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All the Sad Young Literary Rappers: Earl Sweatshirt’s Poetic Roots

By Harriet Staff

A few months ago, Bethlehem Shoals wrote an article for us about the Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA), drawing parallels between their often shocking and offensive lyrics and literature that made use of similar tactics (“brutality and levity,” in Shoals’ words). While many agreed that there was more going on behind OFWGKTA than just juvenile aggression and posturing, few imagined that they would see themselves as descendants of a literary tradition when Eminem and skate culture were more clear, direct reference points.

Well it turns out that at least one of the members, 16-year-old Earl Sweatshirt who “disappeared” early last year, is in fact a literary descendant of a different kind. The Los Angeles Times has an advance look at Kalefa Sanneh’s forthcoming 8,000-word piece in The New Yorker in which Earl — whose real name is Thebe Kgositsile — reveals that his father is none other than South African poet Keorapetse William Kgositsile, “whose best-known work inspired members of a legendary New York proto-rap group to name themselves the Last Poets in 1968.”

Earl would also like nothing more than for his fans to do away with the “Free Earl” meme; he and his mother are not revealing her identity out of fear for what fans would do, since the common narrative has been that she sent him away to a boarding school in Samoa to reform him after hearing his lyrics. That part of the mythology has been debunked — Earl went of his own free will because he needed space — but as the Times notes, it’s likely that even with all the hype the group has seen so far, the rest of the mythology is just beginning.

There are so many layers to this intriguing development that it’s tough to unpack in one sitting, but the sheer poetry and circular nature of one of hip-hop’s most promising young voices coming from such an intellectually rich and dynamic background is something to contemplate. Not only that, but it also very nearly reframes the conversation about who Odd Future is and what they represent.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, May 17th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.