“When I tell my fans if you’re gonna be a fan it’s different than being someone that supports me. Because if you’re a fan that means you abide by everything I believe in, and you support what I do to the fullest extent.”
XXXTentacion wants loyalty. The 19-year-old rapper, who released his debut album 17 Friday, described the hero worship he expects in an April 2016 No Jumper interview. It’s the voice of a young man who is in the process of becoming a larger-than-life figure, and he’s only grown in stature since. But asking that listeners abide “by everything I believe in” is a heavy ask for any artist to make of their audience, especially when, in XXXTentacion’s case, it means standing behind the inexcusable. In the same interview, for instance, XXX excitedly describes beating up a young man he thought to be gay.
The Lauderhill, Florida rapper, legally known as Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, is on probation for six years after pleading no contest to a November 2015 incident where he allegedly robbed Che Thomas at gunpoint after breaking into his home. While serving time, the rapper’s popularity, fueled by his Billboard-charting “Look at Me,” exploded. Currently, Onfroy is also fighting a more severe case. According to a Miami-Dade police report on October 8, 2016, XXXTentacion allegedly strangled and battered his pregnant ex-girlfriend. The report states the alleged victim was beaten to the point, “both eyes became shut and the victim could not see.” It’s a harrowing case that’s done little to derail his rapid rise to prominence.
The fanbase supporting XXXTentacion is nearly as infamous as he is. YouTube views for homemade mashups featuring XXXTentacion music set to anime like The Garden of Words and Dragonball Z are in the millions. Fully committing to the Naruto/XXXTentacion fight rabbit hole alone means journeying into a weird, confusing side of the internet. Fans have gone as far as getting the rapper’s likeness shaved into their heads. It’s behavior that borders on the fanatical. Earlier this month, on Aug. 9, two teenagers from Brampton, Ontario allegedly interrupted a church service to play XXXTentacion’s viral hit “Look At Me”—the one with the opening couplet, “Bitch, I’m like ‘Who is your mans?’/Can’t keep my dick in my pants.” According to the Brampton Guardian, one of the teenagers now faces criminal charges. The rapper himself has retweeted videos of fans reportedly assaulting people for calling him wack. There are threads on popular forums like KanyeToThe devoted to debunking XXXTentacion’s most serious legal charges.
If you delve into his catalog, the appeal of XXXTentacion becomes clear. Songs like “I don’t wanna do this anymore” and “garette’s REVENGE” demonstrate surprising range, given the song that made him popular. “I don’t wanna do this anymore” is an amalgamation of ‘90s R&B melodies forced through an emo filter. The lyrics “I’ve been up a very long time, wondering why they hate on me/I don’t wanna love myself, I’m praying that they all love me,” sound like the composition scrawls of a tortured suburban teen. “garette’s Revenge” is even more harrowing, with XXXTentacion singing, “I’ve dug two graves for us, my dear,” against a simple guitar strum. The song reveals another layer when you realize it was dedicated to his late friend, Jocelyn Flores, who unfortunately took her life earlier this year. They’re beautiful, vulnerable, and heartbreaking. Listening to his lyrics about suicide, anger, and loneliness could be intoxicating. “His authenticity 100 percent…. Like, he’s gone through a lot. He’s had the crazy, storied past and he’s under 20,” said Tiago, a 21-year-old from Boston. “When he put all that feeling and emotion in his music, it’s easier to relate to—’Cause you can tell, he’s gone actually through it.”
When talking with his fans to find out more about what makes XXXTentacion so magnetic and, in turn, beloved, the first thing that comes up is the visceral emotion in his music. (In looking for subjects for this piece, the fans we found willing to speak about their fandom were overwhelmingly male—which is unsurprising. Each conversation was conducted over the phone, Facetime, or through text.) For many fans, he expresses the type of difficult-to-control emotions they grapple with daily. “I think that’s what draws most of his fans, the range he has and the versatility that he brings,” said Sazzad, a 22-year-old who lives on Staten Island. “A lot of his songs are definitely emotional. There’s a rawness to it.”
