The cult of XXXTentacion: how fans pay tribute to an abusive rapper
Death is indiscriminate not just in its inevitability, but in its propensity for bleaching some of our darkest stains. Frank Sinatra’s baritone, natty fashion sense, and world-famous blue eyes charmed women – while his alleged links to organized crime and a violent temper showcased a different side. Marvin Gaye was a smooth soul singer blessed with a distinctive, effortless voice – who mistreated his partners, going so far as to hold a knife to the throat of his second wife, Jan. Ike Turner, James Brown – abusive yet widely revered. But they were men of a more patriarchal, and thus more permissive, time.
In the #MeToo era, the premature death of XXXTentacion, born Jahseh Onfroy, shot and killed in a robbery gone wrong, tugs at our traditional postmortem strictures. The 20-year-old Florida rapper’s soul-baring lyrics earned him scores of teenage supporters and the approbation of Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj – but he stomped a gay juvenile hall cellmate to near-death in a homophobic attack and, before his murder, was awaiting trial for allegedly beating, torturing and imprisoning his pregnant ex-girlfriend. How do you commemorate a gifted abuser in 2018? If you’re his most dedicated fans, with a teenaged mixture of sorrow, denial, vulnerability, brutishness and shocking callousness.
During the nine days between Onfroy’s murder and his formal memorial held at the BT&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, a series of impromptu ceremonies were held across the country.
In Atlanta, Lil Yachty presided over a candlelight vigil.
In Los Angeles, his former manager, Adam “Adam22” Grandmaison, himself an accused rapist (an allegation he denies), hosted a gathering at his BMX shop. What began as an afternoon of misty-eyed testaments to the importance of XXXTentacion’s music ended with an evening of police shooting pepper balls and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd of hundreds blocking streets and marching to chants of “Long live X!”
And, in Florida, Geneva Ayala, Onfroy’s former girlfriend who he was accused of beating, threatening and imprisoning, briefly attempted to attend a vigil. According to Ayala’s Instagram, the tokens she left for Onfroy – flowers, a globe, a sign and candles – were set on fire and an anonymous woman, furious that Ayala had “snitched” on Onfroy, attempted to fight her. She left after 25 minutes, understandably distraught and in tears. Shortly thereafter Ayala tweeted: “[…] just please stop tagging me in disrespectful threads and arguments […] i lost someone close to me. leave me alone.” And, five minutes later: “it’s disgusting that people are speaking for me […] i didn’t lose my life. he did […] like how do you think that makes me feel? everyone expecting me to be relieved or happy?! no, i’m broken.”
Through no fault of her own, Ayala has become the trampled turf upon which a pitched battle is being fought. For Onfroy’s hardcore fans, she’s the temptress who caused him immense grief; they’ve harassed her online and in person to the point that, tired of photo-happy gawkers and would-be stalkers attempting to follow her home, she quit her job at Dunkin’ Donuts. For those sympathetic to a woman who, while pregnant, was literally tortured, she’s the proxy through which they can extract a modicum of karmic justice. A day after the publication of a Miami New Times article which documented Onfroy and Ayala’s relationship in exacting detail, a GoFundMe campaign to pay for eye surgery necessitated by his final, most savage beating gained $12,000 in new donations. And the day after Onfroy’s death the campaign stood at $32,000 – $7,000 more than she asked for.
The clash over Onfroy’s artistic legacy cuts along similar lines. Music journalists are leery of both the XXXTentacion hagiography and his oeuvre, and discussions of Onfroy tend to treat his history of violence as a necessary critical vector. (It is, in my estimation.) But Onfroy’s legacy feels critic-proof – his devout followers seem to use negative press from morally inconsistent, tut-tutting outlets to bolster his status as a misunderstood prophet. On 19 June, the day after his murder, his song SAD! broke Taylor Swift’s single-day record for Spotify streams. (Ironically, a month earlier, Spotify removed XXXTentacion’s music from their official playlists before a Lamar-led backlash caused them to reverse direction.) His listeners have catapulted nine of his songs on to the Billboard Hot 100 with “SAD!” sitting atop the chart, making him the first posthumous artist to achieve that since the Notorious BIG in 1997. While Sacha “Son Raw” Orenstein, a Montreal-based DJ, freelancer and fan of XXXTentacion’s music, thinks the behavior of Onfroy’s fans is “beyond the pale”, he has a low estimation of the music press’s coverage of the deceased.
