XXXTentacion: New Music, Same Past
Released in its entirety on March 16th, XXXtentacion’s second studio album, ?, will appear in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart as of Tuesday, March 27th. However, on March 21st, the 20-year-old rapper was released from his strict house arrest situation.
This house arrest is the most recent event in a string of legal issues that long predates the musical career of the Florida based rapper, XXXTentacion, whose legal name is Jahseh Onfroy. To offer some context, he was expelled from middle school, spent time in a juvenile detention center (on a gun possession charge) after dropping out of high school, and faced battery and home invasion charges in late 2015. The combined charges up until that point, earned him six years of probation and some jail time at its worst, but were symptomatic of a difficult childhood and within in the realm of being forgivable at its best.
Whatever sympathy or forgiveness he had garnered surely disappeared in October 2016, when XXXTentacion was arrested in Florida on charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering. A testimony from the reported victim (a former girlfriend) of these domestic violence charges was obtained, and parts were published by Pitchfork in December 2017. (The accounts of alleged violence released in the testimony are nothing short of pure evil.)
According to the bits of testimony reported by Pitchfork, XXXTentacion and his former girlfriend had been living together for some time, with incidents of abuse beginning early on. In October 2016, shortly after the victim discovered she was pregnant with XXXTentacion’s child, he beat her until her face was mutilated and one eye was swollen completely shut. According to the testimony, he would not allow her to go to the hospital until her face healed; he locked the victim in a room and took her phone in the meantime. After two days of being confined to a single bedroom, she was able to leave the apartment and flee to a local police station to receive help.
We, as listeners, can no longer plead ignorance. The conversation is no longer about how to interpret the music of a kid who had a difficult upbringing and translated his struggles into edgy, emotionally charged music. It is about how to deal with a violent criminal whose “talent” or “authenticity” absolutely do not earn him a “get out of jail free” card.
So, how do we approach him as an audience?
The simple answer is: don’t. Don’t listen to him, don’t write about him, and don’t buy his music or tickets to his shows. However, this is not a simple problem with a simple answer.
The call to boycott XXXTentacion and his music is a typical band-aid response to a problem that can’t actually be solved by being ignored. The reality is that XXXTentacion is making music, and people are listening. He has generated a following that is massive and mainstream, yet organic and cultlike in many ways. The behavior of some of his fans can be as dark and violent as his music at times, with a history of violence at shows and aggressive posts by fans defending the rapper on social media. In short, XXXTentacion has struck an emotionally charged nerve among his relatively young fan base.
The recent success of XXXTentacion is definitely the most visible manifestation of a relatively new wave of hip-hop; a wave which has generated music that exists on a spectrum of emotion somewhere between severe depression and hypermasculine rage. Emphasis on aggressive masculine figures in certain kinds of rap is not anything new. Crime and violence are used as markers of authenticity, and rap, in its more aggressive forms, has fetishized and made violent hypermasculinity a cornerstone on which the genre is built. Not only do certain kinds of rap promote the angst and other emotions that precede this kind of violent behavior, but they do so in a way that forces artists in the genre to constantly rework and reshape their ideas within this framework. A creative process that makes brutality synonymous with authenticity has the potential to be a dangerous downward spiral, especially in a genre that relies so heavily on personal experiences (often painful or transformative ones) as sources for inspiration.
As a society, we historically view art (read music) as a way to express images or emotions that would otherwise be considered unexpected or unacceptable. The line between the creative and the socially unacceptable are blurred as powerful, evocative genres like hip-hop appealed to more unsavory parts of the human experience; especially in the context of romance or relationships. But in situations like the one involving XXXTentacion, it is safe to say the protection granted by creative expression and visibility as a celebrity have gone too far. The response (or lack thereof) to domestic violence in XXXTentacion’s case comes on the heels of a long history of permission through inaction that is granted by audiences whose desire to continue hearing music from certain artists (or their ability to ignore artists outside of the music they make). To the point where it has outweighed the understood moral response to people who commit violent acts.
I believe (and hope) that with the dawn of a #MeToo culture, which empowers victims to speak when possible and encourages audiences to support them, we will witness a response here that is powerful and morally just. It will be a moment where audiences equipped with information and the right course of action that will be able to set the records straight– even when massive record labels or industry moguls refuse to do so. Domestic violence may be a difficult issues to approach on a broad scale, but there is no doubt that it is never to be accepted or justified, regardless of the social status of the victim or the perpetrator. Moving forward, the only question mark I would like to see XXXTentacion concerned with is the one we as listeners should be placing on the future of his career.