On March 23, a Twitter user named @MitchHomieQuann posted a video of Earl Sweatshirt, captioned “when you want a pic with one of your favorite rappers since day 1 and he’s a dick.” In the 20-second clip, two fans appear to be readying their camera to take a picture with Earl, the rapper can be heard saying, “chill, chill, chill,” and then, in a moment of frustration, he swats the phone out of their hands, knocking it to the ground.
If @MitchHomieQuann, who has since deleted his account, had posted this video on Twitter, hoping to glean compassion from a supportive community of sympathetic people, it’s hard to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which this might’ve backfired further.
Rather than basking in the messages of solidarity that he was seemingly hoping to garner, hordes of people flooded his mentions, accurately pointing out that, if @MitchHomieQuann had considered Earl Sweatshirt “one of [his] favorite rappers since day 1,” he’d be aware of Earl’s general aversion to taking photos without consent. Moreover, he wouldn’t have been so shocked that the musician who’d made I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, would’ve responded to his tactless request for a selfie as cantankerously as he did. Even Vince Staples commented on the clip, sharing it with his followers, with the caption, “If you feel disrespected I can get you a fade from the homie just let me know.”
Rather than an isolated incident, this interaction between @MitchHomieQuann and Earl Sweatshirt is merely the latest in an ongoing series of strained encounters between fans and artists, which begs the question: what, if anything, do artists owe to their fans?
While it’s certainly true that artists are extremely fortunate to make a living working in a field they love, the short answer to this question is nothing.
Perhaps, you could argue that artists should be somewhat gracious to the fans who make their career a possibility, but even so, there is no contract between these two parties which stipulate fans are entitled to anything beyond the output artists voluntarily wish to offer them.
Of course, this is far from a novel debate. How much access fans should have to the artists they revere has been around for as long as the concept of celebrity has been a part of the cultural zeitgeist. Yet, whereas this debate was far more cut and dry in the past—when interactions between these two cohorts were seemingly limited by physical proximity and logistical impediments to communication—it has taken on an entirely new set of stakes in the age of social media, as these barriers have been virtually eradicated by online accessibility.
This isn’t to say that it was easy for musicians of the past to deal with overzealous fans hounding them for autographs in public settings, but in comparison to today, when musicians are unable to escape fan interactions on social media almost ever, these fan encounters from bygone decades seem almost quaint.
In many ways, it is exactly this breed of wholesale accessibility that fosters the type of entitled behavior Earl’s fans exhibited when they presumed he’d be willing to grant their request for a selfie without first asking his permission. At some point, their permanent access to his music, his interviews, his social media updates, and everything in between, distorted the way these fans viewed him, making it hard for them to see his likeness as anything other than a public commodity.
The way they refer to him as a “dick” simply for refusing to comply with their request suggests they don’t think of Earl as a well-rounded person with his agency, but rather as a lowly “content creator,” whose moral worth is contingent solely on what he is willing to offer them as consumers.
Worsening this problem is artists have begun to internalize this perception of themselves, feeling the need to satiate their fans’ boundless appetites for new content by releasing steady diets of music on a continuous basis. The more accessible artists make themselves online, the more their fans grow to expect this with regularity, creating a destructive cycle wherein the commodification of artists worsens in real-time.
Few and far between are the musicians like Earl—who opt to release music at their own pace, and are generally aloof on social media—yet even artists like this, as the aforementioned video demonstrates, aren’t immune to the dangers of commodification in the eyes of their fans.
With that said, it’s possible that I’m getting ahead of myself here. The night Earl Sweatshirt was filmed angrily knocking @MitchHomieQuann’s phone to the ground, several other photos of the rapper surfaced online, suggesting that he’s not against these requests from fans categorically.
Perhaps these other people made their requests more tactfully, or perhaps they caught Earl at a better or more convenient time, but in several of these pictures, Earl looks downright cheerful. If you take anything away from this article, it should be that artists truly don’t owe us anything.
Yet, examining these pictures, I firmly believe that, as long as we treat artists like human beings, they will often do everything in their power to give us as much as they can.