Technology, along with a rapidly worsening political climate, has created a concerning shift in how America processes pain. Now, even in its most gruesome state, pain can be treated as a hyper-clickable spectacle. Many of the young people growing up today are so familiar with death and pain that they are either completely desensitised to it or feel it caving in so rapidly that they feel like there is nothing to even live for. In turn, the music being created by people in their teens and early twenties illustrates this emotional turmoil.
20-year-old South Florida rapper XXXtentacion – who was shot and killed near his hometown yesterday – was the poster child for both enduring and inflicting pain. It’s why, even in his recent death, feelings about how to remember him have driven a fissure between spectators on social media ever since footage of his final living moments were uploaded.
The hard truth about the artist born Jahseh Onfroy is that he took pride – and joy, it sometimes seemed – in the suffering that he caused others. In one of his earliest interviews with Adam22 of No Jumper, he recounted nearly killing a gay cellmate for staring at him. He even went as far as bragging about taking the man’s blood and wiping it on his own face. And before that, allegations and convincing evidence suggested that he brutally abused his formerly pregnant girlfriend to the point of nearly blinding her. In videos uploaded to Instagram in September, he shared tone deaf responses to those allegations by saying “Anybody that called me a domestic abuser, I’m finna domestically abuse y’all little sisters’ pussy from the back.” And in a recent reported story from Miami New Times the woman he allegedly abused said that his fans regularly harassed her by coming to her job and even reported a GoFundMe campaign of hers to raise money to save her vision.
For these reasons, a healthy chunk of people online are celebrating X’s death. And as disheartening as it can be to witness the cheering of someone being shot to death, those reactions are not without justification. Violence and sexual abuse against women may be more of a pressing topic than it ever has been before in popular culture, but larger society still lends plenty of space to men who perpetrate these acts. Chris Brown is still thriving commercially. R Kelly is still out on the street. Woody Allen has yet to see the inside of a jail cell. Harvey Weinstein just got indicted after decades of rape and harassment. And 6ix9ine seems to get more popular by the day. To many, the joy that people are finding in XXXtentacion’s death is a product of his own karma, considering that he made light of his past transgressions. But for X’s cult-like fanbase, the artist’s music was healing.
On his first two albums ( 17 and ?), which debuted at number 2 and number 1 respectively on the Billboard 200, XXXtentacion explicitly talked about loneliness, depression, and the urge to end his own life. “Tired of feeling like I’m trapped in my own mind/ Tired of feeling like I’m rapping a damn lie/ Tired of feeling like my life is a damn game/ Nigga really wanna die in the nighttime,” he rapped on the hook of 17’s “Everybody Dies In Their Nightmares.” On ?’s “before I close my eyes,” he sang, “I hope it’s not too late for me.” His music spoke to young people who shared similar struggles with mental health. That, coupled with his almost sermon-like posts to Instagram Live in which he directed reassuring messages to people suffering, placed him at the forefront of a movement of young rappers who became musical extensions of a national opioid and suicide crisis – one that transcends genre as well as racial and social lines. The late Lil Peep built a cult-like following with similar content. Rappers like Lil Uzi Vert opened up about their own mental struggles following Peep’s death late last year. And a host of others rising through the ranks seem obsessed with death, either from their own doing or from antidepressants. These issues are often accredited to rap music’s influence even though it’s become an equally alarming problem for people who likely don’t even listen to the genre. One of 2017’s most popular songs – which Noisey placed number one – was Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Lif3,” a rumination on the death of the rapper’s friends.
But, even in his death, it’s crucial to analyse how regularly irresponsible XXXtentacion was with his platform and influence. On the biggest single of his short career, “SAD!,” he explicitly threatened suicide to a lover if they ever left him. The song is so melodic and catchy that it’s alarmingly easy to unconsciously sing along. But what makes it especially cringe-worthy is that it mirrors many of the allegations that his ex-girlfriend made against him in police reports. And that wasn’t the only time that his music acted as an extension of his abusive behaviour. On 17’s “Carry On,” he rapped a not-so cryptic indictment of his ex-girlfriend: “Falsely accused/ Was used and misled/ Bitch, I'm hopin' you fuckin' rest in peace.” It’s not hard to imagine that lyrics like this may have been used as fuel for his fans to have a woman’s campaign to repair a damaged eye (caused by the abuse of their favourite rapper) taken down and to regularly harass her even as she tried to move on with her life.
XXXtentecion was acutely aware of his power. In one Instagram live dispatch from 2017, he professed, “At least, if I’m gonna die or ever be a sacrifice, I wanna make sure that my life made at least five million kids happy or they found some sort of answers or resolve in my life.” Later, during a live interview with DJ Akademiks, he said, “If I got shot and ended up in the hospital, and I don’t have a million people outside of that hospital trying to get inside to make sure I’m OK, I would never ever make music ever again.” This is the language of a master manipulator and one that realised that his legacy was only as strong as the amount of people who bought into his ideologies. And that’s where the aftermath of XXXtentacion’s death transcends his own personal life.
Those spirited proclamations successfully positioned X for martyrdom, regardless of what critics had to say. It’s likely that his reputation as someone who shouldn’t be entertained within the media will bolster his status as a hero because it will frame him as a misunderstood outcast who was years before his time. From forecasting his own death, to pushing messages of self-love, to weaponizing his fanbase against anyone who dared to think differently from him will likely help XXXtentacion evade negativity in his death amongst his peer group and followers. Those characteristics could very well canonise him as someone who almost exclusively spoke to the concerns of their generation’s youth and in the wake of dying young and, despite the controversy of his alleged abuse, make him into some kind of mystical character of rap folklore. And that’s what makes his death a tragedy, not just for how his life ended, but for how that selective and curated narrative has taken hold of impressionable minds.
There don’t seem to be any winners in XXXtentacion’s death. He didn’t win because he was never able to be truly held accountable for his actions and lack of responsibility in hopes of maybe rehabilitating. That’s been the most consistent angle for those who have eulogised him – that he was on the path, and still had potential to positive change. But we don’t know if he was ever going to willingly or be forced to do so. His victims, while they may find solace in his absence, didn’t win because they still have to live with the terror that he afflicted upon them. They also aren’t clear of his fans’ wrath who may, in the process of adding conspiracy and mystique to his death, find some way to blame victims. And most concerning is how this all affects young people growing up right now in a world where problematic figures are absolved and death is paraded around for online engagement. The story of XXXtentacion is a tragedy on all fronts not only for what his immediate life entailed, but because it feels like a natural progression of a society seemingly headed for more and more disaster by the day.
Follow Lawrence Burney on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.