XXXtentacion was a complicated man. On one hand, he was an artist that was captivating enough to get a recommendation from Kendrick Lamar on his Twitter feed and accumulate millions on streams on streaming services. But the other more private side of X, as his fans called him, was that of an abuser, a young man who both physically and mentally tortured a woman to the extent of her needing surgery to regain vision in her left eye.
A debate rages about bad people making good art. How the disturbing private lives of some of the arts most revered figures means that their art needs to be re-evaluated. Roman Polanski directed Rosemary’s Baby, a horror film that arguably defined parts of the genre, however, he also drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. Outside of film, comedian Louis CK was accused of prolifically using his position of power to sexually assault and harass women. These are but a minnow of the known and unknown artists that have made art that has inspired and is idolised by millions, that have also acted in ways that I would personally argue are morally bankrupt. Although the severity of the crime may differ, Polanski’s crimes many would argue are worse than CK’s, the re-evaluation of the work still occurs by both media and individual alike. Ultimately this re-evaluation results in a question of support, that being ‘Can I still support this artist and appreciate this art in light of what I know now.’
So many of XXXtentacion’s fans will be unaware of the severity of the allegations against him. His music was not for me personally; however, I know that he had his fans. This fanbase is not primarily through naivety to his actions, however, I would argue that sentiment exists at least in part, but through some people being able to both separate music and musician and embrace the actions of XXXtentacion as part of his flaws. The reaction to XXXtentacion in wake of his death was polarising with some actively celebrating his death and others mourning a life arguably lost too young. Tributes flooded in from all corners of the media-sphere however, one reaction stood out to me. Musician Jidenna drew a parallel between XXX and Malcolm X, claiming had Malcolm died at 20 ‘he would have died an abuser, a thief, an addict, and a narrow-minded depressed & violent criminal.’ Jidenna’s argument of believing in ‘change for the young’ is an interesting one, not mourning XXXtentacion for what he was but what he could have been. What he could have been as a person not as a musician.
The idea of change for the young contrasts greatly with what seems like a change for the older in one of the global superstars of our time. Kanye West’s quote of ‘George Bush doesn’t care about Black People’ at a live telethon was one of the defining pop culture moments of the Bush presidency. Always outspoken, West had accused Bush’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina of being racially biased and bought an issue on the fringes of debate into the mainstream. Almost two Decades later West is wearing a hat in support of a President who has recently imprisoned children in cages and encouraged racism in the United States to his advantage. West also claimed that ‘Slavery was a choice.’ Personally, this is where the question of support came into play again. Although more based on West’s beliefs than his actions my support for West waned, a man who I had once seen as someone with opinions I respected and could be justified was now spewing Trumpist rhetoric. Controversy is Kanye’s brand, Taylor Swift at the VMA’s, The All-Day performance at the Brits, but despite these actions not necessarily being agreeable they were not actively dangerous to the youth that he undoubtedly influences, unlike telling them ‘slavery was a choice.’
Outside of my opinion, publications such as Pitchfork denounced Kanye for his comments. Their review of his newest album ‘Ye’ dealt with the change that had been seen in West, with the reviewer Meghan Garvey ending the review lamenting for the ‘the kid from Chicago who wanted to be the biggest rapper in the world, who now lives in an empty-looking concrete mansion in Calabasas, who has stopped trying.’ A comment just not on his music but the laziness with which Kanye now tries to publicise and cause controversy for controversy’s sake. Commentators declared West ‘cancelled’ and his newest releases were not met with same universal praise they usually were. Kanye is a prime example of someone who is difficult to separate from his art. His albums are personal and are drenched in his persona and controversies, like the bars on ‘Famous’ about Taylor Swift. Kanye has such devout fans due to his personality and how he invites fans to buy into not just his music but him as a person.
It is this personal, almost celebrity like aspect that leads to how art is interpreted in wake of revelations about their creators. Polanski is not a celebrity in the way that West is. Polanski’s work does not invite us into the life of Polanski in the same way that Kanye’s albums invite us into the life of Kanye. We feel like we get to know Kanye personally and glimpse into his world, so when he says something that is difficult to understand and feels against the character we feel we know it has more of a personal effect. It is here that the work is harder to still appreciate. Rosemary’s Baby is a product from Polanski but not of him whereas My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy is a product both of and from Kanye.
To refuse to judge XXXtentacion based on his crimes would be unfair on those that he abused. To celebrate the life of a man who threatened his lover’s life daily would be unfair to those he abused. To parrot Jidenna and mourn XXXtentacion for the loss of what he could become feels better, but by this logic, anyone young enough is someone that we should mourn. With XXXtentacion his music gave us an insight into a troubled young man, a product of and from him. His fans could sympathise with him to an extent as his actions were in line with both the abusive and abused sad man he was on his records. This is not to say that his fans were advocating his abusive behaviour, just that it was excusable to them.
The attempt of this article has never been to apologise for the actions of XXXtentacion. I have however tried to understand why he still maintained support, why his death was so impactful to so many, to the extent where he beat the one-day Spotify streaming record and why it can be argued that a blind eye was turned to the abusive and abhorrent actions of this young man. XXXtentacion’s support was a product of his art, a dark and introspective take on Rap that appealed to many. Support did not wane not just due to ignorance of his actions, but due to his actions reflecting the music he made and to some that being excusable. The success of XXXtentacion is down to both a willingness to embrace an incredibly flawed individual because of their music. However, the extent of these flaws makes it impossible for me to mourn him for who he was and what he achieved.
Maybe XXXtentacion could have been great, but instead of mourning for the death of one already famous artist who had done little to change even in the wake of success I will mourn for all of the other young, primarily black, victims of circumstance that could have gone on to achieve so much were it not for the societal ills that poverty and neglect enhance and create. The death of XXXtentacion should be a wake-up call, to help the abused, to stop the cycle of abuse that exists and not to glorify or sympathise with the abusers but get them the help they need younger. XXXtentacion was killed in a shooting, another victim of both gun crime and the area he grew up in. Understanding XXXtentacion’s success is one thing, learning from his death is another.
I have included, for the sake of record, a link to an article on the reported abuse of XXXtentacion.