The Complicated Life and Death of XXXTentacion

Photo: Matias J. Ocner/TNS via Getty Images

XXXTentacion is dead. I hate to admit that possibility has crossed my mind before. A year or so ago, I listened to him walk the No Jumper cast through a story about a gay cell mate he claimed he beat half to death for looking at him. I heard the rapper say he smeared the kid’s blood on his face. I heard the host’s subtle, uncomfortable guffaw, a laugh of either disbelief or pure terror. I stopped patronizing both because I couldn’t tell the difference. I followed the story of the girl the rapper was accused of attacking, threatening, terrorizing, and kidnapping. I watched him spark the fascination and admiration of listeners, musicians, and websites in spite of — no, let’s be honest, now, finally — because of the idea that the cruel, uncompromising figure he played on the harsher records in his short catalogue lined up with violence he encouraged and visited on others in real life. “Real recognize real,” crime and cruelty be damned.

I went after blogs, bloggers, fans, and anyone else I thought was taking too light a stance and too light a tone on the matter of abuse toward women and LGBTQ folks, the people who end up on the receiving end of violence and disrespect in the hip-hop community time and again, since the birth of the art form, since the birth of the country that birthed it. I watched X’s catastrophic debut tour sputter to a stop after fights at several stops. I thought, Here is a man who does not value life. Here is the stone-faced horror of the times made flesh. I groused as his singles gained steam, and his albums topped the charts. I thought it was an indictment of how even small actions like playing a song or buying a ticket to a concert or defending an artist on Twitter help snowball into the culture of violence and misogyny and homophobia steamrolling our communities and our country at large. I wondered if, as a business as well as an audience, hip-hop will ever find itself dutifully equipped to do anything but stutter and keep on stepping on the matters of domestic violence and toxic masculinity.

Last night, instead of jumping in the fray of people in shock, in glee, or in mourning over X’s passing, I hung back and listened. I heard fans hurting. I heard apologists downplaying the wrong he has done to call him a “troubled” figure with so much left to give to the world. I saw women and gay men celebrating having one less abuser to worry about. It shook me. If you’ve ever been upset with someone for totally righteous, perfectly practical reasons, and had them disappear from the Earth … it is a dizzying sensation. The feelings don’t leave just because the target has. I wished aloud that the wave of outrage I saw had been as large as it was last night at various crucial points in the last year, like when X was added to the XXL Freshman List, and it was revealed that they’d considered the Chicago rapper Famous Dex for the same honor but refused because there was video proof of Dex’s infraction … or when Spotify tried to remove X and R. Kelly from their proprietary playlists, and a wave of industry heavyweights and colleagues who write about rap music insinuated that it was a matter of censorship, when no music was being removed.

I didn’t think I was diminishing the efforts of people who have spoken out already to call for more pointed and timely outreach on matters of assault and domestic violence. Twitter is telling me otherwise. I want more for us, for marginalized communities just trying to get through life without their pride being insulted and their bodies being desecrated, for media folks whose defeatist, noncommittal attitude toward complex, violent music and the complex, violent people who make the stuff is looking a lot like complicity. I feel like I’ve used my voice to shine a light on these matters, and often in the spotlight, I’ve felt dogged and alone. I yell because I don’t want anyone else to feel the same way.

Watching the dialogue unfold last night, though, something occurred to me that I should’ve considered a long time ago. Seeing teens drop everything and pray for a guy who did dirt took me back to a moment when I, in my youth, did the same. Ignorant to the full range of cruelties and abuses this man was on the hook for, admittedly because the public internet wasn’t the font of in-depth, up-to-date information it has since become, I stopped, and I prayed. He didn’t make it. When I found out he wasn’t the righteous, real figure I thought he was, I struggled. For a split second last night, I understood the audience I’ve been calling to the floor for the last year and a half. I still think they’re wrong, and their callousness terrifies me. I don’t think any amount of emotionally bare music like “Changes” and “Jocelyn Flores” is worth it if the person creating the stuff is helping in any way to visit bad feelings on others.

But last night I wondered if I was lofty in my expectation that young X fans should have a practical, panoramic understanding of everything XXXTentacion was — the terror, the fighter, the abuser, the rapper, the suicidal latchkey kid, the rabblerouser, the troll — and be able to make wise decisions about how to engage. How could they? Can they now, if they feel like the man has become a martyr? This is not the outcome I wanted. I wanted fairness and justice and parity and peace for victims and better judgment of character for music writers and sharper taste for music fans. I wanted things to turn around. But I would be lying if I said I never considered this ending. I feel something very intensely today, but it’s not pity. It’s more like disappointment in a world that keeps creating these horrors. My generation grew up believing that justice would always prevail. But rap — Earth, really — is still making a lot of the same mistakes it did 20 or 30 years ago. That makes me feel lost. That makes me feel sad. Love and respect to survivors and to people who put their peace on the line to honor them. All of you are candles in a dark night.

The Complicated Life and Death of XXXTentacion