What 6ix9ine's Career and Possible Comeback Say About the State of Rap in 2020

The controversial Brooklyn rapper could be free as early as January, with rumored plans to bypass witness protection and return to music.
tekashi 6ix9ine
Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/WireImage

When 6ix9ine took the stand this fall, everything changed. In the wake of his arrest for racketeering and firearms charges nearly one year ago, his long-rumored cooperating witness turn became stranger-than-fiction reality when the 23-year-old Brooklyn rapper born Daniel Hernandez took the stand in September and began calling out former friends and industry figures in an attempt to save himself from a possible lifetime of incarceration. With his sentencing set for this Wednesday, there’s a strong likelihood that, based on the government’s recommendation, the judge will grant him that.

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The rapper offered a damning testimony that directly contributed to convicting two members of Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, with which he himself had been affiliated according to the 2018 indictments that applied to a dozen co-defendants in total, and the spectacle of his three days in Manhattan’s Federal District Court was widely reported on not just by hip-hop blogs and the general music press, but by mainstream media nationwide. Perhaps there was something irresistible to these outlets in covering the outspoken face-tatted rapper’s days in open court, which after all were marked by some pretty wild name dropping, including allegations that Cardi B and Diplomats rapper Jim Jones were gang-affiliated.

6ix9ine will reportedly return to his life as a working artist where it's possible he'll generate new hit records, which makes the implications of a "time served" sentence or something similarly lenient significant. Over the course of hip-hop history, fans have grown begrudgingly accustomed to seeing many of their favorite artists compelled to appear in court or otherwise cop pleas in the face of serious charges on a local or federal level. Yet even that familiar though no less unsettling status quo left listeners ill-prepared for one of the most recognizable rappers of the decade committing one of the few offenses the largely crime-tolerant genre has long abhorred: snitching. 6ix9ine’s violation of that principle turned many of his fellow hip-hop artists against him, including "BEBE" collaborator Anuel AA who had served time himself on federal gun charges. And if a rapper known for being a government witness can successfully return to making music after the fact, that would represent the reversal of an established norm that has been part of rap since the beginning.

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Facing decades behind bars, after having only just dodged a prison sentence for sexual felony charges involving a 13-year-old girl, 6ix9ine chose to break the ultimate taboo of both gang life and rap culture. As the majority of his RICO co-defendants ultimately opted for guilty pleas, with only two taking their chances at trial, it seems possible that his cooperation may have played some role in those convictions as well. And by actually taking the stand, with reporters documenting his answers, he opened himself up to waves of criticism and outright scorn from peers and listeners alike.

None of that may matter soon enough. Unlike those indicted with him last year who seem certain to spend significantly more time in federal prison, 6ix9ine’s legal team pushed for a sentence of "time served" by the end of 2019, with desired release in the new year. While chatter about whether or not the conspicuous rapper will enter witness protection abounds, as is expected when someone gives up gang members to the feds, what's surprising is he's apparently opting for a return to public life and his music career. TMZ claims that he scored a seven-figure deal with his former record label 10K Projects for the release of new recordings.

While there’s no guarantee that a wave of fresh singles, mixtape projects, or an actual follow-up album to last year’s Dummy Boy would be as well-received as his discography to date, the notion that 6ix9ine could successfully mount a comeback after what we know about him speaks volumes to this unsettling cultural moment here at the end of the 2010s. His predominantly young fanbase has proven alarmingly forgiving of his prior transgressions, helping him reach nearly a billion YouTube views for the "BEBE" music video and, at present, over 11 million monthly Spotify listeners. Whether threatening other rappers on Instagram or disengenuously glossing over the details of his child sex crime allegations, his unrepentant attitude only bolstered his image with these listeners and helped his career even when many music media outlets (including this one) actively steered clear of favorable coverage. With his federal sentencing imminent, many of these same fans will see it as another victory for their hip-hop antihero.

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From the days of so-called “gangsta” rap onwards, a unique morality has congealed around hip-hop. Rappers like Ice Cube and Eazy-E spoke plainly of their experiences and that of their communities, directly prompting and countering the outcry from a predominantly white establishment that bore no small responsibility for the conditions and abuses that inadvertently birthed the art form. From the violent drug dealer parables of Biggie and Jay Z to the eventual trap house bluntness of Gucci Mane and Migos, the explicit nature of the thematic content broadened as it grew bolder, and with it came an acceptance of criminality by a mainstream made up largely of people that never knew or grew up in that life.

With social media raging by the late 2010s, nearly every rapper arrested for gun or drug possession received a hashtag campaign calling to free them, an armchair phenomenon that brought to light one of the attitudinal shift’s uglier symptoms. The pseudonymous toxicity prevalent online, more often than not thrust upon women, served to undermine, neutralize, and imperil cases of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape involving these artists or those in their inner circles. Fans weren't just supporting the accused; they were actively and aggressively taking sides against the apparent victims via online pile-ons and disinformation spreading. We saw this in the rushes to defend XXXtentacion against a horrific account of an alleged pattern of emotional and physical assault on a young woman, where the bad faith debunking manifested in doxing of the victim. We saw this in reactions to the criminal sexual conduct charges involving a teenage girl against Kodak Black. We saw it the reactions to A$AP Bari and Ian Connor and, yes of course, 6ix9ine.

Music history is lined with creeps and sexists and rapists, with justice served far rarer than it ought to be, and this is by no means a phenomenon that's unique to hip-hop. But for as much as critics and conservatives whine about the evils of "cancel culture," rappers who are accused of domestic violence or sex crimes seem insulated from accusations deemed credible enough to prompt criminal or civil cases, largely due to a listenership paradoxically and nihilistically unwilling to reconcile the bad behavior of these artists with their own portrayed image.

Whether talking about new order acts like the above or old guard ones outed by accusers (Fabolous, Nas, Russell Simmons, R Kelly, etc.), this problematic defensiveness by fans is only exacerbated by the opportunists and enablers within the industry. Media personality Akademiks famously gave 6ix9ine an unchallenged platform to give a rambling video explanation/defense for the child sex felony charges that had become impossible to ignore, a recording in which the rapper actually misstated his own age at the time of the crime. XXXtentacion’s shocking murder added another dimension of insulation to his legacy, turning the problematic cult figure into a kind of martyr. His deification by young grieving fans led many to suggest pursuing or even discussing the accusations against him further amounts to speaking ill of the dead.

6ix9ine doesn’t have that kind of social protection. And if the stories are to be believed, he intends to bypass witness protection too, should his confessional gambit result in a dramatically reduced sentence Wednesday that would see him freed from federal custody soon thereafter. If the aforementioned TMZ story is true as well, then there’s an industry machine that sees value in a post-snitching 6ix9ine, even as the past year has revealed a history of domestic violence that goes back further than his discography.

His successes in hip-hop, as well as his inroads into musica urbana circles with previously incarcerated Latin trap star Anuel AA, certainly present precedent for promising future performance. Though it goes against decades of social norms, the probability of that kind of perverse reconciliation has a chilling effect beyond the old argument about separating art from the artist. 6ix9ine is the sum of his actions and his music has characteristically exemplified that. He hasn’t atoned for what he’s done in any demonstrable way. If his listeners continue to celebrate him for his circus of heinousness, it sets a precedent for the next decade where emerging rap stars are emboldened to get away with worse.