Fuck Earl, Free Thebe!by Lindokuhle Nkosi / 27.06.2011
I met Earl Sweatshirt three years ago when he was regular 14 year old Thebe Neruda Kgositsile. At the insistence of his older brother, I had driven to an old apartment in leafy Killarney to pick him up and introduce him to my brother of the same age. He had been holed up in the modest apartment with only a Playstation 2 and DStv for company. He was restless. Ennui’d. When I first saw him, I was struck by his genetically defiant height. His father, world-renowned South African poet Koerapetse Willy Kgositsile is no taller than 1.6 meters. He spoke garrulously then about his love for hip hop. He postulated in expletive-laden epithets about the lack of linguistic sorcery and depth in the industry.
Wordsmithery is in his blood. He is named after Spanish poet Pablo Neruda. His father, largely unrecognised in mainstream South Africa, inspired prolific spoken word ensemble “The Last Poets” to name themselves after one of his more popular pieces. His family, however, would insist that the chemical acridity of his lyrics; the volatile concoction of murder porn, violent sexual fantasies and horror-core homophobia are a result of nurture, rather than nature.
Earl Sweatshirt is one part of alternative skate-rap crew Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (Odd Future). The collective founded by ever-controversial Tyler, the Creator has been widely lambasted for their subversive, don’t-give-a-fuck lyricism since the 2.5 minute Earl video went viral. In it, Earl Sweatshirt raps about “jacking off to buffering vids of Asher Roth” and date-raping a girl until she wonders where her ass went; before falling to the ground in a daze-eyed, froth-mouthed stupor. Since then, the group has made a rapid ascent into the hip hop main vein, performing early this year on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with The Roots. Earl, referred to by some as a rap prodigy and the most skilled rapper of the group, has been conspicuously absent from the public eye for about a year now.
A cryptic “Free Earl” banner looms on the groups Tumblr page. T-shirts have been printed. Facebook groups created. Everyone is asking one simple question: Where the fuck is Earl?
Until recently, a steady stream of misinformation has left Odd Future fans puzzled. One day, Thebe is dead. The next, incarcerated. Sometimes, he’s just an actor who was hired to play-rap in the videos. In an 8000 word article for The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh tracks Thebe down to a boarding school (detention centre) for troubled young boys on the island of Samoa.
In 2006, a 48 hours exposé on international schools for troubled American teens revealed the abuse, torture and humiliation methods employed by many of these “behaviour correction” facilities. Most of the institutions were shut down following the broadcast, but their popularity has not waned.
In the article, he pleads for his fans to drop the “Free Earl” campaign. “Please listen: I’m not being held against my will.” He also asked for fans (who view his mother as the villainous creator of his demise) to go easy on her. However, there is no way to ascertain whether these are, in fact, Earl’s words. Direct communication with “outsider” is forbidden in the camp, and the reporter was forced to relay the messages to “Earl” through his mother.
Odd Future listlessly awaits his return. In the meantime, group members Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator, have landed major recording deals. The article revealing his whereabouts has re-ignited the Free Earl campaign with a fury. Fans beg for his return, even promising to find the “school” and break him out.
I recall Thebe falling asleep on my couch just before 11pm. His childlike exhaustion, the way he slept with his knees tightly tucked under his chin betrayed his over-confident demeanour and swagger. Personally, I am not too concerned about what happens to Earl Sweatshirt. I imagine some overweight Samoans are bending and breaking his will, contorting him into something more respectable. More palatable. I’m worried about the young man whose verbosity hid the insecurity of an innocent. Fuck Earl. Somebody needs to free Thebe.