Altruism, Autism and Cynicism: 50 Tyson and the Exploitation of a Youtube Sensation

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Two weeks ago I was having a drink with my buddy Vic when he asked me if I’d heard of 50Tyson.

“I haven’t,” I said. “Who is he?”

Vic nodded, pulled out his Mac, placed it on the bar and jumped on Youtube. Once the video finished loading, he pressed play and went back to eating.  “Watch,” he said. “Just watch.”

Even living in an age of stunningly delusional American Idol contestants and  shamelessly clueless reality show stars hadn’t prepared me for the twenty car pile up that is Antonio Henderson-Davis AKA 50 Tyson. Had it been a highway accident I would’ve been the rubber necker causing the mile-long back up. The last viral video to grab me like this was the two-year old cigarette addict, and even that didn’t seem as reprehensible. After all, it wasn’t like the two-year old was calling attention to himself. And he certainly didn’t think what he was up to was cool.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I was experiencing  that rare moment that only a service like Youtube can produce. In exchange for the effort it took to type the words “50 Tyson Youtube” into a search box and the  2 minutes and 11 seconds it took to watch, I got a  free, unedited glimpse into the fantasy world of a young man whose unflinching grandiosity, utter lack of self-awareness and mind-bogglingly atrocious lyrical skills  are only matched by his bizarro resemblance to two of pop culture’s most controversial, fascinating, and unpredictable characters — Iron Mike and Fiddy. In fact, I’m willing to bet that at least part of the 50 Tyson sensation stems from the rich, sordid and comical material that the real Mike Tyson and 50  Cent provide us with on a regular basis. Which would make him a parody of a parody.

As I watched 50Tyson’s video I found myself doing the only thing I could. Laugh. And laugh. And laugh some more. All the while I was keenly aware that this wasn’t “ha, ha” laughter; this was the laughter of  disorientation and discomfort, the awkward laughter that accompanies an awkward moment.

I turned to Vic. “This is a joke, right? I mean, he’s not serious.”

I really did hope it was a joke and I hoped he was in on it.  In that moment I wanted it to be yet another attention seeking parody devised to poke fun at the dumbed-down quality of contemporary rap. Why else would he name himself 50 Tyson, right? Why else would no one stop him?

Vic was equivocal, though. “We’ve only just begun,” he said. Then he clicked on another video. This time a shirtless 5o Tyson was standing in his yard  singing — and, yes, I’m using the term loosely —  a medley of R&B ballads, in falsetto no less.

I didn’t laugh this go round. But I still couldn’t stop watching. And judging by the two plus million views this video had, I wasn’t alone.

Then Vic showed me the big one: 50 Tyson’s official music video. A director by the name of Jordan Tower flew to Minnesota to, in his words, “show an example of how one won’t let a disability get in the way of their dreams coming true.”

50, it turns out, is autistic.

This is where things got weird. An otherwise innocent Youtube moment that, left alone, would’ve eventually faded into internet oblivion had instead snowballed into a cause celebre.  All of a sudden, 50 Tyson was … a voice for a cause?! An inspirational story? Really? Watching the music video was unsettling for several reasons. Now that I knew he had a disability,  how I was supposed to respond? Was I supposed to feel bad for laughing? Was I supposed to pity him? Admire him? Buy one of his t-shirts?

For his part, the “star” is characterized in the video as a teenage sensation. He walks through a mall with his entourage. He takes photos with fans. He raps in front of a shiny car, a school,  his yard, and in a recording studio. He also engages in an uncoordinated dance that looks like a remixed version of hopscotch.

