XXXTentacion has the number-one album in the country, according to Billboard 200 Album chart, and he's currently facing charges in Miami of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, and false imprisonment, along with multiple counts of witness-tampering (he denies all of the charges). How the hell did this happen?
People keep asking why there hasn't been a reckoning in the music industry, and why artists like R. Kelly and Chris Brown retain their record deals. XXXTentacion's (whose real name is Jahseh Onfroy) success provides an understanding of why: because people continue consuming the art made by men who mistreat women. Labels, along with streaming services, tour promoters, and publishers, are gambling that they will make enough money off of men who abuse women to offset any negative publicity. In music, morality doesn't outweigh the bottom line, and what that morality covers is more than just not giving a platform to abusers of women.
XXXTentacion is part of the burgeoning SoundCloud rap scene that has produced several problematic male artists. They all make emotional, and sometimes graphically violent, music that found a community, and popularity, on the streaming service. Throughout 2016, just as XXXTentacion's career in rap was taking off, he was charged with the crimes listed above. He was arrested in October of 2016. Word about what he had done didn't deter his fans from voting him into to XXL's 2017 Freshman class or stop Diplo and Noah Cyrus from recording tracks with him. They didn't stop Kendrick Lamar giving him a co-sign on his debut album, which was number two when it came out. The only place that did throw up a stop sign was the blog DJ Booth, which declined to review that album and opted instead to post a statement that said, "After decades of acceptance, both by society at large and, more specifically, the hip-hop community, we felt we could no longer stand on the sidelines, watching rap's ugly embrace of sexual assault and domestic violence."
In September of 2017, Pitchfork published excerpts from the testimony of his now ex-girlfriend (please note the details contain graphic, triggering stories of abuse) in which she alleges that over the course of several months, she was emotionally and physically abused on multiple occasions, had the life of their unborn child threatened by him, and was kidnapped and held against her will by him. Since then, an affidavit in her name has been filed that says she doesn't wish to testify at his domestic abuse trial and that she'd like the charges "completely dropped." Miami authorities question the authenticity of the affidavit.
Until that point, everything we knew about XXXTentacion proceeded the start of the #MeToo movement, which took off with the New York Times' first exposé on 5th October 2017. But I remember reading Pitchfork's recounting of that woman's testimony while sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store with chills running down my spine. While our culture has undergone a dramatic shift towards believing women since then, it's hard to read that report and think anyone in the world would want to support his career after reading her testimony. But, in swooped Capitol Music Group (which is owned by the Universal Music Group, the largest record company in the music industry). Through their Caroline distribution services arm, which brands itself as an independent distribution agency, they signed a record deal with XXXTentacion in October of 2017. While the world was grappling with stories of systematic abuse in Hollywood, the music industry was handing over a reported $6 million contract to a violent abuser.
That decision wasn't made without reason: the L.A. Times reported from sources that Capitol Music Group head Steve Barnett told staffers they could raise their concerns about signing XXXTentacion, but that the signing was to grow their market share in hip-hop and rap. The company has not publicly commented on the decision. Bartnett has been around the industry for a long time — he started his career in the '70s. He was previously the head of Epic and Columbia Records prior to joining Capitol in 2012, at a time when much of the labels' successes were in rock music. He doesn't necessarily have a lot of history in rap. So maybe he thought this was a situation like the '90s, where hip-hop artists come with a checkered past, and that informs their art. It's one thing to be YG and have a history with gang violence and rap about robbing people's houses in this day and age. It's quite another to have committed intimate partner violence. There is a vast difference between the violence of growing up on the streets and physically trying to kill your intimate partner. But Barnett's risk paid off, because the first album he released with XXXTentacion went right to No. 1.
XXXTentacion isn't on the homepage of Caroline's website with their other new and recent releases, nor is he on the Capitol Music website (though Migos and Lil' Yachty are). They don't have to associate themselves with him because Spotify is handling it for them. As of today, he's got six songs in their United States Top 50 playlist and seven in the US Top 50 Viral. He's the 12th song on their most subscribed (and most influential) playlist, Rap Caviar. And 17 and 23. Why does it matter? Because Billboard broke down how his album got to the No. 1 spot this week and it was largely driven by streaming.
Playlist culture is great for music discovery. Programmers for Spotify have talked at length about how their selections are determined as much by algorithms as they are by selections. SoundCloud, where XXXTentacion broke through with huge streaming numbers, is another platform that lets listeners push play and sit back to have whatever is next in related music served up to them. As the listener on the end of that playlist, how often do you stop to Google the artist you just discovered to find out if he's a known abuser?
Apparently, you're going to have to. The music industry will keep looking after its bottom line, and algorithms don't have a moral compass.
Refinery29 has reached out to Universal and Captiol Music, Caroline Distribution, Spotify, and SoundCloud for comment on this story.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
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