Warning: contains explicit content.
Video by Alec Khan and Erin Kron / North by Northwestern.
Or at least that’s how he likes to introduce himself — both at parties and in class.
Really, there’s a lot more needed to explain the bizarre, self-deprecating raps of the 21-year-old Bienen junior who made a splash at last February’s Rap for Darfur benefit concert. He reportedly used the n-word, insulted audience members and got naked on stage before he was kicked out. But the former classical double bass performer (now “ad hoc music” major) insists that while others may deem him offensive, this is just his way of showing the world he’s all about the love.
The origins of Witherberry
The Miami native didn’t always want to be a rapper. Born in Paris to a Haitian artist father and an English mother who was in the entertainment business, he was exposed to the arts early on but was first drawn to classical music. After watching him practice Bach movements on the double bass for hours when he was in high school, Duval’s mom says she was surprised he began rapping. “I think he’s a very talented lyricist,” Nina Duval says. “But personally I don’t like rap music.”
His transition away from classical music came when he transferred to jazz studies his sophomore year. Driven to catch up in his new bass discipline, he practiced upwards of 10 hours a day until he developed severe tendonitis in his arm. The debilitating inflammation prevents him from playing bass indefinitely.
His rap endeavors began last year when he took the year off, hoping that if he rested his arm he would be able to continue playing in the 2011-2012 school year. But in the meantime he got productive. Always a fan of rap, he began creating his own beats on his computer and rapping over them. Now he has produced a classical album, an electronic album, a mixtape and a rap album, all under the name “Witherberry.”
“On the Witherberry site, it says Witherberry stands for that gay, white, little-dick, heartfelt music,” Duval says. “I don’t know if 10 years from now Witherberry is gonna exist, but those things are true.”
A year ago he wrote the original song “Bangs,” the subject of his first music video, filmed on a nude beach in his hometown. In it he raps (naked), “yes my dick is small/you can call me a wankster.” While he doesn’t quite have bangs, he does have a faux middle-aged-balding haircut he started sporting when his hairline began receding during high school. The resulting chorus is, “you can’t judge my bangs, nigga/you can’t judge my bangs.”
His raps don’t fit an archetype detailing a gangsta lifestyle, partying or sexual exploits. In “Bangs” he raps, “I was embarrassed to be gay in high school/now I’m a super nova.” In his music video where he samples the Beach Boys song “I Get Around” wearing only a Speedo, he holds up signs that read “my mommy and daddy pay for everything,” and, “I’ve totaled two cars,” acknowledging insecurities and confronting parts of his life that most students might consider the most embarrassing.
He says his inspiration for “Bangs” was the length of his penis. “I just felt like I had a small penis,” Duval says. “So back around a year ago, I’d just go to parties naked, and I still do that.”
Tad, the controvery
He hadn’t been performing his rap for long when he participated in STAND’s Rap for Darfur. Communication junior Brandon Daley (of Pokémon rap YouTube fame and a new mixtape titled “Coolest Brandon Ever,” released over the summer) was also participating in the event, and he started collaborating with Duval on raps after he saw the bizarre performance.
“As much as it was just one of the most horrifying events to ever be a part of,” Daley recalls, “It was also just like, really interesting.”
Daley witnessed Duval ask the students running the event if he could get naked during his songs. He says they said no and laughed, not expecting Duval was serious.
After he finished his song, Duval announced to the audience he would strip. He stood on stage waiting for his music to begin while the organizers stood in shock. “It was all these DG girls running it backstage who were all too timid to pull him offstage because he’s just this naked, just this hairy, uncircumcised man,” Daley says. Finally the emcee pulled him off.
The organizers didn’t kick him out, but agreed to let him compete in the freestyle portion of the competition. “He went on stage and pretty quickly the n-word just slipped out, and not derogatorily,” Daley recalls, “but more so just in a friendly way.”
But the audience, many of whom were black, did not see the friendliness behind his racial slurs and started booing him. He then tried to “equalize everyone,” in Daley’s words, allegedly pointing to audience members and saying their race with the n-word after it—“you a Jewish nigga, you a white nigga, you an Asian nigga.” A woman Daley described as “heavier set” stood up and yelled at Duval, saying his words were offensive.
