Earlier this week, we introduced you to Tyler Craven, the 17-year-old Virginia native who attended Coral Reef Academy in Samoa with Earl Sweatshirt. The previous post consisted of Facebook screenshots and other digital detective tactics similar to those Complex employed when we originally found Earl.
We got on the phone with Tyler Craven and he had a lot to say about the nine months he spent in the program, many of them with the missing Odd Future star he calls by his government name, Thebe Kgositsile. From being there with Earl as OFWGKTA was blowing up to day-to-day life at the academy, we have all the details that we need to close this chapter on the Earl Sweatshirt saga until he returns home.
Interview by Ernest Baker (@newbornrodeo).
Complex: Why were you sent to Coral Reef Academy?
Tyler Craven: It basically all added up to me not doing school and starting to get into other things, such as drugs. Smoking weed.
Complex: Was that the only drug that you did?
Tyler Craven: I’ve done some pills here and there. Some hallucinogens here and there. But mostly just herb.
Complex: Did your parents freak out?
Tyler Craven: Yeah, I went to a mental hospital, military school, and wilderness program. Thebe also went to a wilderness program before he went to Coral Reef. Pretty much every single student who went to Coral Reef went through a wilderness program before getting there.
Complex: What are wilderness programs?
Tyler Craven: Your parents send you there and you are basically sent out in the middle of the southern Utah desert. There’s one in Colorado, Oregon, Arizona. Just Midwest high desert regions. There’s also one where you hike down the Appalachian Trail. The one that Thebe went to was Second Nature. I went to one called Red Cliff Ascent. You go there and they give you a tarp, metal pot, food bag, a string, a trash bag, and a sleeping bag. Then you go out with a group of six students and two staff. You're typically there anywhere from 40 days to 100 days and you don’t shower at all during this time period. You wash your hands and feet twice a day and that’s it. Oh, and once a week you do full body, fill a warm bucket of water and you wash yourself. I was there in the middle of winter.
Complex: Their goal is to discipline you?
Tyler Craven: I guess. And to teach self control.
Complex: How long were you at Coral Reef?
Tyler Craven: I went to Coral Reef March 10th. Then I left December 9th.
Complex: What was the process behind sending you to Samoa?
Tyler Craven: It all started when I got kicked out of military school for smoking weed. Then after that I got sent straight to wilderness. From wilderness I went straight to Samoa.
Complex: Do these programs work together or is that just the way your parents set it up?
Tyler Craven: No, there's a really large network of programs working together and the therapists contact the other programs or the owners of other programs. Some of them might even know each other. They all work with each other. Everyone that gets kicked out of the military school that I went to for smoking weed, or getting caught with drugs, they all go to wilderness. Then kids from wilderness always go to another program afterwards, whether it be a halfway house, or a fucking program in Samoa, Utah, or wherever.
Complex: Is this stuff expensive?
Tyler Craven: Samoa costs $7,000 a month, and that is one of the cheapest programs that you can send your kid to. I believe wilderness is around $14,000 a month. Wilderness was probably the best-run place that I went to. Like, best structured. As odd as that sounds.
Complex: Why did you get sent to military school?
Tyler Craven: I set off a smoke bomb in the bathroom in middle school when I was in 8th grade. That started it. Military school was about a year and a half after that. The year after the smoke bomb, I was on probation, and while on probation I caught some more charges for grand larceny. I robbed a house. Back then I was 14 or 15. Then I was in jail for a total of six months. I went there multiple times for months at a time. After that I was under house arrest for a while. I went to a youth shelter, which was also part of the court system. After I was done with the government shit I was still getting in arguments with my mom and smoking weed. I went to the first quarter of my freshman year in public school, but I wasn’t doing any of my schoolwork. Most of my problems revolved around school. If I had good grades and did a little bit of drugs on the side, my parents wouldn’t care. But I just wasn’t doing anything at all in school. Straight Fs. Then I went to an alternative school because I was getting such bad grades. Right after that, I got sent to military school over the summer. Straight from summer military school I went into the school year and I got kicked out about halfway through.
Complex: What was it like arriving to Samoa?
Tyler Craven: Being on the plane and going over there, I was honestly kind of happy. I was happy to be traveling to a beautiful tropical island. I was excited to be visiting a new place, but I had no idea what was coming next.
Continue reading for Tyler Craven's recollection of meeting Earl and daily life at Coral Reef Academy.
Complex: When did the reality of what was coming next hit you?
