How Will XXXTentacion Be Remembered?

The rapper, who died at 20, was a tragic hero to some young fans and artists, even while allegations of violence piled up against him.

XXXTentacion visits iHeart Radio
XXXTentacion visits iHeart Radio in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (mpi04 / MediaPunch / IPX)

Nearly six months before his death, the embattled 20-year-old rapper XXXTentacion shared an urgent manifesto via Instagram Live. Eerily prescient, his words belied a sense of macabre resignation. “If I’m gonna die or ever be a sacrifice, I wanna make sure that my life made at least 5 million kids happy or they found some sort of answers or resolve in my life,” said the rapper, born Jahseh Onfroy. “Regardless of the negative around my name, regardless of the bad things people say to me, I don’t give a fuck.”

Having summarily addressed “the negative,” he moved toward buttressing his persona as a potent if counterintuitive source of inspiration. The rapper, who at the time of his death was facing serious charges that included assault of a pregnant woman and witness harassment, trailed off into nearly Oprah-esque affirmations, talking about how he wanted his young fans, especially those dealing with mental illnesses, to live life without fear:

I know my goal in the end, and I know what I want for everyone, and I know what my message is. So I just wanted to say I appreciate and love all of you, and I believe in you all. Do not let your depression make you. Do not let your body define your soul. Let your soul define your body. Your mind is limitless. You are worth more than you could believe.

In the hours after Onfroy was shot and killed on Monday in his native Broward County, Florida, the video has circulated heavily on Twitter and Facebook. It is chilling to watch now. Young and tempestuous, the rapper seemed to sense that his time among the living would be short.

XXXTentacion, perhaps the most infamous of an ad-hoc collective of young artists often referred to as “Soundcloud rappers,” had known for some time of the contention surrounding his work and persona. Dark and brooding, the late rapper spun the narrative of his misunderstood genius in his music, too. He introduced his massively successful album ? with “(instructions),” guiding listeners toward a putatively enlightened view of the record:

I’ll offer this warning and set of instructions: If you are not open-minded before you listen to this album, open your mind … It’s very comforting but discomforting at the same time, so with this project again you’re entering my mind, feeling my insanity, feeling my genius, my energy.

Both the album introduction and the Instagram Live message invite his audience into the interior of his mind, pointing to dark corners and encouraging listeners to accept their existence without interrogating what Onfroy has only partially hidden behind the shroud.

But the “negative” XXXTentacion referred to wasn’t undue musical criticism or ad hominem personal attacks. Within the space of a short, meteoric career, Onfroy’s music was nearly inseparable from the myriad allegations of violence against the young man who made it. By the time he released ?, XXXTentacion had accumulated a stomach-churning laundry list of criminal charges: aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering.

The detailed list of abuses his ex-girlfriend, Geneva Ayala, has recounted is gruesome and unsettling: slapping her and breaking her phone because she complimented a male friend, threatening to penetrate her with a barbecue pitchfork, stomping on her, threatening to cut out her tongue, hitting her with plastic hangers, holding her under running water in the bathtub, and punching her until her left eye closed and leaked blood, among them. Ayala started a GoFundMe campaign to fund orbital surgery she said is necessary to preserve vision in her eye. (The site deactivated the campaign page, then brought it back online in recent months; according to the Miami New Times, Ayala has also been subjected to harassment from XXXTentacion’s fans.) For his part, Onfroy denied the charges, and had repeatedly spoken with vitriol about Ayala and all who support her claims.

In his own words, though, XXXTentacion admitted to beating a gay man for “staring” at him: “I was gonna kill him, because of what he did, because I was naked. He was staring at me,” Onfroy told the hip-hop podcast No Jumper in 2016, “I started strangling him … I’ve got his blood all over my hands, all of my chest, literally … I was going crazy. I smear his blood on my face, on my hands. I got it, like, in my nails. I got it all over me.” He seemingly referred to himself as “lil dylan [sic] roof,” after the Charleston shooter who entered a predominantly black church and killed nine of its congregants.

In his music, he threatened suicide should a partner ever leave (on the track “Sad!”), chastised a woman for killing his vibes with her tears on the same record he dedicated to Parkland students (“Hope”), and enlisted PnB Rock to sing about a woman who “don’t feel no pain” and “might be insane” (“Smash!”). The tracks are as playful as they are harrowing; the sing-songy production lulls listeners into nearly forgetting that the beats soundtrack disturbing thoughts. The music was hypnotic, and it helped shape the public persona of a man who seemed to see the people attempting to hold him accountable as an unintelligible group of haters rather than as concerned citizens or injured parties.

Throughout his short life, XXXTentacion only weakly expressed remorse for his actions, alleged or admitted. He may very well have struggled with depression, but if he did, he turned his demons outward. And so the tenor of support for the rapper after his death was confirmed (from the coded references to his “troubles” and the potential for change, to the dismissal of his reported violence against women and queer people as matters of disagreement rather than an apparent pattern of abuse) is as disappointing as it is striking. It’s understandable that artists and fans alike would mourn the loss of a figure they cherished. And gun violence is inarguably tragic; that a young man was cut down in the prime of his life is impossible to rationalize, no matter his stature or past misdeeds. But dispensing with Onfroy’s history of violence as the sole domain of a personal failing glosses over the harm he wrought and the systems and individuals who supported him as he did.

It is perhaps easier to mourn the loss of a dazzling career than it is to interrogate what may have transpired should XXXTentacion have lived out the full course of a natural life. We cannot know if he would have attempted to make amends for his actions. People throughout history have had tremendous personal transformations, but all of those shifts have come about of choice. All indications—his repeated doubling down on the idea that he was the real target, his fans’ harassment of Ayala, the music industry’s continued capitulation to him—don’t suggest that Onfroy would have gotten there soon. And any slim chance for restorative justice, a process that some defenders have touted as a natural inevitability should Onfroy not have died, is now gone.

With XXXTentacion’s death, critics and consumers have been forced to reckon with how to remember a man whose life brought solace to countless listeners and pain to his alleged victims. Onfroy, in his music, reminded young fans in particular that their hurt was valid but that it did not form the sum total of their lives. He gave voice to their insecurities, wrapped their unending dread in the cover of his lyricism and transformed those nervous bundles into an electrifying body of work. Many of XXXTentacion’s teenage fans have come of age in an era that confronts them with unimaginable terrors far more quickly than it offers guides to processing those horrors. Hearing an artist work through his own dances with darkness, perhaps, functioned as a distorted kind of beacon. To lose a hero, no matter how flawed, is understandably difficult for young fans to stomach.

But Onfroy, and the people who continued to support him even as the allegations piled up, also served to remind women (especially black women) and queer people that the pain they experience at the hands of men does not deserve the same attention as the work those men may produce. There is no precise calculus for weighing these things against one another, no standard metric for distilling trauma into quantifiable units. XXXTentacion may have spent his career trying to convince his most ardent young fans that they’re worth more than they believe, but his legacy—of trauma endured and seemingly unrepentantly inflicted—reminds us that worth has never been distributed evenly.