Dying, however young or violently, doesn’t make a monster a decent person. It doesn’t erase the trauma he caused, nor does it elevate his art. A dead asshole is still an asshole, and saying so—acknowledging a man’s true legacy rather than a fictionalized, sanitized version of it—doesn’t make you a bad person.
Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, the Florida rapper better known as XXXTentacion, was gunned down Monday in an apparent robbery, dead at the age of 20. Mourning fans shared an Instagram video in which he’d grandly speculated about his “tragic death” and said: “If I’m going to die or ever be a sacrifice, I want to make sure that my life made at least 5 million kids happy, or they found some sort of answers or resolve in my life regardless of the negative around my name, regardless of the bad things people say to me.” It seems he got his wish, because plenty of people—celebrities and fans alike—are saying his music inspired them or saved their lives.
XXXTentacion’s lurid demise forms a piece of the ongoing tragedy that is our nihilistic firearm culture. It’s part of the American failure to save young men of color born into poverty and neglect, then raised by a broken system.
But he was still a piece of shit.
The “negative” attached to his name, as he put it, was a history of violence spanning from childhood to stints in juvenile detention—where he once nearly beat a supposedly gay inmate to death for “staring” at him — and toward the end, a relationship with a woman, Geneva Ayala, who says he abused her in horrific ways. This behavior culminated in charges of “aggravated battery on a pregnant victim, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness tampering” against XXXTentacion right as he was poised for a breakthrough with his depressive blend of emo and hip-hop.
“The depositions,” as the Miami New Times reported, “detail a pattern of regular, torturous abuse [over the summer of 2016], with daily verbal attacks and physical incidents every three or four days. According to Ayala’s statement, he beat her at times, choked her, broke clothes hangers on her legs, threatened to chop off her hair or cut out her tongue, pressed knives or scissors to her face and held her head under water in their bathroom while promising to drown her.” He also threatened to commit suicide in front of her, and at one point made her believe he was going to insert a barbeque fork into her vagina. Those witnessing this kind of abuse allegedly did nothing to stop or address it.
We often discuss whether you can “separate the art from the artist” these days, but XXXTentacion collapsed that flimsy architecture by rocketing to fame on the strength of his notoriety—that is, allegations of unbridled viciousness toward his girlfriend. Crime has long been a source of cred in American music, and as Pitchfork noted, that rule somehow extended to domestic violence with XXXTentacion: The accusations against him “coincided almost exactly with indications of the rapper’s swelling celebrity,” alongside Google trends indicating “hardly anybody was searching for him before [October 2016], when the battery allegedly occurred.” More worryingly, the connection between punching women and record sales is now a trend.
That ugly synergy — and the fact that XXXTentacion never copped to it, apologized for it or made strides to change for the better — would seem to make it all the more important not to romanticize the misogyny or view of mental illness that his music held forth. Unfortunately, an early death only serves to magnify an artist’s legend, and the fond social media tributes to him lament the loss of the man he might have become, his supposed “potential” to turn things around.
We’ve been assured that he “wanted to be a good person.” You’re free to think so, but here’s the thing: You can’t grieve for a guy who didn’t exist yet. All we have to go on here is what he actually did while alive.
The same goes for public figures like Charles Krauthammer and John McCain, whose moral failings ought to hound them into the afterlife. You can admit as much without dancing on their graves. A dying man is still human, after all.
Instead of euphemistically swerving around his worst deeds to pay him “respect” — or gleefully celebrating his murder — you can admit XXXTentacion was a scumbag who left the world worse than he found it. Wondering whether he could have redeemed himself in a few years is an academic exercise that erases the suffering he caused.
Speaking of which, Ayala is still trying to raise money for medical expenses to treat injuries sustained in the course of his alleged abuse—on a GoFundMe page that his fans briefly got shut down by claiming she’d “misrepresented her injuries.” Since XXXTentacion himself had always maintained that he “did not beat that bitch; she got jumped,” I suppose you could say his hateful spirit lives on.