In the arena of contrived social media controversies, few figures having gone further for shock value than Lil Tay, a 10-year-old rapper who wormed her way into headlines after an onslaught of scripted fights and Youtube videos of her throwing money on the ground. In the past year, the Canadian pre-teen has released tragically bad rap tracks, smoked hookah, filmed dozens of so-called “flex videos,” started beef with other internet micro-celebrities, dropped the N-word gratuitously and launched a short-lived docuseries to apologize for using the N-word so much—only to mysteriously disappear from social media in June, leaving only an ominous Instagram story behind that read “help me.”
The 10-year-old has become such a magnet for transparently-staged scandal—or what a former manager called “controversy marketing”—that some outlets worried the rapper’s mother, Angela Tian, and 17-year-old brother, Jason, were exploiting her to an extent that verged on abuse. This week, Lil Tay wound up yet again the subject of trouble—a kind where the line between fact and reality-TV-style fiction has become so deeply blurred that it’s hard to tell them apart.
Over the weekend, Tay’s management came out with actual allegations of abuse—not against her mother or brother, but against the rapper’s father, a Vancouver lawyer named Christopher John Hope. Hope, until this weekend, was not a part of Tay’s public presence. That changed Saturday night, when someone, identifying themselves only as a person who “previously worked with Tay” and has “seen everything unfold since the beginning,” posted videos of the preteen crying on her Instagram and accused Hope of abusive behavior.
The poster claimed that Hope was behind the rapper’s sudden disappearance, and had court-ordered her back to Canada in order to profit off her earnings and celebrity. He had banned her from social media, they alleged, “because he was afraid she would expose the TRUTH to the world, the truth of what he has done and hasn’t been punished for.”
But Tay’s current manager, Harry Tsang, and another source who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity (out of fear of retaliation from Tay’s brother, Jason), claimed separately that the recent allegations against Hope were fabricated. The anonymous Instagram poster’s new campaign to “#freeliltay,” both sources said, appeared to be yet another attempt by Tay’s management to convert scandal into fame.
“Christopher Hope does not want any money from Lil Tay,” Tsang told The Daily Beast. “There are only three things he wants to see. First, no more crazy videos of cursing from Tay. Second, 25% of the gross earnings going to a trust fund dedicated to Tay. The third thing is, there has to be structure in her operation, in her public image.”
The original allegations came out in a series of Instagram uploads broken into eight parts, some of which have since been deleted, detailing Tay’s estranged relationship with Hope. They claimed that Hope had threatened to place Tay in foster care and have her mother arrested if the child did not obey the court order. They referenced a history of abuse, including “often sle[eping] with different women with Tay in the same bed” and being “naked around Tay,” and a failure on Hope’s part to pay child support. They claimed Hope’s new partner “would scream at Tay and forcefully lock her in a dark closet for hours at a time for no reason, all with the knowledge and permission” of her father.
According to Tsang, the allegations got one thing right: Hope did court-order Tay back to his residence in June. According to two sources, the Vancouver lawyer has full custody over the 10-year-old, whose real name is Claire Hope. But the two have not lived together for some time. Earlier this year, Tay came to the United States with her mother and brother, a trip that Tsang says the mother extended “indefinitely,” forcing Hope to resort to legal action to retrieve his daughter.
The other allegations of abuse, Tsang alleged to The Daily Beast, were false. In an interview and in a series of explainer videos uploaded to Instagram, the eccentric manager, who calls himself the “Roger Stone of social media,” said the rapper’s brother was just using the 11-year-old as a “cash cow” and a means to “get famous.”
In cease-and-desist sent to Instagram and obtained by The Blast, Hope wrote that the Instagram account had been “taken over by by her brother, Jingxian Sun a.k.a. Jason Tian, also a minor. He has either personally, or encouraged others, or negligently allowed the account to be used by third parties, to conduct criminal extortion and harassment as well as the torts of defamation and libel.” Hope also noted that, since the posts went up, he and his family have received death threats. (Lil Tay’s Instagram has since been wiped clean.)
Accord to Tsang, the allegations were almost more outlandish. Tsang claimed that last week he had derailed a plan concocted by the rapper’s brother and mother to accuse Tay’s father of sexually assaulting her. That plan got derailed, the manager said, when he tipped off Hope, who threatened legal action. The anonymous source confirmed that a plan to accuse the father of sexual abuse had been in the works for over one month.
Another representative for Tay, a promoter named Chris Jones, told The Verge that the posts were a hack. Jones did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Last month, in another apparent hack, Tay’s Instagram account, run by her management, published brutally violent and overtly racist images alongside shots of Tay’s passport that seemed to imply the rapper was 16. At the time, a source close to Tay confirmed that the posts came from a hacker who knew the family, and who posted the offensive content in retaliation for an internal dispute.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, one of the young rapper’s former managers, Alex “Loyalty” Gelbard, opened up about what he called “controversy concepts,” a kind of social-media marketing designed to stir up conflict and channel it into publicity—and one of the keys to explaining the ongoing saga of Lil Tay.
At the time, Gelbard told The Daily Beast that he was working on a Lil Tay brand makeover. He couldn’t say what it was, but that, “It’s going to be obvious,” adding, “When you see it, you will know.”
But one fallout of controversy marketing is that when serious accusations emerge, it’s hard to tell if they’re real.