XXXTentacion’s death reopens the debate on separation between artist and art

Trigger Warning: this article contains details of violent abuse, rape & suicide.

by Elly Savva Coyle

Following a shooting in Miami on the 18th of June, the 20-year-old ‘up-and-coming’ Floridian rapper XXXTentacion (born Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy) has died. The rapper’s rapid rise to musical success has been concurrently overshadowed by his criminality and multiple allegations of violent abuse. His previous arrests include charges of aggravated battery, home invasion, assault, domestic battery, false imprisonment and witness tampering. Despite these incidences of violence, XXXTentacion garnered a huge fan-base and notable chart success, with his second album titled ‘?’ topping charts in the United States and reaching 3rd position in the UK.

At the time of Onfroy’s death, he was awaiting trial for charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman and domestic battery by strangulation. Although the rapper would have pleaded not guilty, he faced a significant amount of jail time. The victim’s testimony reveals a pattern of abusive, cruel and sadistic behaviour. His pregnant ex-girlfriend claims that he kicked, punched, stamped on her head, drowned her head under running water in a bath, threatened to cut out her tongue, threatened to penetrate her vagina with sharp barbecue instruments, and threatened to kill her and the unborn child she carried.

His victim has started a GoFundMe page for help with her medical bills, as she now requires orbital surgery after being so brutally beaten to the point that fractured bones in her eye socket are piercing into the back of her eyeball causing damage to an optical nerve. Her page includes photographic evidence and doctor’s reports of the serious injuries she alleges were at the hands of XXXTentacion. The rapper’s violence wasn’t towards equal rivals, it was exerted on the vulnerable. In an interview, Onfroy spoke proudly and in hideous detail about beating a cellmate he believed to be gay nearly to death during his time in juvenile prison.

XXXTentacion began his success amongst the wave of SoundCloud rap, a new sub-genre of hip-hop with emo and punk influences. The online SoundCloud service created a platform easily accessible for a new generation of young artists to publish music independent of the influence of record labels. The removal of the gatekeepers in this way resulted in an unpolished, nihilistic sound with honest lyrics that are largely emotional and confessional about mental health and drug abuse, yet sometimes full of hatred and violence. SoundCloud rap has created a distinctive subculture in which the music has become intrinsically connected with contemporary fashion and abuse of the powerful benzodiazepine Xanax. The prescription drug is used in the treatment of anxiety but is taken recreationally to create floating feelings of disconnect and the numbing of internal emotions.

XXXTentacion’s music expresses feelings of isolation and insecurity with lyrics centred around numbness and mental illness, themes central to SoundCloud rap. It is easy to see the appeal of his music to a generation of youth battling with feelings of alienation and rising numbers suffering with mental health. His track ‘SAD!’ reveals the rapper’s dark internal monologue on the loss of love, suicide and depression. ‘Jocelyn Flores’ is a sensitive dedication to a friend of XXX’s who committed suicide. The track is a delicate and contemplative soliloquy, a world apart from the artist’s alleged hideous acts of violence.

Recently, the debate over whether it is possible and right to separate the art from the artist has been reignited. The ‘MeToo’ movement has exposed many prominent modern cultural figures including musicians, comedians and producers as abusers. The discussion over whether you can separate the art from the abuser is complex, divisive and sometimes provokes instinctive arguments imbued by personal affections for the art in question. Ultimately, art is a direct product of its creator. If you are supporting the art, you are consequentially legitimising the life of the artist in question and promoting the message that the actions of these abusers are permissible. Even if you disagree with this idea and believe that the two can be rationally separated, the case of XXXTentacion is different because his violence wasn’t exposed after his rise to fame, his abusive nature and incarceration was what helped to propel him to stardom.

The controversy surrounding XXXTentacion served as free promotion of his work. Pitchfork reported that in 2017 when Onfroy was arrested on domestic abuse charges, google searches of his name spiked. His art is directly reflective of his violence. Crude lyrics such as “rape a b-tch, that’s my fetish aye” and “shots in her body until she is a stump” reflect an extremely aggressive misogynistic mindset which fetishises brutality against women.

XXXTentacion was undoubtedly a talented young artist with a promising future in the music industry. However, his violent personal life is inextricably connected with his art and is impossible to overlook. Although a violent death is never something to be celebrated, his passing means that his victims are now free of their abuser. The talent he possessed and the legacy of his music can’t excuse any of his hideous abuse towards the vulnerable.