Earl Sweatshirt talks to Ta-Nehisi Coates about his Culture Trust Fund
It’s not every day you turn 28, but for Earl Sweatshirt, it’s more than just an annual milestone. The Los Angeles-based rapper, born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, recently celebrated his birthday and the release of his latest album, Sick, after a show in New Orleans, and spent the next morning in bed (understandably) taking stock. Since the release of his first mixtape, County, As a member of Odd Future at the age of 16, Kgositsile established himself as a musical unicorn – both an entertainer and a widely acclaimed listener. Over the past 12 years, Earl has collaborated with Tyler, The Creator (his fellow Odd Future member), Frank Ocean, Mac Miller, Flying Lotus and countless other icons of the new hip-hop avant-garde. A prodigy by any standards, Kgositsile, now a father himself, has a lot to celebrate and process. To help him understand the significance of another trip around the sun, Kgositsile called on National Book Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates (from bed, of course) for a conversation about young fatherhood, aging as a black man in America, and the bitter taste of good art.
TA-NEHISI COATES: So Thebe, how are you doing man?
THEBE NERUDA KGOSITSILE: It’s a good day!
COATES: Where are you at now?
KGOSITSILE: I’m in New Orleans bro.
COATES: Okay, so you had a late night?
KGOSITSILE: Yes, I absolutely did. I turned 28 at midnight, man.
COATES: That’s right! It’s your birthday today !
KGOSITSILE: My friends tried to kill me! I got it working though. They were trying to kill me, man.
COATS : [Laughs] Well, congratulations.
KGOSITSILE: I really feel like I succeeded. 28 is an important step. It’s very different from 21.
COATES: It’s not nothing. So what comes to mind when you think about it? What do you feel ?
KGOSITSILE: I just feel like, I don’t know, there’s a spiritual meaning to this that I can’t understand without sobbing. There’s the whole 27 club thing in the music, and also, I have a baby now. I feel like I survived this whole bloody death fest, especially with everything that’s happened in the past two years. I feel like I can fully celebrate that I’m alive, it’s beautiful.
COATES: How old is your baby?
KGOSITSILE: Hmm, let’s call it 18 months. What is February subtracted from September?
COATES: You’re going to kill me for this. Let’s call it 18 months.
KGOSITSILE: About a year and a half.
COATES: When my son was born, he immediately aged me 10 years. Everything has become much more serious, much more grounded. I mean damn, I guess I was around your age or a little younger – almost 25. But it really changed the trajectory of my 20s, because suddenly there was someone in the world who, if something happened to me, was going to suffer for it.
KGOSITSILE: This is the craziest shit ever. I’m on tour right now, and I’m gonna say shit like I used to before he was born, like, “Let’s go to Jamaica this weekend!” But brother, I don’t do any of that.
COATS : [Laughs] Because suddenly you remember, it’s true.
KGOSITSILE: That’s right, all of a sudden I’m like, “There’s a jerk out there waiting for me, and for the rest of my life I have to worry about him! ” Oh my God.
COATES: That will never change, and it’s hard to explain that to someone. I thought of myself as a tough dad who was going to raise my son to be independent, and he is, but Samori [Coates’ son] going to be 22 this year, and I was saying to someone the other day, “I wake up every day worried about this guy.” It’s the same thing I felt the first time I held it.
KGOSITSILE: Don’t worry about him, I follow him on the internet. This guy is hilarious, man.
COATES: He’s a good guy! But you worry, like, “Will a truck hit it?”
KGOSITSILE: That’s what they do to you when they’re born. Suddenly you stop playing, stop worrying about your self-image. I can’t even lie, at first I was mad at my baby’s mother. I was like, “You made this decision. I really thought I wasn’t ready for this, but I just feel love. I may not be a perfect person, but I love my son. That’s how I know I’m ready for anything. I’m cunning, man, I’m like an old dude but I have speed and agility. I feel like it’s perfect for fatherhood. Yo, can I ask you a question?
COATES: Of course.
KGOSITSILE: Billy Woods?
COATS : [Laughs] Yeah, I saw that. When I was at Howard University, it’s an interesting story, I actually wanted to write about it.
KGOSITSILE: Brother, please. It was time. I don’t understand this song.
COATES: He would just come. When I heard it [Billy Woods’ lyric in the song “Western Education is Forbidden” that calls out Coates]I was like, “I can’t quite with this.” [Both laugh] But you know what, the song is actually a statement about art, Thebe, and I’ve learned to be more generous with artists. Like, the fact that you didn’t understand it the first time you heard it—
KGOSITSILE: It’s like coffee. The first time I tasted coffee, I said, “Get the hell out of here.” But you’re getting old and you need it.
COATES: And you have to make time for the art! I’m like that with Co Flow. Probably the most influential song for me as a kid was “It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back” [by Public Enemy], and the first time I heard it, I was like, “What is this?” The production was so chaotic and jarring. But I listened, listened, listened.
KGOSITSILE: And then you fit in. People try to fit the art around them, but you’re supposed to bend to the art.
