“This is for the ni**as in the suburbs and the white kids with ni**a friends who say the n-word” – Tyler, The Creator
The first time I was ever called a ni**er to my face I was, for lack of a better phrase, “spared” the indignity of it also being in English. Language will leave you grateful for the strangest things I suppose. The year was 2012 and I was, for reasons I’ve long since forgotten, at a frat party at my alma mater wearing some raggedy KD35s, a still kind-of-new pair of Levi’s with a belt patterned with some classic mixtapes that was enveloped by a voluminous white tee with the name and logo of every Negro League Baseball team which I’ve owned since eighth grade but never grew into. Outside the house with the suffocating bass, a cloudless Pennsylvania fall was maturing. Dew dusted every suburban road in Swarthmore and October was settling into the trees. In the dark, the trees are everywhere. The streetlights are far between in suburbia, so you have to be within inches to see the changes flourishing around you, the kaleidoscopic qualities of death; even now, it is almost beautiful.
The man who called me ni**er was not a stranger. Until relatively recent to that point, we had lived within feet of each other as freshman year roommates. I’m telling you this less to blunt his violence than to explain why he was standing close enough to me for me to hear him. Everything about the sound system in a party like that seems to have a bone-deep hatred for the foundations of the building. It’s not hyperbole when I say the first time I was ever called a ni**er to my face everything was already vibrating, everything was already coming apart. The man, freestyle rapping very poorly to a song that was seemingly all bass to my deeply faded best friend, rhymed my name with “Mulignon” which in Italian translates directly to “Eggplant” and colloquially, on that night, me. The transfiguration I prefer is to tell you “Everything in me became a fist” but the reality is everything in me became a lens. I flitted a quick look to my friend who seemed to have lost the line in the bass or was biting his tongue. I studied the party, I counted the white people in the basement (too many), I counted the Black (we were standing next to each other, it went quickly); I uncurled my fist. I could see every possibility for the fight I knew I could win: the jaw I knew I could break and in that same breath, looking into the dew populating his face, my own expulsion if I laid hands on him. I was and am ashamed, he had called me a ni**er and all I could think of was the consequences I would face.
I turned, said I was getting another drink but really I hustled past the partygoers; the slick and swelter of their arms pushing the names of my shirt closer to me until finally I was up the stairs and pulling open the door. I was out in the air too furious even to shiver where the wind hit me. Pushing into the dark, t-shirt clinging to me heavy with the excess of other people’s want, I stared out first towards the train tracks then a light I trained myself to imagine as Philly, I was alone staring up and into the unpunctuated night, Black and without witness. I’m not telling you this story for sympathy, but to tell you how a boy governed by consequence and shame could fall wholeheartedly and dangerously in love with its absence. I’m telling you how I first fell in love with Odd Future.
In 2012 I was the hapless manager of an equally hapless rap collective that was paid in pizza and exposure, in that order. Disowned by policy, we rolled 5, 10, 12, 15 deep across a campus that could have never imagined us. Our songs were wack but that didn’t really matter, for once everywhere I looked, we were legion. I imagined this was what it must be like to be famous and unconcerned with consequence. This was what it must be like to be in love, I was sure of it.
The point is that Odd Future was a collective of young people for whom mental illness was a kind of superpower.
The real magic of Odd Future is that for some Black boys, we imagine heaven to be a place where we and we alone are the greatest danger to ourselves. Odd Future, in their best moments, loved in a syntax of sheer, reckless desire. They seemed most of the time governed by impulse that delighted in existing right at the edge of familiar logic. Many would call their work “raw” because we love lazy approximations for tenderness in America, we love the taste of the wrong word said confidently. This is less about rawness than it is a story of the perils of falling in love with being unabashedly ugly, and that’s what they were and what I wanted most.
Nobody in Odd Future was good looking. In fact, many of their lyrics seemed to be in open conflict with the idea of being attractive. They were ugly, and we were ugly, and this was how we were beautiful to one another. In the worst fall, I believed I would ever endure, my hair was often dirty, my beard scraggly and uneven in a way I can now identify as my body’s signal for a depressive episode. My clothes were also pretty wack and I was shopping size-wise for the person I was and desperately wanted to return to being, a me whose muscles were shredded but at least his sadness was quieter. But Tyler, the Creator was wearing short-sleeved shirts with hand-drawn donuts on them. Earl Sweatshirt, nearly my exact age, constantly referenced his globular forehead, rapped seamlessly of his bulbous lips as the contrast of his face as he swilled cough syrup and set fire to sheriffs’ whips. At 19, I wanted to be so ugly it made me hyperbole; unassailable, loved by my ni**as and only them.
