So Where Is Earl Sweatshirt?

Facts somehow get distorted...
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Earl Sweatshirt, OFWGKTA’s multi-syllabic mc, is notably absent from their UK tour. Does he even still exist? Who on earth has kept him under cover for so long? Is it his manager, his mom, the CIA? Has he been deprogrammed or reprogrammed?

As with all myths, the truth and the facts somehow get distorted, exaggerated and re-configured. But, the reality is, twenty first century artist management hasn’t so much as gone full circle as done a figure of eight.

Twenty three years ago, in East Oakland, California, one young mother had a belief that art and music could be tools to help restore the moral and spiritual destitution she saw around her. Leila Steinberg, the child of a Polish activist lawyer father and Turkish Mexican artist mother, brought her self-education-through-the-arts into the community where she found herself living. It was here she met a seventeen year old homeless, articulate and radiantly talented youth who followed her program, completed assignments and was nurtured into the legendary Tupac Shakur (she was his manager up to 1993).

These alternative self-education evenings turned into ‘The Mic Sessions’ which have developed over the last decade – now no longer confined to her home but in various sites across the world. More locally, in Santa Monica – the homing ground of OFWGKTA. Some of the members have attended her sessions – but then so have hundreds of young artists of all ethnicities and tastes. But Leila distanced herself from the industry and focused on alternative intervention through the arts and music for the troubled youth around her, still holding to the belief that emotional education worked best through active participation in the arts. A diminutive, softly spoken woman with a non-confrontational manner, her famous smile belies a steely strength and extraordinary tenacity. Her program reached into San Quentin’s hardcore main prison plus the youth detention centres of California, schools across the United States, Sheffield (UK) and South Africa.

So far, so worthy but so what? It was a year ago, A-list film producer, Larry Brezner, contacted Leila to ask her to help with a special case. Larry was on the school board at New Roads School, Santa Monica. ‘I contacted Leila because we were particularly concerned about one young man.’ This particular young man had been sent away to Coral Reef Academy in Samoa. Leila was told: ‘He’s a very talented but troubled young artist. Could you work on his development while he’s out there? Just be a link for him since he’s so far away, provide some resources so he can continue his artist development.’

The name of the young man was ‘Earl Sweatshirt’ a.k.a. Thebe Kgositsile. Familiar with OFWGKTA, Leila agreed - although she had never done her process over Skype having not met the person before. Thankfully, Earl (an avid reader) had just read Michael Eric Dyson’s book ‘Holla If You Hear Me’ and was excited to be working with Ms. Steinberg. They spent a year writing, talking, her sending him assignments, working on his life plan, artist plan, creative ideas, career ambitions and values, looking at strategies to realize these.

‘The process I used was my curriculum (HeArt Education). The outcome was his return home in a much better frame of mind and spirit, guiding him through his last semester at high school, and helping him with his decision about the right recording deal and career'.

‘Why did I agree to take him on? He’s one of the greatest lyricists I’ve heard in two decades. He has an extraordinary command of words and language. Plus I’m a fan of his father (a famous South African poet) and his mother’s work (a law professor and activist around issues of race and social justice). I wasn’t bothered about the recording side, to be honest, but I was impressed by his reach. He was touching millions of young people, actively participating and mobilizing his fans. The challenge to help mold all that energy, power and intelligence into real activism was too much to pass up.’

Earl wanted her desperately to come out to Samoa but Leila wouldn’t come without her crew of artists from her A.I.M. program and without Earl participating with them in community art. Despite having to raise $35,000 in under three weeks, she did it and the crew of ten arrived to work in Fiji and then Samoa early February this year.

‘It was life-changing for all of the artists I brought with me. We delivered the curriculum at his facility then delivered it where he was working at the Victim Support Community Service and then involved the village over ten days. The artists all became art educators in the Samoan community. They are very respectful beautiful people over there. We feel we built a brand new family.’ I was told about the flying roaches, beetles ‘like rocks – you could play baseball with them’ and that ‘everyone is a fisherman – even I went fishing. The fish is amazing out there. And there’s wild pigs – pigs that are buff. No fat on them.’

The crew plus Earl (who wanted to finish High School with his peers in L.A.) returned late February. Earl himself was reunited with his extended musical family, Odd Future. ‘He loves them very much,’ admits Leila. ‘He spent hours watching youtube after youtube of OFWGKTA and their new series ‘Loiter Squad’ and is so proud and excited that Frank (Ocean) is playing stadiums in Europe opening for Coldplay.’

For now, Earl, after a dazzling five days in New York helping launch OFWGKTA’s 'Mixtape Vol. 2' and hysterical, relentless TV interviews, is recovering from some seismic life-shifting experiences, readjusting to L.A. life, school and the pains of being an 18 year old with the world at his feet before they’ve even touched ground. Hopefully, with Leila’s expertise of dealing with L.A.’s wildest elements, this time we’ll support our new artists as humans – and not just commodities.

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Words by Nina Bhadreshwar

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