Tyler the Creator Banned From the UK – Here's Why We Should Let Him In

By James O Malley on at

It turns out that Sticking It To The Man by being a bad-ass rapper has consequences, as “Tyler, the Creator” has learned today having apparently been refused entry to the UK.

According to his manager Christian Clancy, Home Secretary Theresa May who is in charge of the Border Force has sent a letter explaining that Tyler will not be let in for a forthcoming tour because of lyrics on his albums Bastard and Goblin. Apparently the albums, which were written six or seven years ago when Tyler was 18 “encourages violence and intolerance of homosexuality” and “fosters hatred with views [that] seek to provoke others to terrorist acts”.

Tyler is such a pariah that he is signed to Sony Music, one of the world’s largest record companies.

As his manager notes, it is an unexpected decision as the rapper has been allowed into the UK over 20 times in the past 5 years for various gigs, in-store performances and so on. In the piece, the manager goes on to argue that Tyler is being punished for growing up – and that he no longer holds some of the views he expressed in his earlier work, and in any case was writing from an “alter ego perspective” like many authors.

But in a sense, I think that Clancy is doing his artist a disservice: it strikes me as odd that we’re banning people from the country for having an opinion, whether a terrible opinion or not. Surely this is a free speech issue, and yet another example of the difficult question: Where do you draw the line on banning people with opinions?

Bigots, Witch Doctors and Politicians

This isn’t the first time this has happened. In recent years a number of people have been judged too dodgy to be let into the UK, lest they express a view that people don’t like.

In 2009, perennial publicity seekers and gold medal homophobes the Westboro Baptist Church were banned from the UK. The American group is perhaps most famous for its “God Hates Fags” banners and protests at funerals of soldiers. It had planned to send over its (now dead) patriarch Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley to picket a staging of The Laramie Project in Basingstoke, because the play is about someone who was killed for being gay.

At the time the UK Borders Agency told the BBC that “both these individuals have engaged in unacceptable behaviour by inciting hatred against a number of communities”.

Also in 2009 the controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders was similarly prevented from entering the UK. He had been invited to the House of Lords to show his film Fitna, which attempts to link Koranic verses to acts of terrorism. At the time, then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith denied him entry, but being a politician with an eye for publicity he insisted on flying the UK with journalists in tow and getting filmed being detained at Heathrow before being deported back.

A number of unpleasant Islamists have been banned too, including Omar Bakri Muhammad who had previously lived in Tottenham, but was prevented from reentering the country by then Home Secretary Charles Clarke because of his views on... well... Israel, the west, and why Al Qaeda apparently ain't so bad once you get to know them.

In all of the cases, the official explanation has been that the bans were because of threats to either national security, public order or safety, rather than the contents of the views themselves. But that is often a hugely subjective – or just outright tenuous – judgement.

Line Drawing

All of this is like trying to draw a straight line without a ruler, while drunk, while on a rollercoaster on the deck of a boat during a storm. As in the case of Nigerian Pentecostal preacher Helen Ukpabio.

She came to the UK last year despite the urging of campaigners to ban her from entering. She is a “witch hunter” who specialises in exorcisms. Most worrying of all she offers advice recommending exorcism, saying that “if a child under the age of two screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan”.

In other words, while she is not directly threatening anyone’s safety, she certainly seems to be recommending treating kids pretty horribly.

Ukpabio was let in, whereas Omar Bakri wasn’t? In any case, surely Tyler isn’t anywhere near this awful?

There are circumstances where banning someone can be justifiable. If someone said “I am going to come to the UK and kill this person”, then fair enough. If they said “I am going to come to the UK and urge my fans to physically attack members of a certain group”, then I’m inclined to say “fair enough”. But as the perceived threat becomes less explicit and more implicit, we approach the point where figuring out when the line is crossed is incredibly difficult.

The unpleasantness of Tyler’s lyrics are fairly self-evident if you listen. Look at his song Yonkers, for example. If I was his mum I wouldn’t make him wash his mouth out with soap, but insist that he neck a jug of bleach to expunge up all of the vulgarities. But then, I’m not his mum – and nor is the Home Secretary.

It would be naive to argue that it isn’t conceivable that Tyler’s lyrics could “foster hatred” or “encourages violence and intolerance”, because otherwise you would have to claim that art never encourages people to think of new ideas (whether good or bad), but surely the response to this shouldn’t be to ban an idea, but to fall back on the old free-speech defence and expose it to scrutiny?

Can’t we let Tyler into the country and argue about why his lyrics are unpleasant instead? Were the people who wanted to ban the Westboro Baptists and Wilders so lacking in confidence of their own arguments? Is Tyler such an intellectual powerhouse that no one can possibly challenge his borderline-incoherent words?

Banning Tyler from the country is the wimpy thing to do. Why are we so scared of having an argument?

(Oh, and if you want to listen to some actually good rap, check out Sage Francis instead.)