Content warning: This article contains mentions of violence and sexual assault.
“This [ ] did some gay shit, so I had to crack his head open,” explained XXXTentacion to his mother, regarding his beating of a cellmate. That year, when he was 17, X’s arrest record included possession of a gun, armed robbery, resisting arrest, and possession of unprescribed Xanax. He was still relatively unknown at this point in his life. By the time he caught the public eye at 19, his record included even more extreme brutality. He dragged a barbecue cleaner along the inside of his girlfriend’s thigh. He assaulted fans. Through it all, he showed not a trace of remorse. Amidst this horror he signed a Capitol Record deal worth $6 million.
X’s violence was never a secret. Nonetheless, millions chose to defend him. They attacked his victims and claimed his music—rife with misogyny and violence itself—so overshadowed his crimes that the latter were forgivable. Most disturbingly, many of these fans and supporters are teenagers themselves.
Music, among other forms of entertainment, is full of stars with dubious morals. If the crimes of Tupac and David Bowie didn’t contribute to their stardom, they certainly didn’t quell it either. If anything is for sure, it is that X will be etched in our generation’s memory regardless of his moral transgressions. The combination of musical talent and shock-value violence that earned him a fame cannot be erased. What must be addressed is not whether we can strip X of undeserved fame but how we can productively move on from his legacy of violence.
X lacked the morals we hope to be universal. Even as he indefensibly transgressed these morals, he connected profoundly with a section of the youth on the verge of adulthood. His death, fittingly violent, left me not just disturbed but grieving. It felt not as if I lost the catchy hook to a yet unwritten song about heartbreak, but rather an inspirational leader. I wanted to mourn his death as my parents had Jimi Hendrix’s, but X was no role model. X was not a hero nor unique in anything other than his fame, and this role, as a symbol of ills he neither invented nor took with him in death, is what should define his legacy.
Clearly, Kanye and the “RIP X” movement missed the point. Jahseh Onfroy lived in and promoted unforgivable violence. However, no 20-year-old deserves to be shot in a parking lot. X’s fame brought to the public eye violence that it did not want to see. Neither cancelling his fame nor celebrating his violent death does anything to restore justice to the violent world in which he lived. We should resist memorializing X as purely artist or abuser and instead use his platform to bring attention to the many violence acts he lived and perpetrated.
X’s life was rife with the marginalization suffered by many young black and brown people in the United States. A black man born in Plantation, Fla., X enjoyed little reprieve beyond his short-lived celebrity. The vast majority of his life was spent without financial or physical security. Should he have been excluded from Spotify, Capitol Records, and erased from public view, he would have been returned to the impoverished, marginalized place that he began. Unfit for fame, he was a perfect fit for the prison system designed in his image. X was the product of a world of violence and oppression which he perpetuated. If we refuse to engage with both sides of his tragedy, we uphold the systems that marginalized both him and his victims and contribute to a culture of violence.
The emotional resonance of X’s music is undeniable. Kendrick Lamar admonished 11 million Twitter followers to “listen if you feel anything.” He symbolized for many a sadness and emotional discord previously born alone. For these fans, many exceedingly young, dismissal of X for any reason invalidated the emotions his music produced. If the man was not socially acceptable, how could their feelings be? As condemnation of X’s violence morphed into a condemnation of his music as well, they resisted. Try telling your parents about David Bowie’s or another cherished artist’s moral transgressions and you’ll likely see a similar resistance. Not only are these artist’s legacies alive and well via “separation of the art and the artist,” but so are those of rape, sexism and abuse. We no more have to accept X’s violence than we have to silence music that makes us feel. The abuses he suffered and to which many can relate do not make the abuses he inflicted acceptable. In order to productively capture his legacy he must be envisioned as an abuser who suffered, and a creative mind shaped by the world around him. His legacy should be that of abuse, racism, economic deprivation and a police state. X’s 20 years represent many of the most pressing social issues of our generation.
The danger of separating X’s fame from his violent life are even more obvious in the context of a nation plagued by militarized, racist police. We understand that when another black or brown person is shot by a police officer, the issue is not confined to that officer. There are not a “few bad apples” in the police force, but rather a system saturated by and structured around this violence. X was no more of a bad apple than that racist cop, both individual players in a larger game. If we want to eliminate X’s violence, we need to address where it came from.
The most pressing question X has left us with is how we can prevent the laundry list of tragedies that filled his 20-year life. Overlooking his violence in favor of musical contributions condones that violence, just as excluding him from public view invalidates the suffering he had to endure, as well as the emotions of his fans. X will unavoidably live on in most of our memories. He was both a violent abuser and a victim of racial, economic, and police violence. These issues were as inseparable in his life as they are persistent in his absence. X is dead and gone, and invisibilizing him will no more right the wrongs of his life than lauding him will. So let’s repurpose his legacy, his fame, in bringing attention to previously unseen violence he both lived and perpetrated.
Jesse Marely is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at email@example.com.