On June 18, 2018, XXXTentacion (real name: Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy) was shot to death during what police suspect was a robbery outside a motorcycle shop in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Another young man, 22-year old Dedrick Williams, has already been arrested and charged with his murder. Meanwhile, thousands are expected to attend the rapper’s memorial Wednesday at the stadium that typically hosts the NHL’s Florida Panthers hockey team.
But XXXTentacion is not someone I can mourn. Although his death has been met with an outpouring of sympathy, it has also revealed something dark and complicated and ultimately inescapable about the state of American hip-hop culture today.
Although his death has been met with an outpouring of sympathy, it has also revealed something dark about the state of American hip-hop culture today.
XXXTentacion’s rise to stardom is inexplicably tied to violence. In April 2015, he joined forces with Ski Mask the Slump God to create the Members Only Club; the group’s mixtapes would take the hip-hop world by storm. But only a few months later, in November of 2015, XXXTentacion was arrested for aggravated battery and home invasion. A year later he was accused of beating his pregnant girlfriend, strangling her and holding her head underwater. In fact he was awaiting trial on charges aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness tampering when he was killed.
Simply put, I don’t believe separating the person from their art is possible, especially not for someone like XXXTentacion. His acts of abuse are too well documented.
My introduction to the rapper occurred first via the allegations against him — and then via his music. His ever-growing presence in the hip-hop world was a test of that world's questionable moral compass. If left unchecked, it seems clear that XXXTentacion's rap sheet would have doubled in size over the years. But just as importantly, it seems like his fans were ready to forgive him no matter what he did. A hero to his followers, he allegedly beat a concertgoer in the face with his microphone, later claiming self-defense. How can we separate the person from their art when the two are mirror images of each other?
One of XXXTentacion’s most famous early songs, “Look At Me,” is an example of everything that made the rapper both popular and deeply problematic.
One of XXXTentacion’s most famous early songs, “Look At Me,” is an example of everything that made the rapper both popular and deeply problematic. His music was clearly a reflection of his lifestyle, and fans loved him for it. His abrasive lyrics scratch themselves through a blown-out stereo sound. Sonically, the track is a lo-fi, gritty warbling that combines hallmarks of both hip-hop and indie rock.
Enamored with his innovative work inside the recording booth, the music community turned a blind eye to his behavior outside of it. XXL Magazine selected him for its prestigious XXL Freshmen cover in 2017. After Spotify pulled the rapper’s music from its playlists after the allegations against him went public, it was pressure from Kendrick Lamar’s camp that reportedly got XXXTentacion reinstated on the streaming platform. And in the days following his murder, mainstream stars like Kanye West, Diddy, J. Cole and Gucci Mane have all mourned his death on social media.
So how does one measure such a short and violent life? In Snapchat videos or Billboard Chart Numbers? The story of XXXTentacion is an intimately American one. When I first wrote about XXXTentacion back in March, I did not think I would have to write about him again. Surely hip-hop would soon draw the line at a man accused of such brutality. And yet, how I can be so surprised when history repeats itself?
With gangsta-rap solidifying its foothold in modern hip-hop, violence against women has become commonplace and acceptable. As a student of the game, XXXTentacion is an amalgamation of all the generations of artists who came before him. The impact of his legacy will be hip-hop’s problem to reconcile — or to brush aside. Those on the other side of the conversation argue that XXXTentacion was attempting to rectify his sins and become a better person. It's unclear if that's true or not, but I don't believe that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Actions must have consequences, even for the rich and talented.
Despite XXXTentacion’s legal troubles attracting more headlines than his music releases, he climbed the charts with near-unstoppable power. Meanwhile, media outlets did little to temper the growing fever. Platforms that pushed back against his violence only served to galvanize his fan base. Outlets that refused to cover or write about him faced a backlash.
Platforms that pushed back against again his violence only served to galvanize his fan base. Outlets that refused to cover or write about him faced a backlash.
When music site DJ Booth declined to review XXXTentacion’s latest album, for example, one fan’s letter protesting the decision struck a chord. “He is the new generation's troubled mind,” the reader wrote. XXXTentacion’s power was that his work articulated the pain of a generation — or at least, one corner of it. He understood there was a community of listeners out there drowning in depression and he found a way to reach them. There’s something deeply personal and humanizing about his music, and it allowed fans to look the other way. They still are. He has something they need. They believe he is someone they need.
And his violent and untimely death will likely memorialize him in the eyes of a new generation of hip-hop fans. Indeed, his death has already made his music more popular than ever. Right now, there is a community of rap fans who will remember where they were when XXXTentacion died. That is what I fear: That history will ultimately erase his sins. Death does not absolve XXXTentacion of anything.
And so I will remember XXXTentacion for who he was in life: A young man who was hurting who then saw fit to inflict harm onto others. To some he was a troubled young man trying to right his wrongs and to others he was a woman-beater and an armed robber. I think we should observe XXXTentacion as a whole, but more importantly we cannot excuse his violence. A human life is never black and white. I find him a condemnable person. I find him a polarizing one.
I.S. Jones is a poet and writer living in New York by way of California. She is the managing editor of Dead End Hip-Hop and you can tweet her @isjonespoetry.