A fan asks Earl Sweatshirt how much the artist cares whether his work is understood by others. The 25-year-old rapper, born Thebe Kgositsile, stops pacing the stage and answers matter-of-factly: “Rap music is slave music, number one. It’s the modern day iteration of that. Slave communication had to be encrypted. You gotta code. If I understand it, then it’s like teaching: if I understand a subject, even if you don’t know it off the bat, I can teach it to you, because I can paint this picture very clearly if I know what I’m saying. You know what I’m saying? Writing is a very meticulous process for me. I’m cracking my own code.”
Fans and critics have spent years trying to crack Earl's code, dating as far back as his debut in Odd Future nearly a decade ago and subsequent evolution into a complex solo artist; one whose inclinations veer toward the unexpected and esoteric, such as with 2018’s Some Rap Songs and most recently, his Feet Of Clay project released last month.
Earl has never been one to over-explain himself. But on the afternoon of December 7 while on stage at The Geffen Contemporary within the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), joined by his mother— professor, author, and scholar Cheryl Harris—he finally shed light on some of the ideas that informed him. Their unmoderated conversation is an extension of fan experiences that Earl has been curating in his hometown of Los Angeles surrounding the project’s release.
Projected behind them onstage is an illustration about the biblical Book of Daniel, from which Feet Of Clay draws inspiration; specifically, a story in which the collapse of Babylon’s imperial kingdom is foreseen in a dream had by the King Nebuchadnezzar. The dream features a towering statue of a man, made of various precious metals, with delicate feet of clay. An image of this statue is on the invitation to today’s event, and there is also a 9-foot version of it erected inside the space. The significance of this story to Earl Sweatshirt, he tells us, comes from his mother. He first heard the titular phrase from her, he says, “in the context of vulnerability.”
“I was saying to him that one of the things I try to keep in mind is that [with] people that are elevated or given positions or admired or put on pedestals, we have to remember that we all have feet of clay,” Harris explains. “Some weakness, some struggle, something that we have to push against in order to realize who we are… we are desperate to find something that can lead us forward, and I think what we have to remember is not that we shouldn’t admire people who accomplish things that we respect, but that ultimately our fight is ours. It has to rest with us. It has to be from us. Because inevitably, we all have feet of clay.”
Earl prefaces the talk by celebrating his mother for her insight and support, which also means acknowledging the fraughtness they’ve had in the past due in part to his public image. “Our relationship as it’s played out has been incredibly vulnerable since I was 15, and it started happening in front of the world. Which is part of the reason why I wanted to do this,” he says. “I feel like this was incredibly necessary just to show y’all, if I’m trying to show y’all who I am, [I’m] giving y’all the complete picture.” Harris, in turn, exalts her son: “It’s an honor to be on stage with my son. I am incredibly proud of [his] work, of his empathy, of his willingness to confront the things that are difficult to confront, and the willingness to develop.”
A sprawling conversation ensues, yielding insightful vantages of technology, capitalism, slavery, depression, art, the internet, and whether or not Ms. Harris should get an Instagram account. “It’s an interesting thing when the tool takes over the user,” Harris says about social media. “What we know now about algorithms is that they reflect the people that build them, which is us. So it’s important for us… to understand why it is always falling short, and why it will continue to fall short until we fundamentally transform the systems upon which it is built.”
When she asks Earl how social media today compares to how it was when he started his career, he says, “The echo comes back really quickly now… It’s much more vicious, it’s faster, and a lot of things that constitute a complete human experience get lost on the internet.” They ultimately decide that yes, she will get on the ‘gram anyway.
The interconnectivity of all these topics is a recurring thought for Earl that he makes a point to bring up: “There’s [nothing] that exists without context.” Harris expands by unpacking the ways that the historical colonization of Black and Native people continues to reverberate today, and she points to the role of an artist like Earl in helping to parse that. “Part of the task of the musician, or the artist, is to unbury that history and to bring it out,” she says. “So much of what you, Thebe, talk about is what’s happening in your life right now, and that might not seem to people like history, but it is. Because if you actually look at how the relationships are, look at what’s possible, look at what’s not possible, look at the [the] connections that are interrupted or not committed, like what street you can walk down and feel free… those are reflections of and aspects of the legacy that you live.”
The weight of certain world truths has encumbered Earl in the past, but he’s figuring out how to maneuver with it differently now. “One thing that I had to overcome that I feel like is very topical for all of us at a certain age was apathy,” he says. “Once the cognitive dissonance was shattered, once I started looking at things as they are, I got very depressed. I think it happens, I think it’s very normal for everyone. But I think if the world is a dumpster fire, you gon’ feel really bad if you not taking you a bucket of water and throwing it on something whenever you can.”
Harris is brilliant, eloquent, warm. Her son, deferential and charismatic. Despite their professions, the two seem bashful to be onstage in this way, which makes it feel like all the more of a privilege to witness. Together and separately, they are as adept at cracking life’s codes as they are generous in inviting others to benefit from their discoveries.