Beauty, as we had been taught it, was for people with something to lose and there was something, is something, still in me that wants nothing so much as to not give a f**k. To weaponize not giving a f**k, to weaponize all my ugly as an act of trust that I am not alone in that ugliness. We moved like bastardizations of another man’s light, eager patrons of each other’s flaws, content to call this love. And it was love, in the Odd Future way—15 boys who knew beauty not as a look, but a looking past. We grew fluent in each other, like boys do; we grew too fluent in looking past.
“I’m high and I’m Bi…wait I mean I’m straight” – Frank Ocean
I didn’t know, and I did, that I wanted to call boys beautiful in a whole other reckless way in 2012. But just as the trees of Swarthmore shrank from imagining me, so too could I not imagine who could love me that way; if I was indeed, that way. Being a teenager is mostly going to class and trying to decide what sorts of violence you are prepared to tolerate, and I was only really good at the latter. The first time I ever heard Tyler, the Creator rap I was, true to form, skipping class because I was “sick.” This wasn’t untrue, but rather than the vomit I was naming in a series of well-manicured emails that could only semi-plausibly come from somebody who had just finished vomiting, it was a sadness ricocheting from synapse to synapse—a drumbeat without a melody. There are few more pitiful lonelinesses than percussion in isolation. What I remember about listening to “Yonkers” for the first time has very little to do with the roach and everything to do with the way the Blacks and whites seemed to pulse in lock step with my temples. That, and the way Tyler said “fa**ot.”
Tyler, the Creator says “fa**ot” with the tenor of someone casting a curse they don’t want to believe is already spoiling somewhere in their marrow. I was a boy. I am a boy. I have heard the word because I am alive among the afraid. Tyler’s enunciation, though, was always that of a man who was rapping with a cleaver already lodged in his windpipe and he said each slur as if it were another quarter inch that the weapon could come out and we were invited to take the blade’s place. I am an American, I am always learning to justify. The distance between what someone says and what you want to believe they mean isn’t especially hard to traverse if you’re a freshman in college. If you’re just a witness to the knife it doesn’t take much to think he doesn’t mean you specifically.
It goes like this often in boyhood, unfortunately—proximity and tenderness are too often mistaken for each other. I became infatuated with Frank Ocean on the song “Super Rich Kids” in the summer of 2012 at a job where I was paid to sit in a room with my headphones on removing staples from the insurance files of long dead people. I didn’t know at first that Frank Ocean was part of Odd Future, content simply to hear someone else sing of the emptiness of rich folk that had alternately grounded or terrorized me all my life. Frank seemed to know what I knew, against all odds, that the rich have no children, only sad assets.
Looking back, it begins to make sense that someone who we could know so intimately to be in a group but not of it could produce a song like that. It was only the introduction of Earl Sweatshirt’s verse that tipped me to the reality that the two could be friends. I loved Odd Future and I loved Frank Ocean and had not known that, at least theoretically, to love one was also to love the other. Reading more about Ocean’s sexuality, I would stare at the videos for “She” and “Oldie” and wonder what was he doing around so many people who claimed to love him—and maybe even did—but spoke as if they might shank the boy he loved, too? The real question, true to form, was why was I doing the same?
The reality is that too much of boyhood is proving what you are not. When you’re Black somewhere that you’re not supposed to be more than theory, Blackness itself can become uncharacteristically rigid. Passing as straight was not as much of an active effort for me as it has been for some that I love. Really to sit and feign ignorance of my own bisexuality, to sit and listen to most of Odd Future call me out of my name was not especially difficult because I didn’t need to do much to pretend it wasn’t my name. That’s the thing about Odd Future level violence: some of it was so hyperbolic that I could neglect the crucial fact that when we imagine a violence, it brings it further into the realm of plausibility. To be around some folks in the collective as they spoke with fear about “that gay sh*t” or said “fa**ot” wasn’t as much a knife to the throat as it was a subscription service, a tax I could forget I was paying until it cost me.
