5 Things We Learned From Earl Sweatshirt's Talk With His Mother at MOCA in L.A.

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“It’s not often that we have people from the music worlds and academic worlds on the same stage, even less often that they are related,” said the host of the Earl Sweatshirt x MOCA conversation at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary.

This was in reference to rapper Thebe "Earl Sweatshirt" Kgositsile and his mother, professor Cheryl I. Harris, who is notably a published academic and member of UCLA’s Law School faculty.

The once-turbulent mother-son pair chose to engage in a free, all-ages, one-on-one public talk on Saturday (Dec. 7), publicized as “a conversation on art, music, and life” according to a flyer posted to Earl’s Instagram page two days prior.

Just before the event's 2 p.m. start time, hundreds of fans lined up outside the MOCA building’s spacious lot, waiting for their turn to step out from under the gray downtown Los Angeles skies and into the museum doors. Inside the museum's warehouse, attendees were greeted by a vast open space with speakers playing old-school beats from the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire and Nina Simone, a nine-foot tall Nebuchadnezzar statue, and a booth selling exclusive merchandise in support of Earl’s latest release, Feet of Clay.

About 200 chairs, some labeled as reserved seats, were set up for an audience near a small, white stage, with most attendees sitting on the ground or standing around the seats as they waited for Earl and his mother to appear. A large black-and-white poster depicting a comparison of the Bible's Book of Daniel and Book of Revelation hung above the stage, serving as the only backdrop.  

After the host’s brief introduction, a timid, gray-sweatshirt clad Earl appeared, helping his mother onto the stage before taking his own seat facing hers, and chuckling into the microphone, “This is wild as hell, we’re both nervous,” as his opening line, to which Cheryl amusedly concurred. Throughout the roughly 45-minute conversation, the duo shed some light on their fragile interpersonal dynamic, while touching on everything from racism to music to social media.

Here are five things we learned from the talk.

The Feet of Clay title was inspired by Cheryl
Early in the conversation, Earl shared, “My mother was the person who gave me that phrase, in the context of vulnerability,” as Cheryl chimed in, “We were having a conversation at the kitchen table, as we often do. What I meant was [that] one of the things I try to keep in mind is that people that are admired, or put in positions of influence, or put on pedestals have to remember that we have feet of clay -- meaning we all have weaknesses, a struggle, something [we need] to push against on order to be who we are. It means that ultimately, our fight is ours. It has to rest with us.”

Cheryl is proud of Earl’s growth
Earl elaborated on the topic of vulnerability, reiterating that the relationship between him and his mother “has been incredibly vulnerable since I was 15, and it happened in front of the world.” He went on to say that he originally considered delaying hosting such an intimate and revealing event—“I wanted to be a totally different person when this happened, but this is me just showing y’all who I am now,” Earl gingerly told the audience. Cheryl paused a moment before adding, “I’m incredibly proud of his will and his empathy and his willingness to develop and confront things that are difficult. Thebe never lets himself get comfortable,” she praised her son, addressing him by his government name, as Earl’s eyes filled with tears.

Earl and his mother both have conflicting ideas about the Internet and social media
Cheryl, while discussing Earl’s exposure and widespread online influence, mentioned that the Internet was once just a "tool for the user", but now has become a “tool that took over the user, controlling the user.” She shared her philosophy, stating that the internet is based around algorithms that tend to “fall short” and create a less-than-human experience. She added that algorithms mimic the people who build them, and therefore the ideologies of those who build the algorithms need to be refined. Earl interjected to add, “Things that constitute a full human experience get lost over the internet.”

The pair also shared anecdotes about Cheryl’s hesitation to join social media, with Cheryl earning some laughs and applause from the crowd when she admitted to “staying up to date with Black Twitter” despite avoiding making her own account, explaining, “I’m afraid I’ll fall in too deep,” and “Thebe’s taken up all the Internet space.” Earl exclaimed that he doesn’t want his mother on any social media platforms aside from Instagram, saying, “Parents are the children’s liability on the Internet,” referring to his concern that anything a parent says on social media will be taken as their [more prominent] child’s words. Earl also sent the crowd into stitches when he suggested that his mother use “ProfessorChicagoRedd” as her “at name,” should she ever come around to joining social media.

Cheryl’s research and teachings have influenced Earl’s consciousness
Cheryl is a professor at the UCLA Law School, boasting a resume that includes being a internationally-recognized Critical Race Studies writer and researcher, publishing Whiteness as Property for the Harvard Law Review, and many other accolades in the anti-discrimination law space. This is reflected on her son, as Earl shares that a discussion between himself and his friends about cryptocurrency turned into a conversation about capitalism and the role black men have in their families and in society. Earl mentions that capitalism was built on slavery, to which Cheryl offers that “after-effects of slavery never get discussed,” adding that it’s important for Earl and his peers to examine how history shapes the African-American experience.

Earl’s creative process is very deliberate
Cheryl mentioned Earl’s latest release consists of seven tracks all under two minutes each, saying that Earl taught her that a listener rarely “has the attention span for a third verse.” Earl maintains this idea, adding that “people’s attention spans have gotten shorter and shorter.”  Cheryl revealed that she held back on commenting during her son’s album-creation process, saying she realized it was his project to complete.

Earl also took a fan question that asked him if he strives to have his music understood, to which he responded without pause, “Rap music is slave music. Slave communication was encrypted, spoken in code, so really this is the new version of it. Really, if I can understand it, I can teach it. Writing [music] is a meticulous process for me, it’s my own code. It takes a minute to figure out sometimes.”

In an answer to a subsequent audience question, Earl again touched on his music-making process, saying, "It [my music] is not explicitly shiny or for sale -- the goal of it isn’t to sell, it's to get it off. Rap helps me figure out life, it’s the medium I use to sort life out."



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