Tyler Craven: I got tired of that place four months after being there. I was being good because I decided when I got there that I was going to be fake and that I was going to get out as fast as possible. There’s two ways to get out of that place. You’re either fake or you’re wild as shit. There’s no in-between. You can’t just be dull and keep your mouth shut, which is my main game when I go to a program.
Complex: They want to see you improve.
Tyler Craven: You know how your mom is? The therapists are basically like two female moms there trying to teach you shit. You almost have to be a gay dude. Like an emotional guy who understands things and you have to talk to them and understand where they’re coming from. In groups you have to agree with them. But then all your people who used to be your friends don’t like you anymore because you’re fake. You just look stupid to the other students, but you look good to the therapists. You can’t really have the therapists and the students like you. That’s the way it is.
Complex: Do guys who stick to their guns and still don’t give a fuck tend to get the most respect from other students? Or do people recognize that you have to be fake and it’s acceptable?
Tyler Craven: People there completely recognize that. These are all kids who have been through programs so they understand that. But there are the ones who are fake and they’re also somehow putting down the other students. That’s when you’re hated. That’s also what the therapists really love and starting coming everywhere and going crazy over you.
Complex: Is it comfortable, at least? What's the housing and food like?
Tyler Craven: Housing is reasonable. They make you clean your own house and shit, of course. Samoa is like the most obese country in the world so you have to imagine just having carbs on top of carbs. That’s really all they give you. The food's horrible. The therapists are morbidly obese. At least 400 or 450 pounds each.
Complex: Are they two guys?
Tyler Craven: No, it's two American females. These women would bring back their groceries and they would be stacked full of junk food. We would see them and about 90% of kids are there for addiction. Whether it be gambling, sex, drugs, whatever. These women were addicted to food. It’s hypocrisy.
Complex: If you got there in March, when did Thebe show up?
Tyler Craven: I honestly don’t remember. He was there for much more than half the time that I was there. I’m thinking like a month or two over half the time that I was there. He probably got there around June or July.
Complex: How did any friendship or relationship with him start?
Tyler Craven: Me and Thebe got close because we were able to share jokes very differently than he could share jokes with the rest of the students. I understood his sense of humor very well, and he understood mine. We just had the same sense of humor. We actually talked about making some videos, like some Mad TV-type shit, on YouTube together when we got back. I don’t know if he’ll have time for that when he gets back now. [Laughs.]
Complex: When did you figure out that he’s a famous rapper?
Tyler Craven: He didn’t refer to himself as famous. None of the students know how big he actually is right now. At the same time, we all knew that Tyler got in XXL magazine and Complex and all that.
Complex: How did you guys know that? Did you have Internet?
Tyler Craven: Yeah, we do online school while there.
Complex: Your browsing isn’t monitored?
Tyler Craven: Bypassing the firewall in a third world country is very simple. No one on the island knows computers better than any average American teenager. They just don’t have access to computers like we do.
Complex: How does the timeline of your friendship with Thebe go? From meeting him and you guys sharing a similar sense of humor to him revealing what he was doing back home, as well as you guys looking online and seeing his name.
Tyler Craven: We all knew that he was a musician. The message of how popular he was became clearer and clearer during school. The staff would leave every now and then and if you were sitting next to Thebe he would pull something up and tell you to look at it. He’d have a picture of Tyler or something on the computer in some kind of magazine or an article. He’d pull up a picture of his album cover, Mellowhype or something, and we’d be like, “Oh, damn. That album cover is fucking tight.” We actually got a hold of some of his music too. We were able to download it and we played it down in the gym.
Complex: You probably had to sneak to do all of that.
Tyler Craven: Oh, yeah. Of course. I don’t know how the student got this MP3 player. I think he stole it off someone, but no one on the island even has an MP3 player so I don’t know. He had the cord so he just transferred the music during school. We would bump Odd Future during free time.
Complex: What would he say about Odd Future and Tyler?
Tyler Craven: He called Tyler his brother and said that they'd do anything for each other. He talked about the OF swag. About the atheist, murderous, wildass fuck mentality they got and we all love. But you can't just be told about his unique style. You gotta see it. He was really humble about his prodigy status, though. He honestly just called his mom a cunt and a bitch repeatedly for sending him there. He would just say, “Who does that?” Especially knowing who he is. He really didn’t know why he was sent there. He knew his mom's reason for doing it, but he was very far from understanding it. There is no understanding it because it doesn’t make sense.
Complex: Besides the music he was making, what’s her reason? Did he get into a lot of trouble the way you did?
