The Next Big Rap Star Has A History Of Horrific Violence Against Women But No One Seems To Care
Shouldn't we be demanding better from artists?
[Update June 19, 2018: XXXTentacion has reportedly been killed after a shooting in South Florida. More details here.]
Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault
If you’re not familiar with XXXTentacion, get ready because you’re going to be hearing him everywhere pretty soon.
The Florida rapper’s sophomore album ? dropped last week and it’s projected to debut in the number one spot on the US Billboard charts. Judging by his position on Spotify and iTunes (the album’s lead single ‘Sad’ is currently number three on the Spotify Australia Top 50 and ? is in iTunes’ top 20 albums list) it’s likely to feature pretty high in Australia’s ARIA charts as well.
There’s no doubt XXXTentacion is a talented artist but he also owes his high stream count and album sales to high profile endorsements from the likes of Kylie Jenner and The Weeknd, album guest spots from Blink-182’s Travis Barker and Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$, lucrative features on popular streaming service playlists, and most significantly, a co-sign from the king of hip-hop himself Kendrick Lamar.
— Kendrick Lamar (@kendricklamar) August 26, 2017
But the rapper also has an incredibly disturbing history of violence. While that isn’t unique in hip-hop, the allegations levelled against XXXTentacion relating to the torture, kidnapping and sexual assault of his partner are particularly heinous. Even though the artist is spending his album launch under house arrest, after being charged with witness tampering related to his previous domestic violence case, no one in the music industry seems particularly keen to discuss his background.
The fact his label and musical collaborators don’t want to talk about his personal history isn’t a surprise, but the total absence of the allegations from the current discussion around XXXTentacion is bewildering, given the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and the fact that musicians with a history of abuse, like R. Kelly, are finally being held to account.
Who Is XXXTentacion?
The 20-year-old, whose real name is Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, is one of the most successful artists to emerge from the Soundcloud rap scene, alongside rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti and Lil Pump.
Soundcloud rap is known for its lo-fi production, trap influences and lyrics that regularly reference depression and prescription drug consumption. It’s a breeding ground for underground hip-hop talent, but its recent explosion in popularity means label A&R’s are keeping their ears close to the ground, keen to find the next artist they can pluck from obscurity and thrust into the global spotlight — like XXXTentacion.
He released his first EP, The Fall, in 2014 before dropping a number of collaborative albums with another Soundcloud rapper, Ski Mask The Slump God, who he met during a stint prison after being convicted on gun possession charges. He found more mainstream success last year when he released his first album 17, toured around the US and was picked in XXL’s Freshmen Class of 2017, an annual list of the best new hip-hop talent.
What Is He Accused Of?
Throughout his short, though extremely successful, rap career XXXTentacion has been charged with numerous crimes and served a number of jail stints. But even before the full extent of his behaviour was revealed in court the rapper had publicly bragged about his violent tendencies.
In a 2016 interview on the No Jumper podcast, XXXTentacion relayed a story about how he “slapped the fuck out of” a girl in his school before kneeing her. Later in the interview he tells another story of viciously beating a gay prison cellmate (referred to by the rapper as a “faggot”) who he accused of “staring” at him.
“So I’m like strangling him, and he’s like leaking, leaking, leaking type shit, and I’m strangling him so he doesn’t scream… Don’t think I’m trying to be cliché or a fucking weirdo when I say this, but I was going crazy. Like, I smear his blood on my face, in my hands, I got it in my nails, bro, I had it all over me,” he said on the podcast.
At the time there was minimal negative reaction from fans, or even the wider hip-hop community. The response, if there was one on, was more of approval than anything — XXXTentacion might only be a teenager but he had already demonstrated he had serious “street cred”, albeit from bashing women and gay men who looked at him for too long.
In October 2015 he was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness-tampering. The full details of the allegations became public in September 2017 when Pitchfork published a 142-page deposition given by the victim, XXXTentacion’s ex-girlfriend.
According to the victim, two weeks after they first met XXXTentacion slapped her and broke her phone, apparently because she had complimented a male friend on his jewellery. The same day XXXTentacion brandished two barbecuing tools — a pair of barbecue prongs and a barbecue cleaner — and asked the victim to pick one because he was going to put it in her vagina.