After being almost implausibly different from the backdrop of the alma mater, I think we were all grateful for loyalty that demanded a different strain of assimilation from us. I am American, I am always learning how to justify. One of the many ways I wasn’t doing my job as the manager of the collective was that there wasn’t very much of an endgame outside the production of an album-length follow-up to a 2011 mixtape that was mediocre at best. I think, at some level, we were all invested in stasis. There’s an ecosystem to masculinity: what does not yet demand to be confronted can, at least theoretically, be endured. For some of the members from outside the college, as long as the album wasn’t done there was still always a place to sleep and people who found you useful and called it love. For some of us inside the college, we had a love from outside the suffocating loneliness in which we lived. We could ride with folks who looked like us and pretend we didn’t see or weren’t responsible for the violence they brought upon us and people we loved. We could pretend we were home. So long as the album was not done, nobody needed to know what I was, and I could be anyone and nobody would cast me out. Better, I thought, to be like Frank and have friends you must look past to love, who said fa**ot to pull you closer, to say “you are like us, so long as you are our ugly, we will not let you pass into the dark.”
“And you don’t even have to look ‘cause we gleam obscene in the light” – Mike G
It seemed like Odd Future’s love for each other for many years was based on a simple, familiar logic: There is no greater love than to resolve never to be out-violenced in the name of those you love. This, to me, was the real magic of the video for “Oldie,” the final track on the last Odd Future mixtape. There’s an almost surreal collective innocence to the group as they wander around the set, shoving into each other with mischievous impatience to lip sync their assorted verses. It’s a simple concept on a simple beat, a collective that was already showing signs of inevitable fracture together and young, it could almost distract me from the very real effects of the violence weaving through the lyrics. Almost.
It is a privilege when a transgression can remain theoretical. It was a privilege to pretend that when Odd Future wrote extensively of the murder, rape, and dismemberment of women and queer people that they couldn’t be serious. Maybe they weren’t, but even if they weren’t, that’s not the point. The point is that Odd Future was a collective of young people for whom mental illness was a kind of superpower. When I was at the onset of my depression, depression seemed like a rarity in the Black communities I was from. To many, it still is. I felt like so many who look like me a sense of kinship with these boys who seemed, rather than choked and heavy from this unsustainable summer fevering through my brain, supercharged with their own ugly possibility. I was willing to do what I knew about beauty to stand in the Black and white of that a little longer. I looked past, and looked past, until I couldn’t. It was frighteningly easy to pretend that the deprivation of privilege that accompanied the surge of my depression precluded anyone suffering a similar season from having the power to commit the violence they described.
Surely, I justified, there was a way that this was persona, and persona alone. To a degree I was right, there is a level of persona to anything written, the space between imagination and utterance is often wide. But the imagination too is, for better or worse, a deeply personal thing. The violence of Odd Future lyrics then was not merely observed, but a sickness that, like depression, I was in conversation with and the longer I looked past, the longer I was only delaying acknowledgment the call was coming from deep inside the house. Which is to say my imagination itself was and is sick to be able to do the work of looking past, it is my ugliest thing and I am trying these days to reimagine what its health might look like.
I’m old enough now to know that I once wanted the worst of freedom, I tolerated violences upon myself and others in the name of being less lonely.
What does one do when the inconceivable future becomes the consistent present? When the president’s casual speech is soaked and powered with a deeper violence than any the collective imagination of a bunch of Black teenagers, foraging for their place in violence, could conceive of? Jay-Z once said that he admired that Odd Future was the highly creative and vicious byproduct of years of systemic neglect who were now lashing out at what made them; how they are saying to America, “This is the son you made. Look at your son.” I used to like this idea a lot, tried to embody the best of it; a nation’s shame living a shameless life. For me, this seemed like it must be freedom because I was young and freedom seemed a monolithic prospect. You were free or you weren’t. Either you were the greatest threat to you or someone else was. This, of course, then the proof that in a nation dedicated to exploring every imaginable violence, where the Atlantic Slave Trade found root and queer people are murdered regularly, that there is no such thing as hyperbolic violence in America, there is merely Tuesday. I’m old enough now to know that I once wanted the worst of freedom, I tolerated violences upon myself and others in the name of being less lonely. I don’t think I’m special, just an American trying to be less so these days.
The lucky thing about being the same age as many of the members of Odd Future is that the story is, barring tragedy, not over. I’m cautiously optimistic in a world where Tyler, the Creator is openly gay but jokes about refusing to date Black men that one day we might simply be beautiful to each other. I don’t know what will happen, I can’t until I’m there. Many folks in the collective don’t talk anymore. I hope where all of us are from our various spectrums of sadness, isolation and complicity in masculinity and violence we’re moving towards the healing we needed from what we could not mend alone in each other. My depression is still, as it was at 19, an unsustainable summer and I am doing my work to divorce myself from the idea of it being a superpower. Rather, I’m listening to “Oldie” in the fall with an older man’s ear to take what I can from the best of imagination in better company, in more healing love. Beyond the window the trees are changing again. This autumn is welcome and may last all my life.