Tyler Craven: No. He told me that he had only smoked weed a few times and he hadn’t really done drugs that much. His mind was just blown, like “Why?” He never stopped asking himself why.
Complex: What was Thebe like in the program? How did you and the group of people there interact?
Tyler Craven: There are kids there who form cliques. There were 18 to 20 kids there, just because things change and people leave and shit.
Complex: What type of kid was Thebe?
Tyler Craven: Everyone loved Thebe. He’s hilarious because he has a way with words. Just like his music. He’s quick with it too. He would just outdo everyone in being funny. People would follow him. He was a leader.
Complex: Is there any memorable shit that went down there?
Tyler Craven: He’d always do impressions. He’d do an impression of Earl. He has Thebe, who’s hilarious. When he’d turn into Earl, he’s this 80-year-old man who has a bad back. He’d just walk around like he has a horrible back, and he’d fall into the pool or something. Everyone who was around him when he turned into Earl would just start being like, “Earl! Earl! Get over here Earl!” People would do shit like write on their hand “Free Earl,” even there. Oh, what else. I talked to the guy from the New Yorker today. The guy who wrote the article.
Complex: Oh, you talked to Kelefa on the phone? What did he have to say?
Tyler Craven: Just pretty much the same stuff. General shit. I told him the article is BS, but I understood that he didn’t know any better. That was the closest that he knew to fact. But then I told him what the mix-up was, how the therapist basically forced him to write that letter.
Complex: Do you feel like if someone wanted to talk to him it had to go through a therapist who had to see what he wrote?
Tyler Craven: Oh, yeah. The only way to do it behind their back was through email or Facebook by bypassing the firewall on the Internet. There wasn’t going to be any type of phone calls or closed envelope letters going out. There wasn’t even any letters going out. Everyone just did email. You could send secret emails, but that’s also very seldom that you get that opportunity to get on the computers. They're usually right on your ass if you’re on the computer.
Complex: How do you get out of Coral Reef Academy?
Tyler Craven: That happens by you “changing,” as the therapist refers to it. If you come there perfect then you’re not going to leave for a long time. Unless you start wilding out. They have to see an improvement.
Complex: It’s up to their discretion when you leave?
Tyler Craven: It's up to their discretion and your parents' discretion. For instance, when Thebe was in the box for three months, over Christmas, the therapist wanted to take him out, but his mom said no.
Complex: Why was he in the box?
Tyler Craven: For trying to contact the rest of Odd Future while in school.
Complex: Even if you get past the firewall you can get caught?
Tyler Craven: Yeah, I mean all it takes is for them to look over your shoulder once when you’re not expecting it. If they see you on something else, that’s it. Even if you close it really quick they can go back and check the history. Especially for Thebe. They were told to watch him more.
Complex: So they know he’s Earl Sweatshirt?
Tyler Craven: The therapists comprehend how big he is, but on the island there is no such thing as fame. It’s only consists of 180,000 people so they don’t really have a comprehension of fame. They’ve been told that he’s a musician who’s very popular in the U.S.
Complex: So the only time that you have to go on the Internet is when you’re still at risk of getting caught?
Tyler Craven: There’s a schoolroom, and all the kids are in one room. It looks like a computer lab. All the computers are made so that the computer lab dude can supervise the kids. This way it's super hard to get away with. All the computers are up against the outside walls and they’re facing the middle of the room, and there’s someone in the middle of the room watching you. Often times they’re reading a magazine, or the Bible because they’re all super religious.
Complex: The only time you got Internet access was during school?
Tyler Craven: Yeah, except there’s one student there who has a PSP and my roommate had his iTouch. Like I said, the Samoans don’t understand electronics or technology that much so they don’t understand that we’re not supposed to have them. They never saw them anyway, but if they saw them they’d just be like, “Okay, it's just for music.”
Complex: Were there any girls around?
Tyler Craven: Well, no. There are six destinations. When you get to destination five you can start working, but 90% of people who have not finished high school did not get to work. Actually being out there and them giving you that much trust helps you in getting out of the program a lot. So people who have not finished high school are automatically there for longer. A lot longer. When you go out on a job, you are completely unsupervised, but it takes a very good faker to get to that point.
Complex: What’s the box like?
Tyler Craven: The box is a seven-foot by seven-foot room, with a wood floor and absolutely nothing in it. They give you a mattress. I wouldn’t even call it a mattress. It's like two inches thick. It’s a piece of foam that you sleep on. There’s a member of staff inside this tiny house and you’re segregated from the rest of the students. If you talk to any of the students outside, and the students outside respond, then they get put in there too. In a different one because they wouldn’t put two people in the same one. That would be too much entertainment for them. You’re in there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Complex: Have you been in there?