In the accompanying documentary Henderson-Davis rides around in a limo, brags about his plans of moving out of his house (presumably into a mansion) and wistfully recounts his life before fame  as if he’s  already an accomplished artist returning to his humble roots. I could see the clueless teenager’s ego expanding with every false compliment his bogus interviewer lobbed his way. He wasn’t that delusional kid in his bathroom with a camera anymore; he had people around him actively participating in the delusion, people feeding his ego for their own gain, people who knew full well the 50 Tyson phenomenon would eventually fade but who nonetheless planned to make a quick buck or name at his expense before that day came. It all seemed so cruel, so mean, so cynical, so exploitative. And it was all being clumsily couched beneath this phony veneer of altruism. It made me sick.

I decided to do some homework on this Jordan Tower character. Turns out he makes his living filming low-budget, cookie-cutter hip-hop videos featuring lackluster rappers with limited lyrical skills and and even narrower world views. I watched several of his “films” online. They’re easily some of the most unimaginative things I’ve ever seen. Easily. In Souljah Boy’s Gettin Money”  the rapper stands on the roof of a building blowing smoke into the camera while counting counterfeit money. In Yo Gotti’s “Shoot Off,” the rapper pulls semi-automatic weapons out of his trunk and wields them menacingly. In Juicy J’s “Let’s Get High” the rapper freebases on camera while glorifying prescription drugs.

On what planet is any of this still cool much less creative?

Tower’s Youtube page consists of 72 video uploads.  They’ve been viewed a combined eight million times over the last four years. By way of comparison, it took all of 72 hours for 50 Tyson’s “I Ain’t Gonna Lie” video to reach a whopping twelve million views. My point: I’d believe the New Jersey Nets have a legit shot at making the playoffs before I’d believe this Jordan Tower guy all of a sudden grew a conscience and decided to film 50 Tyson’s first video on his own dime in order to bring attention to Autism.

The cynicism didn’t stop with the music video, though. On October 4th Hudson Records announced it had signed 50 Tyson to a deal. The press release  announcing the agreement — which is riddled with typos and grammatical errors —  reeked of insincere goodwill:

When living with autism it’s quite an amazing feat to be able to create hooks, write lyrics and perform raps but 50 Tyson’s is not an ordinary kid with autism.

50 Tyson’s popularity grew tremendously after comedian Kevin Hart posted a YouTube spoof and interpretation of 50 Tyson rapping … This activity drew the heartfelt attention of music executives Troy Hudson and Attorney James Wm. Morrison which led to a record deal with Hudson Records… Wow!

Both Hudson and Attorney Morrison have overcome life altering issues of their own and feel that, “… Autism only makes 50 Tyson special rather than handicapped or disabled”. Morrison says, “This young man has the heart of a champion. Hudson Records is dedicated to assuring that he succeeds in all levels of life. This is a long term commitment.” For 50 Tyson, this is just the beginning of a new career as an entertainer and as a spokesperson for Autism.

Troy Hudson is a former NBA player. Back in 2007 he released an album under the moniker T-Hud entitled Undrafted. According to his Wikipedia page the album sold a whopping 78 copies in its first week. Since the massive success of that album he’s turned his efforts to managing and promoting “top performing” independent artists like …

Such as …

Let’s be honest, 50 Tyson IS Hudson Records. Henderson-Davis’ upcoming performances in North Carolina and Indiana are the only shows listed on the site’s events page. Along with one of his cronies, 50-T hosts a daily u-stream show on the site. And the site’s premier product offerings are all attached to the 50 Tyson  “brand”: fans can cop the single a $1.oo,  “I Ain’t Gonna Lie” t-shirts  for $15, hoodies (for girls and guys) for between $35-$45, hats for $30 and the exclusive 50 Tyson football jersey can be yours for just $19.95.

