South Florida rapper XXXtentacion’s sophomore studio album ? just debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. This follows his debut record 17 in August of last year, which entered the chart at number two. The 20-year-old rap villain’s rise over the past two years has run parallel with allegations of abusing his pregnant girlfriend in 2016. While he sat in jail for the first few months of 2017 on separate charges of robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, his mystique and controversy made him a weekly-discussed topic on social media. Rap fans debated whether or not they should listen to his music at all—or, at the very least, not publicly promote it. The conversation ironically carried on at the same time as mainstream arrival of the #MeToo movement, in which allegations of abuse effectively ended the careers of many predatory men with influence and say-so such as Harvey Weinstein, Patrick Demarchelier, and Steve Wynn. But despite all the controversy, XXXtentacion and a handful of his peers that have been accused of abusive behavior remain positioned as the faces of rap’s new guard. But how should fans of the music reckon with these allegations?
Just after 17 was released last year, Pitchfork reported on the details of X’s turbulent relationship with a former girlfriend who was pregnant during some of the incidents. His actions included headbutting the woman for humming the verse of an artist featured on his song, breaking plastic hangers across her legs, and strangling her until she nearly passed out. Just this week, video footage emerged in which XXXtentacion appeared to hit a woman. In 2016, another Florida rapper, Kodak Black, was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in South Carolina, allegedly ignoring her calls for him to stop and biting her on the neck and chest. Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine, who often comes off as a jester for his internet stunts, pleaded guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance in 2015, after appearing on camera with a barely-dressed 13-year-old girl sitting on his lap. Baton Rouge teenage standout NBA YoungBoy, whose gearing up to release his debut album, was recently charged with aggravated assault and kidnapping after a video surfaced of him slamming his girlfriend in a hotel hallway before forcing her back into their room.
Hip-hop has always been a culture that thrives off of young, controversial figures, but with the information that’s already available on the aforementioned artists, it’s impossible for listeners to support them in good conscience. In order to properly reckon with our roles in their success, we really need to stop entertaining and listening to them.
This has been a challenge for the media, as well, with music publications facing the moral decision on whether or not they should cover artists with allegations such as these. At Noisey, we’ve intentionally avoided these artists—even having weekly debates in our editorial meetings on what would be the best way to discuss their place in hip-hop and culture as a whole. But as these artists’ fan bases continue to grow and the speed of internet chatter makes us forgetful, we need to be diligent and consider the experiences of women and any victims of abuse in the ever-expanding hip-hop community.
In a lengthy 2015 Twitter review of N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, while praising the film for its stellar depiction of a crucial time in hip-hop history, director Ava Duvernay added a heartbreaking note to her assessment. “To be a woman who loves hip-hop at times is to be in love with your abuser,” she said. “Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.” That familiarity with trauma doesn’t have to be hip-hop culture’s narrative moving forward. We, as listeners, need to challenge ourselves to be better and simply not listen to these artists.
What’s most concerning about all of these cases is, despite the notoriety of the allegations, X, 6ix9ine, YoungBoy, and Kodak are extremely influential. Each of the four—all 21 or younger—have had projects land in the top 25 of Billboard’s Top 200. And that’s not by chance. They make music that, on face value, is of quality by either its explosive energy (6ix9ine), weighted stories of life in the streets (Kodak and YoungBoy), or unadulterated vulnerability (XXXtentacion). The average listener doesn’t want to think about the details of criminal charges when they’re playing their favorite artists, no matter how egregious. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that the majority of the people looking to these artists as inspiration are kids who are even younger than them. Their success, in the midst of their offenses, shows that there is nothing to be feared for abusive behavior. This is why artists like R. Kelly—who’s been accused or charged of things ranging from child pornography to holding women hostage—and Chris Brown—guilty of domestic violence—have been able to exist and thrive, without a united pushback from institutions and fans.
The way that music consumption works in 2018 admittedly makes protesting artists a bit trickier than it might have been in the age of physical releases. Rather than simply just not buying someone’s album from the record store, listeners are forced to dance around taste-defining algorithms, and everyday new music playlists throw the most trending songs into one place. YouTube and Soundcloud automatically play music that’s related to whatever you intentionally select. Even if you’re not listening to their music, you are bound to see them pop up in publication headlines, Twitter feeds, and the Instagram explore tab. This makes it increasingly difficult to ignore these artists, especially for the casual listener trying to stay in touch with new music.
Moreover, X’s career is soaring. ? sold 131,000 equivalent album units during its first week. It’s the second largest streaming week for an album this year, only second to Migos 150,000 units sold for Culture II. The difference between the two acts is that Migos is perceived to be a part of rap’s leading mainstream class, while X represents the defiant underground, yet he is barely short of Migos’ numbers. And now, as he takes more charge of his narrative by staying relatively quiet and pushing messages of positivity, the public’s perception—or, willingness to share their true feelings—is starting to change. A simple search of X’s name on Twitter will bring up an assortment of tweets that lament loving XXXTentacion's music while feeling guilty for doing so.
I’m not without fault in this situation, either. Last week while headed to work, I screengrabbed myself listening to Kodak Black’s “Tunnel Vision” and uploaded it to my Instagram stories. A female friend called me out, and I realized she was right and deleted it. Like many, I allowed myself to be a lazy, careless listener to the music. It's easy to suspend all critical thinking when you're just listening to music, and most of the time that's fine. But in this case the stakes are a lot higher. The artists are known abusers, and we can't ignore that. Especially now.
It’s hard to separate art from the artist when in the year 2018 we are aware of so many details about the personal lives of musicians we listen to, and the music seems to be an actual reflection of what they're like in real life. How can we unlink the two when the idea of transparency is what so many artists cash-in on to make their fan bases feel close to them? Making good music shouldn’t be enough to rewrite history or hand out sympathy to a person who went great lengths to make someone else’s life a living Hell. The only way to truly take this issue on is to stop listening altogether.
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