Later on, on multiple occasions, the victim alleged XXXTentacion punched her, head-butted her, stomped on her, held her head under running water in a bathtub, and threatened to kill her. After she fell pregnant with his child, she alleged that he threatened to kill and the unborn child and began beating and strangling her. XXXTentacion then allegedly kept her in his house for two days and confiscated her phone. She managed to escape and call the police. Her claims were backed up by multiple witnesses and police ended up arresting and charging the rapper.
In response to Pitchfork’s publication of the charges XXXTentacion released a series of Instagram videos where he said “Anybody that called me a domestic abuser, I’m gonna domestically abuse ya’ll little sisters’ pussy from the back.”
A month later he was offered a $6 million record contract by Caroline, a subsidiary of Capitol Records.
what a take from the guy who runs Capitol Records, which paid millions to sign XXXtentacion after his abuse charges were out pic.twitter.com/jzbr1KJWfw
— Jill Mapes (@jumonsmapes) January 13, 2018
The Allegations Are Extremely Serious But No One Seems To Care
Even though the allegations against XXXTentacion are on the public record, in explicit detail, they very rarely get brought up in articles covering the rapper. In fact, his Wikipedia article only has one line mentioning the charges, and that’s only in the context of explaining why his album was delayed.
The only reference to “domestic violence” on his Wikipedia page relates to this decision to donate to domestic violence charities. When he announced the donation he also issued a statement apologising “to every single woman that I’ve ever disrespected or made feel violated”. The apology was made just weeks after he was signed to Capitol, and seemed to be an attempt by the artist and his management to draw a line under his past.
But the legal issues didn’t let up. He was subsequently charged with eight more counts of witness tampering and is currently under house arrest while the trial continues. Releasing an album while fending off charges of violent assault and kidnapping is no mean feat, but XXXTentacion looks like he’s pulled it off.
Not only has he scored big endorsements and musical collabs, the broader hip-hop and music community doesn’t seem to be that keen to bring up the allegations. One review of ? on a popular hip-hop site spent more time talking about his rap industry feuds than the domestic violence allegations.
A review in The New York Times covered the allegations but concluded that the rapper’s inability to be “fully embraced” would lead to him “thriving” musically and becoming one of the most influential artists of a generation. Local site The Music didn’t mention the specific allegations when covering XXXTentacion, instead referring only to “multiple felony assault charges”.
When we asked Caroline, the artist’s label, to comment for this story they said “We’re not in any position to comment on the legal status of any issues surrounding any of our directly signed or partner label artists”. Spotify, who has promoted XXXTentacion by featuring him on a number of its most popular playlists, didn’t respond at all.
Why Does This Matter?
XXXTentacion is hardly the first rapper to have a violent past, or run ins with the law. Hip-hop was born out of anti-authoritarianism and political context of racist policing targeting minorities. But it’s hard to place the 20-year-old’s history of domestic violence within that context.
And even though there are some extremely influential rappers with a history of sexual assault, like Tupac, it’s still unusual (though not unique) for an artist in the current social context to get what is effectively a free pass for such heinous actions. 2018 is a long way away from 1995, when Tupac was charged and convicted. Social movements led by women are demanding we all do better and hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account, especially in the entertainment industry.
It’s obvious why labels and streaming giants and happy to ignore the allegations and throw their support behind XXXTentacion: money. He’s enormously popular and that means he’s going to make a lot of people very rich.
But should talent outweigh everything else? The current lesson from his career is that it doesn’t matter how appalling a person you are, or how many women you violently abuse, if you’re an artist with a big enough fan base you’ll be fine. That’s not an industry culture that takes a stand against violence towards women, it’s the opposite.
Of course, some of the responsibility lies with fans themselves. XXXTentacion’s young fans are notorious for flaming those who bring up the allegations by accusing writers and critics of being “haters”. They swamp online discussions and bury comments that criticise the artist, and regularly accuse the victim of lying.
The question of whether art can be separated from an artist’s actions is much bigger than XXXTentacion. But fans, labels, promoters, and the broader music industry need to think about the kind of behaviour their actions encourage, and if they’re comfortable with setting the kind of precedent we seem to be heading to.