For Hudson Records to suggest that it signed 50 Tyson because he has the “heart of a champion” and that they are dedicated to his success “in all levels of life” is as insulting (to my intelligence, at least) as it is cynical. Record labels aren’t charities. They aren’t in the altruism business. Which isn’t to say benefiting financially from a good deed necessarily negates the basic good intent behind the act. Moreover, I don’t think harboring multiple motivations is problematic per se. What is suspicious is the lengths to which those who’ve become involved in the 50 Tyson sensation are going to suppress the appearance that they are exploiting him for their own self interest. It’s as if they know what they’re up to is malicious so they’re overcompensating for it by promoting the Autism angle. For instance, next month Tyson will be headlining his first New York performance. The evening will also feature an artist showcase but he’s clearly the main draw for the label players, magazines, radio reps and industry wannabes expected to be in attendance.  According to the flyer, a “portion of the proceeds” from the $15 tickets will go to Autism Speaks. Although the exact “portion” is unspecified (and could therefore be anything), the event promoters carved out significant space for the autism organization’s logo and mission on the flyer. My question is this: If he’s really talented, why not promote him as an artist like anyone else? Alternatively, if he’s a legitimate rap act and his song is really a hit, why highlight his disability? The answer is simple. 50 Tyson is a spectacle, a one-off curiosity, and the scoundrels behind him are putting him on display for public amusement in furtherance of their own careers. Also, assuming he really is 17 and mentally disabled, how is he able to sign any of these contracts in the first place? Minors and the mentally disabled can’t legally enter contracts on their own. Did his parents sign? Did they hire their own lawyers? Who’s looking out for this kid’s interests? Sooner than later the ride he’s on is going to come to a screeching halt.

And then what happens?

What’s really sad is that he’s not in on the joke. He really believes people are watching his videos because he’s good, thinks all of the attention he’s receiving means he’s an accomplished artist.  Truth is he’s nothing more than an extreme example of what the Youtube era has spawned. The ultra-easy access to millions of viewers has led all too many of us to believe that we too can make a viral video. People see Antoine Dodson on the BET Awards and think that could be them next year. Forget paying dues. Forget dedication. Who needs talent when you can buy swagger at the mall?  Who needs substance when you can just copy what you see on the screen? Confidence has replaced competence. Positive thinking is the new national religion. Hard work is anathema. Everyone’s equal. Everyone’s got a voice. Everyone’s a blogger and a Tweeter. And why not? If the cast of Jersey Shore can draw millions of viewers every week, then why shouldn’t 50 Tyson think he has an album’s worth of material in him at the ripe old age of 17?

Oddly enough, the only decent player in all of this may be person who sparked the 50 Tyson sensation. Comedian Kevin Hart’s spoof might appear cruel in retrospect, but at least it’s honest. He saw what many of us saw when we encountered 50 Tyson the first time — an unscripted catastrophe of epic proportions — and he did what comedians and social commentators are charged with doing: he made fun of an awkward moment and in so doing normalized it so the rest of us could have a guilt-free chuckle. But  he also made an important point: Everybody isn’t born to be a ballplayer or a rapper, a model or an actress. There are some things we can do and some things we can’t. And that’s okay.

Sports fans may remember Jason McElwain. Like 50 Tyson, he was (and is) a young man living with Autism. Four years ago “J-Mac” scored 20 points in four minutes of a high school basketball game, including six three-point shots in a row. Six. There are players in the NBA who couldn’t hit six threes in a row if they were all alone in a gym.  What people may or may not know is that McElwain’s success in that moment was the result of years of hard work and preparation. He didn’t just walk in the a gym one day and let ’em rip. He practiced. He joined the team as a manager. He stuck with it. He earned a spot on the squad. He rode the bench.  He continued to stick with it. And then he got his chance. After the video of his performance aired on Sportscenter he became an instant hero to millions. He met with President Bush, won an ESPY, published a book, became a spokesperson for Autism, appeared in a Gatorade ad and even signed a movie deal. What he didn’t sign was a letter of intent to a college basketball program much less a deal with a professional team. What he didn’t become was a spectacle.

Four years after the fact Jason has his GED and a steady job in his hometown. He still loves basketball but going pro isn’t in his plans. College is.

Four years from now what will have become of 50 Tyson.

Will any of us even care?