When someone dies, it’s likely that they leave at least a few people in pain. Their friends and family are faced with a void in their lives for the the loved one they lost. Their colleagues miss their presence and are genuinely sad for the loss of life. And they should be. No matter the harm they caused or wrongs they committed during the deceased’s time on earth, there will always be people who miss them. When that person is a celebrity or public figure, the impact of their death extends beyond their intimate circle. Their legacy leads to an outpouring of support from those who only knew them through their work, art, and headlines about them. This was the case for XXXtentacion (real name: Jahseh Onfroy), the 20-year-old Florida rapper who was fatally shot in Miami on 18th June.
Hoards of fans and other artists have expressed their condolences and sorrow in the wake of his death. They’ve shared with millions how inspired they were by his music and life. BET included him prominently in a memorial tribute to black entertainers who passed away in the last year during the BET Awards. During his short life, the young rapper spoke openly about his struggles with depression and anxiety. He was part of a new class of emo hip-hop artists that normalised the emotional and mental pain experienced by many. He wore the scars from his childhood trauma for the world to see, and his fans loved him for it. His rise to fame was swift, and his musical style – which made use of distortion techniques – influenced the newest generation of rappers thinking outside of the box. He is the ultimate success story for Soundcloud rappers, gaining a huge following on the audio streaming platform that has fostered the individuality of new rappers. He did all of this before he even landed a traditional record deal.
However, XXXtentacion’s public legacy is also stained by the hip-hop star’s violent tendencies, the most horrendous accounts of which were directed at women and a gay man. The unthinkable trauma that XXXtentcion experienced as a young child — at the age of 6 he tried to stab a man who was attacking his mother — followed him into adulthood, with tragic results for some of the people who crossed his path. At the time of his death, he was fighting charges that included aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, and false imprisonment, and witness tampering. He denied all charges, but a 142-page transcription of the woman’s testimony obtained by Pitchfork revealed a pattern of sadistic abuse. X bragged during an interview about beating his gay cellmate nearly to death for allegedly looking at him while he was changing his clothes when he was serving time in a juvenile detention centre for a gun possession charge in 2016. He was unapologetic, to say the least, about the revelations in the document. He was staunchly anti-feminist and believed that systemic oppression, like racism, was over.
With this knowledge in mind, there is also a vocal collective —mainly black female hip-hop fans and our advocates — of individuals who have opted out of revering X in death. Instead, they’ve condemned such memorialising as an erasure of the experiences of not only the survivor of his abuse, but all survivors. They’ve done so in the face of obstinance, vitriol, and an institutionalised consensus that the loss of X’s life (and more music) is the greater tragedy.
And objectively speaking, it is. XXXtentacion is dead. He no longer has the privilege of evolving into a better person, letting his voice be heard, or recovering from his own wounds – the people who have been subject or witness to his violence, however, do. The question is not whether or not XXXtentacion deserved to die for the crimes he committed while he was living. Of course he didn’t. But how he will and should be remembered — and what emotions he provokes in people who know that violence against women is a deadly epidemic — is certainly open for interpretation.
The insistence that we mourn XXXtentacion no matter what is more than just diplomacy. It reinforces a narrative that has been imposed on black women for way too long: defend and honour black men under any and all circumstances, even when it is against our best interests. According to the Center for Disease Control, the second leading cause of death for black women ages 15-24 is homicide, with over half of those deaths occurring at the hands of a current or former intimate partner. X did not kill anyone, but he engaged in the kind of behaviour that has proven to be deadly for too many black women. Still, racist myths about black male aggression, a fraught relationship with the police and criminal justice system, and the sexist expectation that women’s strength comes from their ability to endure mistreatment, continue to make things difficult for women who refuse to venerate talented, yet violently misogynistic men.
From R. Kelly to Chris Brown, and now X, black men have managed to maintain respect and admiration in their fields despite public documentation of their violence against women. Holding black men accountable for their actions has long taken a backseat to celebrating their talents and abilities as mass entertainers. When Geneva Ayala, the woman who made the allegations against X, showed up to his memorial last week — a gesture which shows just how complicated the relationship between abusers and survivors can be — she was kicked out, and the items she left for him were burned by fans. She has been enduring death threats for months, since her testimony was made public. The message is clear: Crimes committed against black women are not as important as the lives of black men.
Grieve the loss of X all you want. But do not use grief as a tool to absolve him of his abusive behaviour. And do not admonish those of us who refuse to make anymore space for black men, dead or alive, who prey on women.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.