COATES: That’s right, there’s an active expansion coming.
KGOSITSILE: You have to reach out, that’s for sure. Art is not like candy, it hurts. I had this experience with jazz when I was younger. I grew up in a jazz house, but there were some that were too gratuitous for a fucking eight-year-old. I was like, ‘Turn that shit off now. What the fuck is going on. In fact, it made me feel weird. Then you get older, and the world has made you feel weird – like racism or whatever your experience is – and then you’re like, “Oh, that resonates with me.”
COATES: I think sometimes the art waits for you. You didn’t need it at eight years old, but you can have your own fully formed relationship with it now.
KGOSITSILE: I had siblings, but I was my mother’s only child, so I was the only child in the house. There were big shelves full of music theory, shelves of movies, all that heavy shit. I remember when I was a kid and I was drawn to covers, but everything inside was like, “You must be older.”
COATES: But being exposed to that, at a young age, do you think that stretched you a bit?
KGOSITSILE: Absolutely, because it created a thirst. I knew that as soon as I was old enough, I would be on all that shit. It’s the caged dog theory, all you want to do is get out. People were like, ‘You can’t do that’ and I was like, ‘Okay, now I’m going to do it as soon as possible. the thing and then you’re like, “Wait, you’re gonna need ID for this.” Then the kids say, “Ohh, okay. I’m going to buy a fake one today.
COATES: But the cycle repeats itself, because now you’re the one saying, “Wait.”
KGOSITSILE: I understand my father so much better now and his position.
COATES: I just want to pause for a second. When I was younger I thought I was going to be a poet and I read your father [the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, also known as Bra Willie] when I was at Howard. He was one of the guys from the Black Arts Movement that I studied.
KGOSITSILE: I already knew that, man! Billy Woods met my father in Tanzania when he was 11. We’ll talk about that later, but our shit is six degrees for real.
COATES: When I heard you, I mean, obviously, I’m a huge fan, because I like lyric-driven shit. You have your own identity, but when people told me who your mother was [Cheryl Harris, the critical race theorist] and dad were, I was like, “Shit! Really?!”
KGOSITSILE: I have what I call a cultural trust fund, you know? It’s not money, it’s art and poetry. When you are in charge of arts and culture at home, you are going to do something creative with your life. Through my parents, I witnessed how to grow old in your profession – they tell you that rap is such a young thing, and that you’re supposed to die when you’re young and attractive, because death black sells like shit. Art imitates life, and art is for sale, so what’s for sale is us dying – dying young – and rap is kind of tied to that. JAY-Z and Jay Electronica have a song called “Shiny Suit Theory”, which is about how crazy it is to be alive and thriving at 40. I just went to the Museum of Popular Culture, and they have all of Tupac’s notebooks. There was shit in there since he was young, like 18, and it said, “I’m already halfway through my life.” Come on bruh, this is terrible. I was like, “You just burned my shit, nobody’s looking at my fucking grades.” The weird thoughts, the pages you cried on, I didn’t need to see that.
COATES: It wasn’t until I turned 25 that I realized how young Tupac and Biggie really were when they died, and how terrible that is.
KGOSITSILE: That’s what I said! I swear to God, at 28, I feel like I made it, ’cause I’m out of the fuckin’ club. I started making music when I was 16, and everyone said, “He’s so young! I hated it, I always wanted to be older. Maybe because I had old parents. I was always like, “I’m trying to age!”
COATES: This is one of the conversations I always have with my son. You don’t realize there’s a ridiculous life span after your 20s, so don’t reduce yourself to that period.
KGOSITSILE: It’s like a second adolescence. I’m going to be 30 soon and I feel like I’m going through puberty again.
COATES: I identify with that!
KGOSITSILE: It’s still beautiful. All it means is that puberty is another word for transformation. You must continue to transform yourself in life. Snakes shed their skin.
COATES: You’ll be 44 when your son turns 18, and then it’ll happen again.
KGOSITSILE: I’ll be honest, I’m not trying to do too much at 44. [Both laugh]
COATES: Funny, a lot of my peers had kids much later. So I did this hands-on parenting early on, and when I looked at the world again, I was 42, I was like, “What is this?” I went into a hole in my twenties and then came back like, “Oh shit! The world is here!
KGOSITSILE: It’s the whole African thing, like my pop keeps changing and living its life. He didn’t apologize either. He said, “Have you got all your limbs? Did you eat? You’re good.” But what I want to do, more than my dads, is record myself for real. One thing I appreciated was the confidence he had. He told me “It’s you, bro, swim! You can’t drown! And I feel that with my son now. This guy is like Superman! Even though I couldn’t see that power in me when I was younger.” , I see it in him now, and it’s like looking at a version of myself.
COATES: I really identify with that.
KGOSITSILE: Can we establish a link outside of Interview?
COATES: The easiest way to do that is through Samori. Just contact him and he will give you my contact details.
KGOSITSILE: I can’t tell him that just happened.