“And he just points at her and snaps like, ‘you’re a fat bitch, no one has to listen to a fat bitch like you,” Daley says. The emcee kicked Duval off again while the other confused rappers finished the competition.
Though he calls himself a “straight-up white boy,” Duval comes from a multicultural background and says he never uses the n-word to offend, and he doesn’t consider himself racist. He compares it to his friends’ use of “fag.”
“I mean, if they are offensive to gay people, first of all, like, I don’t give a fuck, you know what I’m saying? It’s like, are they really homophobic? Are they really trying to offend people?” Duval explains. “Ya know it’s just like, I didn’t create the word, it’s a word that’s out there.”
Duval understands that his unusual behavior is what’s bringing attention to his music. But at the same time, he sees his behavior as honest, not just an image. “This is me, ya know what I’m saying?” Duval says. “And when I’m naked that’s me. I’m not trying to shock you. That’s literally me.”
Duval has a philosophical belief of sorts regarding the n-word — if he says it in private then that’s who he is, and who he should be in public. “Whether or not you agree with that at least he has a logical reason,” Daley explains.
The 24/7 self
Perhaps this logic of being “himself” 24/7 is what makes his strange public performance carry over into his every day life. His former roommate, Bienen senior Thom Schwartz, witnessed his odd behavior and attachment to rap percolate during Duval’s year off. Schwartz remembers when Duval introduced himself in their sophomore year jazz improv class. When the professor asked Duval to introduce himself to the class, Schwartz says he just stood up, “crotch-chopped” himself and sat back down. “That was my first real impression of him.”
Schwartz doesn’t claim to know much about rap, but describes Duval’s as underwhelming. “He’s a very, very talented jazz bassist and a very smart composer and so I think when he said he was rapping I expected something out of the way crazy different, interesting,” Schwartz says. “And when I first heard it, it didn’t really live up to my expectations. Like, now it might. But that first impression, I was like oh, this kind of sounds like other people.”
But Tad’s mom sees it differently. “His composing work, it’s really quite phenomenal,” Duval’s mother says. “At the moment he’s gone in another direction. It seems like he’s reinvented himself.”
Daley says he thinks Duval reasons his performance oddity as part of a social martyrdom. “He’s doing these things even though they’re hurting him socially and they’re making other people’s social lives more interesting,” Daley says. “They’re also making people have an opinion about him.”
Though he cites much of his material as coming from insecurities, he hopes that listeners will be uplifted by his music. “When you listen to [my music] I want you to feel inspired to lead your life more positively. Like, I don’t give a fuck if you do drugs or whatever the fuck, but I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink, I mean, I have done those things, I’m saying, but I haven’t done those in like, over a year and a half now,” Duval says. “I walk around with a smile every fucking day, I show everybody love.”
Daley speculates that Duval’s dedication could make him successful in the long term.
“Tad is gonna go completely crazy trying to do this or he’s just going to develop a following and maybe get a viral video and like, maybe make a movement, man,” Daley says. “But, that’s harder to do than going crazy.” He paused. “I have faith in him though.”
For now, Duval seems unsatisfied with the impression his music has made. At the time of press Duval’s censored YouTube version of “Bangs” had 864 hits. The uncensored Vimeo video had 2,669.
“I mean if it really connects with that many people the numbers will support it,” he says. “But I’m fuckin’ small ass fuckin’ fish right now.”
Showing the love
On a Friday night, Duval performed with Daley at a party at Duval’s Garnett Place house. He covered up with his robe again afterwards, having scared away the party-goers with his naked rapping, spitting over new renditions of hits like “What is Love” blended with his original verses.
Behind his apparent exhibitionism and “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, his frustration at the audience response was clear. He didn’t want his rap to break up the party. He had to have gone into the performance hoping he could “inspire” and “uplift” the crowd, or he wouldn’t have been so disappointed at the result.
As soon as there was time to contemplate him as capable of feeling the sting of rejection, he was back to the smiles. “I love you, I love you, thank you, thank you,” he said to the room, returning to his overly-appreciative trope. It’s hard to dwell on the misfortunes of someone who doesn’t dwell on them himself. There’s no way to know how he acted after everyone had left — if he drowned himself in tears or just sat quietly listening to classical music. Most likely, he was thinking over his performance, practicing so he’d be better at a Ridge and Davis party the next night. All he wants is to show Northwestern the love.