“X was an extremely charismatic artist that touched a lot of vulnerable young people in a genuine way. He was also someone who caused a lot of harm to those around him,” Orenstein tells me via direct message. “But adults don’t get to decide if the latter invalidates the former for his fans, particularly when our own heroes have extremely checkered histories of violence … I do feel the press’ good intentions when it came to reporting his misdeeds crossed a line into a campaign to make an example out of him, and today that further fuels his martyrdom.”
Rebecca Haithcoat, a former assistant editor at LA Weekly, is similarly repulsed by the boyish cult of XXXTentacion and, like Orenstein, expressed misgivings about what she perceives as music journalism’s morally absolutist tendencies.
“The internet breeds this black and white [mentality]: you’ve either gotta be all-in or all-out, and if you have any empathy of abusers – I just don’t get down like that,” she says. “It’s like Chris Brown: he got beat the fuck up and his mom got beat the fuck up, and he saw it as a kid. Inside all of us are wounds from childhood we don’t know how to heal, and someone like [Onfroy] didn’t seem to have the resources [to cope].”
A struggle to cope with vexing emotions, either through youthful immaturity, an unwillingness to seek help, or the plain, saddening unavailability of mental health resources – or some combination of the three – appears be a unifying factor in XXXTentacion fandom. Onfroy was a cruel, pathological abuser – but a cruel, pathological abuser whose struggles aligned closely with those of many of his listeners.
“Do you feel like X became a mentor for kids without involved parents or constructive outlets for their energies?” I ask Kuei Kuei of Adelaide, Australia, a 17-year-old who, through his popular XXXTentacion fan page @badvibesforeverofficial, regularly communicated with the late rapper.
“I’d agree with that,” he answers. “Kids at my school, they listen to X’s music as an escape route to not have to go to these facilities. They feel more personally attached.”
When I ask Kuei how he’s coping with Onfroy’s death, he tells me that he has been consoling distraught fans.
“I have a lot of these kids messaging me, telling me that they’re really upset about X’s death. I’m trying to make sure they’re good, because they’re suicidal. If I’m grieving, and they’re grieving, I don’t really see the positive in [doing] that – I should be trying to inspire them to stay positive and spread their love.”
This ad hoc online system of mutual support among XXXTentacion devotees has salutary and deleterious effects. A shared love for Onfroy helped connect alienated young people, but these relationships have metastasized into feedback loops which provide either positive emotional reinforcement or the negative motivations needed to stalk an abused teenager.
For now, these self-reinforcing systems are in place. But on 27 June, in Sunrise, Florida, Onfroy’s memorial was attended by thousands, including PnB Rock, Ugly God, Denzel Curry, Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert, who’s called on other celebrities to donate to a fund supporting Onfroy’s family. (A day later, Drake’s Scorpion was released which, in a verse by Jay-Z, included a line referring to Onfroy: “Y’all killed X and let Zimmerman live, streets is done.”)
Ludicrous conspiracies that Onfroy’s death was a hoax, and that he would rise from his open casket with a “Gotcha!” were proved wrong – he lay in a mostly empty hockey arena in a Florida suburb, dressed in a denim jacket and protected by security guards. Mourners sang, hugged, cried and, when it was over, tweeted and ’grammed. In life, he was sorrowful, vulnerable, a brute and shockingly callous, and he was never fully held to account for his actions. In death, his darkest stains will not be bleached.