Tyler, the Creator Talks Mountain Dew Controversy: 'It's Not Gonna Change My Art in Any Way'
On Wednesday, PepsiCo removed an online ad for Mountain Dew developed by Odd Future rapper Tyler, the Creator after it was criticized for portraying racial stereotypes and making light of violence toward women.
In the 60-second spot, a battered white woman on crutches is urged by an officer to identify a suspect out of a lineup of black men that includes Odd Future's Left Brain and L-Boy and Trash Talk's Garrett Stevenson along with a talking goat. The ad offended some who noted all the suspects were black and all of the cops were white.
The controversy was sparked in part by a blog post written by Syracuse University professor and social analyst Dr. Boyce Watkins, who called the spot "arguably the most racist commercial in history." Tyler has since offered to have a conversation with Dr. Watkins via Twitter, and by Thursday morning, Watkins had backtracked a bit. "Studied your music, I have an altered perspective," wrote Watkins on Twitter. "Still could do without the ad, but I think you were well-intended. #respect."
[UPDATE: On Friday morning, Watkins posted a 22-minute video discussing this article, the issue and his respect for Tyler as an artist, the upshot of which is: "When it comes to that ad with all the stereotypes that were being presented to the American public… [who made the ad] doesn't change what the public sees… [I still feel] the ad is not OK." Tyler and Watkins have tweeted multiple times about the article and the situation.]
On Thursday afternoon, Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future manager Christian Clancy spoke exclusively with Billboard about the controversy, the clip and thought process behind it, and what it might mean for future projects. Several questions were deferred to Mountain Dew; Billboard.biz’s requests for comment from the company had not been answered at press time.
How did the Mountain Dew partnership come about?
Christian Clancy: I honestly can't remember exactly how it started. I defer to Mountain Dew for any Mountain Dew-related questions. However, Mountain Dew took a chance on a culturally relevant kid and trusted his vision. Everyone's intentions were positive and it was always about them believing in the artistic vision of a kid who is culturally relevant.
Has this controversy affected other deals you have lined up for Camp Flog Gnaw, your new agency with William Morris?
Clancy: There are a lot of things in the pipeline, many of which I can't talk about yet, because they're all surprises. We like to hit people on the back of the head, not the front.
What was the initial idea for the Mountain Dew ads?
Tyler, the Creator: It was just a goat who liked Mountain Dew. He wanted more. The waitress lady got hurt. He got pulled over by the cops, and the lady points out the goat [in the line-up], who obviously attacked her because of the Mountain Dew. And that's it.
I guess people are claiming that it's racist, which... you know, that wasn't even portrayed in that commercial, there's no type of hate being portrayed in that work of art at all -- which I'm confused by. But this older black dude, Dr. Boyce Watkins, I guess he found it racist because I was portraying stereotypes, which is ridiculous because, one, all of those dudes [in the line-up] are my friends. Two, they're all basically in their own clothes. It was originally supposed to be just two dudes, but Garrett from Trash Talk came with his friend and other people had showed up, so I just put all of them in that line-up, if you really wanna know the truth. Three, no [commenters] saw that commercial and said, this is racist. Everyone either said, “Wow, this is ridiculous, it's a goat talking,” or they said, “Wow, this is the dumbest, why would they even make this?” So for [Watkins] to nitpick and notice that, clearly shows his state of mind is on some other sh-- that I can't comprehend, for him to actually sit there and for him to notice that it's all blacks [in the lineup]. That wasn't my intention.
It was crazy. It's a black guy making this, and if it's so racist and feeding into stereotypes, why in the first commercial that goes along with it, is there a black male with his Asian wife? In the second commercial, it's a black male with a professional job as a police officer listening to hardcore rock music -- which supposedly the stereotype is that black people don't listen to that. The stereotypes are what I'm confused on, no one was even thinking about that. I was focused on that first zoom shot over their shoulders. That's what I was stoked on. You know why? Cause I like film, and I like directing, and that's where my heart was set. I wasn't thinking, “Oh, let's use all black [people]” or whatever. I wanted to use my friends. You know why? ‘Cause I don't like using other actors. You can look at every one of my videos, and my friends are always in it. Saying that I'm racist -- every video I got, Lucas is in it! He's a little scrawny white kid. So what is this dude talking about?
Do you want to explain the context of the ad, and your sense of humor? People who don't follow you might not know that Felicia the Goat is one of your running jokes. Can you explain the origins of the goat in your repertoire?
