XXXTentacion died yesterday from a drive-by shooting in Miami at the age of 20. In his short time in the spotlight, he garnered a #1 Billboard album, a top-ten hit in “Sad!” and five platinum singles. At the same time, his success sparked a never-ending conversation on ethical listening habits, separating the art from the artist, and redemption narratives.
XXX’s fame correlated with his domestic abuse charges. He initially released his breakout single “Look At Me” on Jan. 29, 2016. In October 2016, he was arrested on charges of aggravated assault of his pregnant girlfriend. He gained local Miami notoriety for the arrest, and “Look At Me” started to blow up. By February 2017, the song was re-released and became a Billboard top 100 single. The great TV show Atlanta shows the phenomenon of blowing up after being in prison; you get your name on the news and become the talk of the town. Suddenly, your fame spreads out of your control if you have a song the local DJs can play. XXX’s case throws a wrench in the ethics of this because his fame coincides with the assault of a pregnant woman. No matter how you spin it, her suffering was a stepping stone for XXXTentacion’s stardom.
That’s where the shitstorm of controversy with XXX mostly comes from, but there is more. There were further charges of witness tampering. A show he did after being released from prison in April 2017 was poorly thought out and caused a riot. He would post inflammatory videos to social media where he would pretend to hang himself or be shot. These are all the acts of a young person fed up with conventional behavior of stardom and trying to stay true to himself. You also cannot rule out how he understands what made him famous – getting headlines for all the wrong reasons. It is Trump-like. Say and do whatever comes natural because you will always have your defenders and fans. You will also have your haters, but they are still talking about you. XXXTentacion lived in the center of the tornado he created. You knew in some way, the walls would close in.
That tornado included a lot of back-and-forth on social media from fans of his music, music critics, and anyone in the general public trying to position his fame in the constant discussion of separating art from the artist and what it means to be an ethical listener. Despite his fame, XXXTentacion’s albums were not reviewed very much. Most major music publications considered even writing about his music thoughtfully – positive or negative – to be an act of promotion. In the #MeToo movement, writers and influencers in the entertainment industry have become more aware of how promoting artists accused of domestic or sexual abuse can be seen as an act of forgiveness. Being taken seriously gives abusers notoriety and fame that can be utilized against their victims.
Spotify understood this and attempted a policy that removed artists accused of domestic and sexual abuse from their curated playlists. XXXTentacion was the biggest subject in this policy as he was removed from the Rap Caviar playlist. Opinions ranged from praise to questioning what someone has to do to be removed to accusations of censorship. Kendrick Lamar and TDE pushed the rollback by threatening to remove their music, and Spotify acquiesced, possibly among other reasons. One has to question Kendrick’s ethics here considering he promoted XXXTentacion’s first album and brought him out on the DAMN Tour. Even Kendrick’s involvement in XXXTentacion’s defense and fame shows how talent, influence, and potential severely outweighs concerns over promoting artists with domestic and sexual abuse charges. Off the top of my head, I cannot name any rappers that were outspoken on the problems with XXXTentacion’s fame.
Maybe that is what XXXTentacion’s legacy can be – a wake-up call to recognize how we perpetuate the cycles of abuse. The rub in saying that is that the blame does not fall on one listener, which all of us are. If you listened to his music and enjoyed it, then that was your choice, and I cannot fault you for making that decision. There’s a difference with defending his actions just because you like his music; that’s intolerable. His stardom came from listeners – one-by-one – making a decision to enjoy his art. But his legacy cannot just be how he connected with so many people through his music. It shows we would have learned nothing. XXXTentacion’s death certainly leaves a void within rap, but we need to thoughtfully consider how that void is best left unfilled.