Tyler Craven: No, I was never in there. Thebe was in there for three months over Christmas. He was still in the box when I left, and he was going to be there over Christmas and New Year's. I knew he was going to be there. It’s already determined how long you’re going to be in there.
Complex: Do you not do other activities such as school while you’re in the box?
Tyler Craven: Oh, no. You don’t do anything in there.
Complex: Once Thebe went in you didn’t see him anymore?
Tyler Craven: We saw him, but we weren’t allowed to talk to him and he wasn’t allowed to talk to us. We saw him around, like 30 feet away.
Complex: So you spent about a month or two physically with him?
Tyler Craven: No. I don’t know if I did the math wrong, but I really don’t know when he got there. I lived with him in the same house for most of the time I knew him. We would just talk. We hung out. Every kid says at least a few sentences to every other kid there, but Thebe and me would sit down and talk with a couple other kids for a while.
Complex: You said he came to Coral Reef in June or July, a few months after you got there. How long did you know him before he went into the box?
Tyler Craven: I went home before Christmas. He went in there like a month before December.
Continue reading for Tyler's thoughts on when Earl will return and his message for OFWGKTA.
Complex: Did he ever rap for you guys?
Tyler Craven: He would say a few lines every once in a while. I read some of his stuff. I love his music. I love Tyler’s music.
Complex: He wrote a lot while there?
Tyler Craven: Yeah. He wrote enough to make a whole album, at least.
Complex: Does he have to keep his writing hidden the way people have to with their iPods?
Tyler Craven: They don’t search our houses. They don’t search our houses because we don’t have access to anything. A student might get some cigarettes once every six months. I got super cool with the staff, so they hooked me up all the time. They trusted me enough and knew I wouldn’t go and tell the other students. I got really lucky in that aspect. I would smoke with Thebe and stuff. There’s a storage room where students have their iPods and shit, but it’s locked until you get to the level that you’re allowed to have it. But students will still go in there and steal shit out of their own storage bins. That’s how the kid got the PSP.
Complex: Makes sense.
Tyler Craven: If a therapist got a hold of his writing, I don’t know what they would do, but that could be very bad. Very bad. I would think that they would just throw it away immediately. They are extremely anti-sexist, and obviously his music is going to have “cunt this, cunt that.” [Laughs.] They would go fucking crazy with the rants they would go on in groups.
Complex: Is the discipline ever physical or is it always just rants?
Tyler Craven: There are three staff there, now two, who were incarcerated their entire lives in the U.S. and the reason they’re in Samoa now is because they were deported. They’re both former Crips, but they never beat us. One of the guys got fired after I left for verbally going crazy on a student because he pissed him off so much. I attempted to get that staff member to punch me in the face once because I know if he did my parents would pull me. That’s the kind of shit students do to get out. That’s how desperate I was. I wanted to talk shit to this guy so much that he was going to punch me in the face, and I knew he would do it, too. I didn’t get him to do it because I would have had to be away from the rest of the staff. A staff member came down while he was yelling at me, and they told him to back off and forget it. I was just laughing in his face.
Complex: What’s the day-to-day like? What do you do at Coral Reef?
Tyler Craven: Sure, I’ll give you a school day and a Saturday and Sunday. School days you wake up when its still dark outside. Around 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. Go have breakfast and then we go to school 'til two o’clock, I think. We go to lunch in the middle of school, at 12. Then right after school, we go back to our houses and change out of our school uniform. Yes, they make us wear a uniform even though there are only 18 kids there and we’re not even out in the public at all. We go to group right after that for an hour, hour and a half. All the groups are run by a therapist, never by a student. Well, a student runs one of the groups on Sunday, but therapists run all the other ones. Sometimes the therapist will bring in a sad story about some kid who died on heroin, or we’ll watch a movie about some kid who’s done drugs.
Complex: Is there any hard labor?
Tyler Craven: There’s no hard labor. There are hikes. This is kind of funny. We went on a hike once, and we all noticed we were walking through a cow field. There were cows everywhere for part of the hike. On the cow dung there was a very large amount of shrooms. All of us that comprehended what they were started eating them, including Thebe.
Complex: Real psilocybin ones?