It's just a goat. I just think a goat is funny. It's no deeper meaning. They said, "Tyler, you can come up with any commercial that you want." I said, "You wanna know what's funny to me and my friends? An animal talking." Why? Cause animals don't talk in real life, so let's make an animal talk. What's a funny animal? A f---ing goat.
You reached out on Twitter to Dr. Watkins saying that you would like to talk to him. This morning, he Tweeted at you and revised his opinion of your intent.
I read that. "I take back what I said." [Note: Watkins actually said "I have an altered perspective."] Because you're so quick to judge something that you don't know the context, you're so quick to call me a racist and other stuff, but he didn't know where I was coming from. But then he looked at what I have actually done, and now he wants to take his statement back. "My daughters listen to you." Okay, that's confusing, because if I'm such a racist, and such a bad person, and feeding negativity to the youth, why are your daughters listening to me? That shows you're a bad parent and a hypocrite if your daughters are listening to me and I'm such a bad person.
Then again, I look at it from his perspective. He's an older black man. It's a generation gap. He's older than me. So the things that he had to experience with racism and stereotypes and being a black man in this country, is different from mine. I grew up in a generation where there's white kids listening to rap and black kids playing hockey, breaking the norms and everything. He comes from a whole different state of mind when he sees that stuff. He probably was getting f---ed with by white people when he was my age. So for him to always have to break the [stereotype] of being a "black thug" when he was growing up, and for him to see that in a commercial, it probably hurts him.
But 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.
The tone of the commercial is a lot like "Loiter Squad," your prank/skit show on Adult Swim. How did the people in your fanbase initially respond to the ad?
Everyone in my generation or my age or whatever you wanna call it, either said, “Wow this is funny, Tyler did another stupid funny thing,” or they said, “This is the stupidest thing I have ever seen.” No one noticed it but [Dr. Watkins]. [When I was making it] I was like, “Here, put on this doo-rag, we need to get out of here by 7.” I wasn't sitting there like, “Uh-oh, all my friends are black, affirmative action, let me get my Asian friend in here so nobody gets mad.”
Do you think your sense of humor exists in a vacuum? There are a lot of reference points you use within your music that could be lost on people outside of it.
You're never gonna understand what you don't understand. The same thing can go with religion or anything, if you don't understand it and you're quick to judge. I've had people come up to me and say at first I didn't like your music because of "666" and the word "swag," but they say I actually looked into it and I really get it. This goes with what Dr. Watkins tweeted at me, you know: I studied your music and realized that you are brilliant. [Note: Watkins actually tweeted: studied your music, I have an altered perspective. Still could do without the ad,but I think you were well-intended. #respect.”] And now he's trying to take his statement back because he didn't understand it at first. And now that he's opened up and is trying to understand it, now it's different for him. He's not really thinking on the negative side. I feel like I always gotta explain myself. I don't even mind explaining myself just so people can get it. You can get the wrong idea about anything.
I was watching a 20-minute interview that Dr. Boyce Watkins had about me, and he said that I was feeding into my demographic of black pain. Dude, to keep it honest, a lot of black teenagers don't even listen to my music, and then he says I'm portraying that it's okay to be a thug. Are you serious? All my music is about being awkward and not fitting in!
Has your conversation with Dr. Watkins happened? What would you say to him?
No, I reached out but haven't hit him back yet. I wanted to have a one-on-one conversation, just so I could see where this guy is coming from. I just don't think it's fair that... I don't like saying this but I'm gonna put it as he would say it, as black men, finally coming out of a negative place whether it be our neighborhoods or whatever, and we finally get to get deals with these big, white corporations, and people like him wanna shut it down because something he didn't agree with or something. It's not fair that this always happen and no one tries to fight back. Like I finally made it up here, and you as a black man trying to put the black man down, which is what you're trying to fight for. I don't understand it.
How do you think all of this will affect your future with brands and your art?
I mean, it's not gonna change my art in any way. I just hope that somehow, if it gets bigger or if it disappears tomorrow, that it just opens people's minds up. I just actually can't believe that somebody sat there and pointed out that it was all black people, instead of being confused that it was a freaking goat talking. That's mind-blowing. That's mind-blowing that people still think like that. I'm standing here in the freaking sun, burning up on a freaking conference call when I could be out skating, all because of some black dude's opinion that other people who can't think for themselves followed.
So is this the end for Felicia the goat?
The goat is here to stay.
There's at least one more Mountain Dew spot in the series, right? Is that coming out?
Clancy: Defer that question to Mountain Dew.