Zoom out, and the XXXTentacion phenomenon becomes bleakly familiar: a man who makes compelling, popular art happens to be, by all indication, an unacceptable person. So, how do you engage with this art? Is there a responsible way to take it in? And what about the fans? Is it possible to be a vocal fan of XXXTentacion ethically? Does listening and enjoying his music mean consenting to his actions off wax?
“The charges are just allegations and he’s innocent until proven guilty. To me, I separate music or art from the artist,” said Ian, a 22-year-old from Wisconsin and one of the top XXXTentacion annotators on the lyric and annotation website Genius. “To a certain extent, I like listening to his music. Same thing with a lot of other rappers. How many other rappers commit crimes and we still listen to them?”
Sazzad, the XXX fan from Staten Island, used similar reasoning, while also casting doubt around the allegations. “Like that’s the one thing, it’s allegedly. I mean, I’m not too worried about it. People have their own lives. I feel like, I like his music. I’m gonna listen to his music,” he said. “I’ll follow his personal life, but not to the extent where every little thing he does I’m gonna be keeping an eye on him. So I feel like, there’s like a bunch of rappers that all do crazy stuff too.”
A more nuanced view of the situation emerged while talking to Louis and Sammy, two brothers from Melbourne, Australia. Over FaceTime, the siblings warmly discussed and debated their connection to XXXTentacion. Louis is 14, and his response was in line with most of the XXXTentacion fans I interviewed for this piece. “I don’t really know enough about it to have like a strong opinion,” he said. “Obviously, it’s wrong and all but I try to...I try to prioritize the fact he’s an incredible musician over the fact that he’s undeniably done some bad things. I kinda don’t think about it, almost.”
His older brother Sammy, a 23-year-old musician, was more introspective. “There’s definitely an element of just like our own lapse of moral judgment in that way we’re able to suspend the fact that that he’s done this stuff,” he said. “If I probably sat down about it, and thought about it I should be like I’m not gonna talk about it. I’m not gonna promote this guy, because he’s done these awful things. It’s just this like jarring [thing] between really being impressed by him as an artist and by his music and then despising him as a person.”
“I’m wary to identify as a fan of his, because of the controversy surrounding him, which are pretty awful,” he went on. “In terms of understanding him, yeah, I have seen some interviews with him and read some stuff about him. He’s a 19-year-old boy who grew up without a father or a mum, and this is my understanding was passed around quite a lot from pretty sort of rough family members and this isn’t to excuse in any way any of the things he’s done, but all I think is he’s a 19-year-old kid who’s had a really tough life. I would be very surprised if he came out a saint...I think sometimes people don’t realize that.”
In the same No Jumper interview from last year, XXXTentacion described his upbringing and his feelings of abandonment. The most telling part of the interview came when he told a story about the first time he hit a girl:
"I used to beat niggas at school type shit, just to hear my mom yell at me and talk to me…. So I went to my mom and I asked her, 'Would you get mad if I put my hands on a girl?' Like. you always give a girl three warnings type shit. You always give a girl three warnings and if she keeps hitting you, obviously she’s trying to harm you. So if she’s trying to harm you, you go to the extent where you have to handle it."
Over the course of the interview, XXXTentacion frequently discusses the role violence played in his past. He mentions watching his mother be abused as a child and how he grew up literally fighting to win her affection. To Sammy’s point, this interview is as good a window as any into an obscured reality. XXXTentacion is a product of a cycle of abuse. Is extending him sympathy because of this a productive way of thinking about the XXX phenomenon? Or could it be a gloss over the way XXXTentacion himself sounds excited by the violence from his past, and is aware of its ability to stoke anticipation for his music?
