In form, the traditional obituary demands a particular standard of politesse, of nicety. From earnest parents, most children inherit some version of this puritanical theory of justice: Never, ever, disrespect the dead. So we write about them.
Newspapers publish death notices. Families write eulogies. We preserve the memory of the subject through language, hopelessly trying to capture the grandeur of their humanity with pretty combinations of words and clichés. If the person was loved by many, the obituary mutates into hagiography. The deceased becomes a saint, and their obituary excessively flattering; their humanity was so big, so expansive, that in death, they transcend it. In the case of XXXTentacion, the artist, there is little room for such praise.
On Monday, X, born Jahseh Onfroy, was shot and killed, in broad daylight, outside a motorcycle dealership in South Florida. The Internet heaved in a tempest of emotion—in the last year and a half, the 20-year-old had become among the most popular and disruptive figures in music, with a no. 1 album and streaming numbers that outpaced legacy artists like Eminem and JAY-Z. His death, of course, prompted the ceremonious social media ritual of celebrity tributes: Kanye West cited X as an inspiration; Diddy referred to him as a “king”; Jidenna, oddly, compared him to Malcolm X. Even Spotify coughed up a memorial, despite its short-lived “hateful conduct” policy, which previously sought to remove X’s music from its curated playlists.
That Onfroy left behind a litany of criminal charges—aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, false imprisonment, witness tampering, domestic battery by strangulation—seems to complicate the circumstance of his untimely passing. Upon his death, a familiar, ancient chorus instantly reemerged in fiery debates between fans and critics: Can we (or should we) separate the art from the artist?
The answer, in short, is no.
The frequent eruptions of violence that marked X’s early adolescence only worsened during his stints in juvenile hall. His childish, attention-seeking behaviours shadowed him into late teenage-hood. In an interview on “No Jumper,” a popular YouTube podcast, in 2016, the rapper bragged about stomping on and choking a gay cellmate (the word he used was “faggot”) at a detention centre for looking at him: “I started strangling him … I’ve got his blood all over my hands, all of my chest, literally … I was going crazy. I smear his blood on my face, on my hands. I got it, like, in my nails. I got it all over me.”
At the time of his death, Onfroy was awaiting trial for a high profile case of domestic abuse, in which he pled not guilty. In a deposition, his former girlfriend, Geneva Ayala, chronicled the abuse he allegedly waged against her while they were together: threatening to penetrate her with a barbecue pitchfork, holding her head under running water, whipping her with plastic hangers, beating her until her eyes leaked blood. When Ayala started a GoFundMe campaign to fund surgery to preserve her vision, after he allegedly attacked her, his fandom had the page shut down; when she tried to attend his vigil Tuesday night, his fans drove her out.
The cult of XXXTentacion devolved into just that: a cult. His audience—the same young listenership that champions “SoundCloud rappers” like Kodak Black, Famous Dex, and 6ix9ine, each of whom with their own respective histories of abuse—positioned him as a sort of saviour, as the pinnacle of emotional vulnerability. This doesn’t come as a surprise. As Lindsay Zoladz writes for The Ringer, artists like X, who flout a bruised, relatable humanity, and use their music as meditations on mental illness and existentialism, tend to have outsized impacts on their fans. So it’s understandable that his meteoric career had such a profound effect on the people who loved him.
I have no illusions that Onfroy wasn’t an inspiration to many. He connected with his fandom on an intimate level, often using Instagram Live as makeshift therapy conversations about depression. No hero can be the perfect one. Cardinal Richelieu once wrote, “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” I think it’s increasingly important to accept that, in varying degrees, we all enjoy problematic people and things. What we cannot do, though, is ignore the violent sagas of an artist for the sake of justifying our positions on their work.
— ♛ salvador♛ (@X_XsalvadorX_X) June 18, 2018
That Onfroy’s documented legacy of alleged (and confirmed) abuse is being understood as a matter of debate, rather than an acceptance of fact, is a testament to the pathologies of his fandom. XXXTentacion and Jahseh Onfroy were not separate beings in their theatre of violence; the distance between the person and the persona was intentionally marginal. X’s biography became nearly inseparable from his musical ID, and he seemed to revel in this truth—it is a masculine mantra to walk the walk, to talk the talk, to be about your shit, to back up the shit you talk. It is no coincidence that “Look At Me!”, the caustic single which catapulted him into stardom, features his mugshot as its artwork. “Can’t keep my dick in my pants,” the lyrics go. Hardly anyone was Googling the rapper before his six-month tenure in county jail. His criminality is what fans found particularly alluring.
It is very possible that Onfroy was working on rehabilitating himself. But if he was, his reformative efforts seemed, at best, like pageantry—he announced plans to donate more than $100,000 to a domestic abuse charity, but later elected not to; he planned an “anti-rape” event for Art Basel Miami Beach, which was canceled after a fan vandalized the venue. I understand those who feel they lost someone close to them. It is not my right to tell others how to grieve. But I am equally uninterested in the idea of sympathizing with an individual who directed his inner chaos at queer people and women of colour. Death is not an inherently heroic act.
Years ago, in 2013, a woman died in Reno, Nevada. For the local newspaper, her daughter wrote an obituary, which abandoned good form and instead told the story of how her mother “unforgivably” tortured and abused her eight children. The paper eventually opted to pull the obit from their website. They shouldn’t have. Today, I wonder what Onfroy’s victims would have written about him, and whether the world would decide it wasn’t worthy of being heard.