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Mystery solved: Earl Sweatshirt, his mother and his poet-father communicate with the New Yorker

May 16, 2011 |  8:29 am

Earl-sweatshirt The mystery of Earl Sweatshirt has been solved. Boy, has it been solved. The missing member of Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future has been at a boarding school in Samoa for the last year, during which time he's also been a topic of conversation among rap-heads after dropping the mix tape "Earl," already a classic.

Along with partner Tyler, the Creator and half a dozen others, Earl, still in high school, has been a hot topic in 2011 for nearly everyone who cares about hip-hop, and his disappearance shortly after Odd Future began buzzing last spring has been the subject of speculation and prognostication, resulting in the rallying cry, "Free Earl."

The word on the street, never verified -- now woefully inaccurate -- was that Earl's mother had sent him away to prevent him from chasing his dream to be a rapper and lyricist.

New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh found and communicated with Earl, his mother and his father, and not only is the mystery solved, but also the story is so improbable that it seems like an April Fool's Day prank. Here it is, in one sentence: Earl Sweatshirt's real name is Thebe Kgositsile, and he is the son of 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. 

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.

Notoriously foul-mouthed, shocking, brutally honest and controversial, the group's "kill 'em all" attitude has prompted deserved scrutiny and criticism, but reading excerpts from the emails that Earl sent to Sennah reveals a thoughtful, clear mind expressing concern and wonder at his position.

"Initially I was really pleased that all these people claimed they wanted me released because I thought that translated into 'they care,' " writes Earl. "So time progresses and the fan base gets bigger and the 'Free Earl' chants get louder, but now with the 'Free Earl' chants come a barely indirect '... Earl's mom' and in the blink of an eye my worry changes from 'will there still be this hype when I get back to 'Oh ... I just inspired a widespread movement of people who are dedicated to the downfall of my mom.' "

Earl goes on to explain to Sennah that he will be returning to Los Angeles at an undetermined time and that what he really needs now is space, as well as his fans to stop chanting, "Free Earl." "I've still got work to do," he writes, "and I don't need the additional stress of fearing for my family's physical well-being. Space means no more, 'Free Earl.' "

Sennah's story is in the May 23 issue of the New Yorker; it's available online in abstract form but is locked behind the magazine's pay-wall, so interested fans will have to subscribe to read it before it hits newstands.

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: A still from Earl Sweatshirt's video for "Earl." Credit: OddFuture.com

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