On Aug. 23, a little before 9 p.m. EST, XXXTentacion posted a video of him seemingly attempting to commit suicide by hanging himself. The response was immediate, with some fans worrying it was real, other fans thinking it was a stunt for his new album, and many thinking the video agreeing that it was in poor taste. The backlash was swift. Discussion around the fear of XXXTentacion’s fans taking the wrong message from what seemed like a staged suicide at the time became another bone of contention for his detractors. In an Instagram post uploaded shortly after XXXTentacion wrote, “if you thought I would ‘pretend’ to kill myself for a publicity stunt you're fucking stupid.”
Earlier this week, comedian Eric Andre took to Twitter to decry support for XXXTentacion and Kodak Black, and call out what he perceived to be the media’s apathy about the serious allegations and charges both artists have faced (or are currently facing). In a series of tweets Andre wrote, “i was just looking at World Star Hip Hop on my IG and they’re always promoting XXX and Kodak Black. and i got upset. i was like, why can i complain about racism freely, but criticize a rapper's sexism and everyone gets butt hurt...1 out of 3 women are beat, raped, or murdered in their lifetime. that’s 1 billion women. Shits got to stop. No more apathy or indifference.”
Andre’s statement was powerful. It was a black man speaking on black culture, and using his platform to raise awareness for a universal issue. XXXTentacion’s response simply underscored Andre’s point. In since-deleted tweets, XXXTentacion responded to Andre by writing, “because not everything you hear on the internet is true, you should be adult enough to know that & support the youth before degrading them.” He went on, and the worst of it came when XXXTentacion quote-tweeted a user who wrote disparaging remarks against him with, “I’m not scared to fuck your underaged sister in her throat though.”
To many, XXXTentacion’s art is relatable because it directly addresses how it feels to be alienated by society. However, with every problematic social media post, statement, and lyric, it becomes apparent that much of XXXTentacion’s persecution by the general public is self-imposed. While his fans brush off the ongoing cases and allegations, at nearly every juncture since his rise to popularity, XXXTentacion has courted controversy and violence. When a man was stabbed in the wake of a series of beefs that led to XXX getting knocked out on-stage in June, he took to Snapchat to post a chilling note: "You did good," it starts, "your homie got a good hit on me! Wont lie! But how does it feel knowing your friend might die tonight because of you (not saying I had anything to do with the "stranger" stabbing him) but ya homie not lookin to hot rn." This is part of a larger pattern in which XXXTentacion publicly appeals to the worst human impulses in a bid for attention.
An ongoing question as XXX continues his rise is whether his antics deserve that attention. It also begs the question do we need the perspective of another heterosexual male with alleged histories of abuse to sell us back feelings of loneliness and insecurity? Especially when there are artists still operating on the fringes like Mykki Blanco and Le1f, who truly give voices to underrepresented minorities.
While interviewing XXXTentacion fans, I discussed this all with a friend who works with disadvantaged youth and educates them on domestic violence issues. I asked her if she could provide any insight about how young fans, especially men, could so easily disconnect someone from their art. We talked about how, as a society, we hadn’t come close to answering all of the questions surrounding domestic violence, and so how could I expect the young people I was interviewing to navigate it in any meaningful way. She pushed me to examine the space between violence and hurt, especially in the context of people of color, and the reality that most are not equipped on all levels to account for it. The very public fallout of these discussions center around black bodies. It is why Eric Andre taking media to task for its continuous support of rappers like XXXTentacion and Kodak Black, despite their alleged behavior against women, felt earned in a way other coverage didn’t. It was a powerful black man holding other black men accountable for their damaging actions and immediately turning towards a solution of how we could change this behavior. Despite his anger, Andre pointed towards a solution in the form of One Billion Rising Revolution, an organization seeking to end violence against women. It’s a start.
None of this absolves XXXTentacion of past, present, or future crimes, alleged or otherwise. However, it made me realize that sometimes the dialogue is more important than unchecked anger. I didn’t agree with most XXXTentacion fans. I don’t support him or his art. However, I’m willing to keep pushing those that do and listening when they speak.