Tyler Craven: Natural, 100%, straight from the cow shit. I’ve done shrooms in the past and these were unlike any other ones I’ve ever seen. Straight white.
Complex: What happened when you guys started tripping?
Tyler Craven: We were chill because we didn’t want to get caught, but there was a good four of us who did them.
Complex: Was it fun?
Tyler Craven: Thebe and me just went back and sat in our house because we didn’t want to get caught. We said if we were going to do this, we just have to be chill afterwards.
Complex: Was it a fun trip outside of the limitations of it?
Tyler Craven: Hell yeah. First of all, us druggies who were there had a great time. The hike was great, too. I love getting high and going outside.
Complex: Do you have any idea when Thebe will be back?
Tyler Craven: Because so much light is on the program right now, because of Thebe, I’m thinking the therapists are going to let him leave when he’s 18. Just him. If he’s not gone when he’s 18, that’s when authorities in America will know about it. He'll be an adult in his home country. At that point lawyers will be looking into it themselves just to get some money out of it.
Complex: How would he have to progress through the level system to get out before that?
Tyler Craven: In order to get out you either have to be fake or wild, like I said. For the first four months I was fake and I kept my mouth shut. I just went along with it like, “These bitches are retarded, but I’ll just go along with it.” It got on my nerves more and more, and then I got over it and said, “Fuck this.” I told myself I was going to start being honest, and I told my parents that in the phone calls with them. It was six months of me faking it and then four months of me talking shit about the program in front of the therapists and straight to my mom. I would list off everything that made the program dysfunctional. In my situation, that worked, but every student’s situation is different and it has a lot to do with the parents. In Thebe’s situation that won’t work because they kept him in the box for three months over Christmas. They don’t give a shit. They just want to keep him there. His parents want to rip the verbal violence out of him, I guess. Which isn’t going to happen. But that’s what they want to do. They don’t understand that that’s not going to happen so they keep trying and trying.
Complex: Do these programs change people?
Tyler Craven: No. My wilderness program was the best experience of my entire life. I changed there a lot. I’m not saying I changed there a lot, but while I was out there I saw the world extremely clear. A major part of it was the diet they gave me. The diet and being so close to the earth, because everything you’re doing relates to the earth. Mother nature is your therapist there. The therapists at the wilderness program were extremely intelligent. The therapist I had was the smartest person I have ever met in my life. He taught me a lot. Just about my brain. He could break it down like crazy. Thebe said the same thing. He said his therapist in wilderness was smart as shit, too.
Complex: Did he specifically tell you that the CRA therapists weren’t helping him?
Tyler Craven: That was kind of a given. Every single student there talks shit about the therapists non-stop. That was a very open discussion on the daily between students. We would walk out of group everyday and say, “Wow, did they really just make us play that gay ass game?” It’s like, is this a day care center? That’s why it got on your nerves so much. The people that care about their parents' money are also pissed. My parents were spending all this money and were ignorant to what the program actually was. They trusted these people, the therapists, simply because they were labeled as professionals. They said, “We sent you to professionals, and we trust them as professionals.”
Complex: What was it like coming back to the States
Tyler Craven: My adjustment back to the U.S. was overwhelming. Life seemed unreal. I felt stupid and mind-numbed because when you're there, you're forced to block out almost all emotion because you have so much built up, but if you act stupid, you're gonna stay longer. When I got back, I got caught smoking again and pushing. I moved out and got a job landscaping for eight dollars an hour, busting my dick like a Mexican.
Complex: How do you feel about your newfound fame/cult hero status amongst Odd Future and Earl Sweatshirt fans?
Tyler Craven: Though I answer all text and Facebook messages, I don't give a shit about any of it except for the people who offer me shit. This one dude offered me a place to stay if I'm ever around his way, but a plane ticket to Samoa for a covert operation would be some real shit. [Laughs.]
Complex: What's going on in the picture that confirmed Earl's presence in Samoa?
Tyler Craven: We stopped for ice cream after we performed at a festival and did a Samoan tribal dance. The U.S. ambassador to Samoa paid for us to have some ice cream.
Complex: Did Earl want people to know the truth?
Tyler Craven: Yes. Of course he wanted his fans to know the truth. Music is his life and a musician is nothing without his fans. He was pissed when the therapists made him write that bullshit to the New Yorker.
Complex: Do you have anything you want to say to Odd Future?
Tyler Craven: I want Odd Future to know that I have more info regarding Thebe that is not available to the public. I want to speak to Tyler, The Creator. This is very important for Thebe's earliest possible return to the U.S.