s appearance at the fest, making snide mockery of people who objected to music that elevated ideas about about rape and murder. Out Magazine counted 213 uses of a homophobic slur on his 2011 debut album “Goblin.” He was banned from performing in New Zealand over his lyrics in 2014 and Australia and the U.K. the following year. 

Fans film, watch and dance as rapper Tyler, the Creator performs as a headliner at the Austin City Limits Festival, Sunday Oct. 10, 2021.

But then a funny thing happened. Tyler, the Creator — a moniker he told the ACL Fest crowd was a “dumbass name I made when I was 15” — evolved. 

On “I Ain’t Got Time” off his 2017 album “Flower Boy,” he rapped about “kissing white boys since 2004.” On the track “Garden Shed,” he rapped about hiding his feelings.

“Don't kill a rose/ Before it could bloom/ Fly, baby, fly/ Out the cocoon,” he said. 

Tyler was always one of the most interesting producers of his generation, but as he stepped into his full truth as a human being, he became a much richer artist overall.

Which brings us back to ACL Fest. Tyler said he was not ashamed of his old music when he rapped about “(expletive) animals and weird shit,” but as he rapped from his stage boat with undulating waves on the screen behind him, he unwound a set that eschewed violence for songs about love. 

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“This is my jam,” a young man sitting on a blanket near the back said as the opening bars of “Earfquake” dropped. He grabbed his lady, and the two swayed together in the balmy night. Saying he was lazy, Tyler let the crowd sing the first few verses, before taking the song out with an a capella passage that was one of the most poignant moments of a somewhat uneven performance. 

Ever the contrarian, Tyler reminded the crowd early in the set that by this time in the day, no one was particularly fresh. 

“Y'all stink. You're dirty. You're musty. You (expletive) stink,” he said. When the crowd cheered, he mocked them for it, but when they started a chant of “Tyler stinks,” he was thoroughly charmed. 

Rapper Tyler, the Creator performs as a headliner at the Austin City Limits Festival, Sunday Oct. 10, 2021.

“Can y'all boo me really quick?” he asked. When the crowd complied, he quipped, “Thank you, I needed to be humbled.” 

These days, social media has become an impetus to reject ugliness and discriminatory speech in a way that has both positive and negative consequences. I remind my tween daughters regularly that while it’s important to stay steadfast in your ethical core, there’s also value in showing grace, especially to young artists who make dumb comments as they come of age in the public eye.

Tyler, the Creator is a case study on how profoundly artists can transform themselves.  

After Tyler proclaimed our hometown, which once cast him as a top festival villain, was his favorite Texas city “indefinitely,” the man who once courted danger like Evel Knievel said, “Y'all get home safe, alright.

“Love.”