A few weeks ago, a Soundcloud rapper named XXXTentacion was shot and killed during a robbery in Broward County, Florida. He was only 20 years old. He left behind a subversive collection of trite yet nuanced ballads that touch on suicide, depression, heartbreak and hardship reflective of the troubled life he faced throughout his childhood. He may just seem like another Soundcloud rapper, but I assure you the grandiosity of his modern-day streaming anomalies are unmatched. His self-released album, 17, was a true sensation, where bombastic songs like Jocelyn Flores have been streamed almost 400 million times on Spotify alone. His follow-up project, ‘?’, has taken greater heights, with 6 songs garnering more than 60 million streams. The hyperbolic track ‘SAD!’ has been played almost 400 million times as well. He has likely amassed close to 2 billion streams across all streaming platforms. Statistically, he is one of the most successful artists of 2017/2018. Yet somehow, he deployed zero marketing for his music and achieved minimal public awareness. It was an extremely curious situation. I fall into the camp that believes it’s an even younger generation than the millennials that have identified as his prophetic followers and run with his music. This group doesn’t listen to the radio. Streaming services are all they know. And they clearly own this niche. Many of my friends had never even heard of him when his death surfaced, and I’m only 23.
Beyond the size and scope of his death was a narrative that shadowed him throughout his short but chaotic career: he was a criminal, he was angry, and he was violent. The XXXTentacion ephemera is one traced in blood and tears. Jahseh Onfroy, or ‘X’ to his fans, has previously faced charges of domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and at the time of his death was charged with aggravated domestic battery among 14 other felony counts. He had been accused of punching his pregnant girlfriend in the face so many times that she was unable to open her eyes. Onfroy was no stranger to controversy. Another horrifying admittance during an interview was that he almost beat one of his former cellmates to death for being gay. He was dangerous, misogynistic, and homophobic. Without the minutia of his personal life, an everyday listener would likely never guess his squandered background and violent history based on his lyrical content. He ironically belted anthems about peace and spoke about helping others. Take a listen and you’ll likely agree. After his death, a huge outpouring of fans came together to make him out to be a martyr, likely from a place of loyalty, immaturity and ignorance. They put him up on a pedestal like some king, who in death, earned vindication.
When I heard of X’s death, I naturally headed straight to Spotify to explore more of his music as I had listened to no more than 5 of his songs at the time. Listening to his music post-mortem sparked an internal debate amongst myself as I learned more about his remarkably gross behaviour while simultaneously witnessing the glorification of his figure online. It made me think about Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Chris Brown. I pondered about the cross-section between talent and behaviour, and how one often supercedes the other (you can probably guess which one people care about more). It brought up the age-old question about bad people and what to do with their good art. It made me think about the things I’m not proud of in my life and the mistakes that I’ve made. I began to wonder how long the moral statute of limitations of society would hold me accountable before my actions would eventually be written off as youthful ignorance. I felt this weird ambivalence in listening to his music. I really enjoy the blaring youth and I sympathize with the heartbreak communicated in much of his music, but I also felt as though in some way that I was indirectly supporting someone who had carried out some unspeakable atrocities. I felt as though I was contributing to his glorification in adding to his stream count. I didn’t know if I should keep listening or stop all together. I couldn’t quite help but be pulled along by this string of questions:
What is the morality in supporting a person with such a horrifying history and set of beliefs?
Do we inherently have an obligation to gather a greater understanding of those we support and to dispel ignorance as an argument?
Can we separate an individual’s art from their identity?
Can we consciously enjoy something that was built and founded from unspeakable behaviour?
Where is the line that separates those we vilify and those that we let slip away from persecution over time?
Before I address some of these questions, I believe it’s worth noting that anyone who believes violence is the proper method to communicate their grief deserve your sympathy and not your condemnation. In a way, many aggressors are themselves victims. They have learned to cope with their own problems in unacceptable ways and were often taught the behaviour they exhibit. I am not here to defend X or any of the people I previously named, but my belief system is founded in the idea that love, support, and rehabilitation will aid those suffering and bring them upward, instead of sentencing them to a life of cyclical and iterative pain based on their past. This can be an incredibly tricky application, as not all people are willing to change, but I would rather work on improving people then to send them to prison. But that’s a whole other discussion entirely.
It seems to me that that much of our censure of an individual has less to do with their actions and more to do with societies collective response to it. There isn’t as much of a moral introspection and more of a sheepish look to others for the what the correct response should be. To illustrate what I mean by that, we can look at the crucifixion of Harvey Weinstein last year. When the body of accusations and subsequent evidence came together, the immediate response by everyone was unanimous denunciation. A variety of factors came together to influence that response including timing, how bad the offense was, the media spin, and the direction of the response.
The Timing: The power of the #MeToo movement and feminism has been climbing not only ideologically but also in pop culture popularity. The moral, ethical, and popular response was to clap back at a man who abused his power to take advantage of his subordinates. Rightfully so.
How Bad the Offense was: He has been charged with rape and several counts of sexual assault.
The Media Spin: The conversation surrounding Weinstein was never one of question – the overwhelming number of women who had come forward made it undeniable that something had likely taken place over the span of his career indicating his guilt, but sexual assault can often be so difficult to prove. The assumption publicly was not one of habeus corpus, but instead its reverse.
The Direction: The direction of the response was concordantly negative.
The subsequent result was undivided. There wasn’t anyone that could argue for Weinstein, nor would they want to, nor should they. It was a lost cause. Time has not and will not recover his reputation.
Whereas for others, like Chris Brown, whose actions also depict a heinous reality, the reactions indicate a different side of ourselves as a society. Weinstein was a film executive, not known for his accomplishments or skills, but rather for his name. He was never cool. He never had talent that others idolized. He never was a central figure in pop culture. He was a businessman that barely existed on other radars. It was easy to pile onto Weinstein. Chris Brown’s situation was different. He was a gratified superstar. He had been compared to Michael Jackson often as a teenager for his innate dancing ability and singing style. In 2009 at age 19, he punched and choked his then girlfriend, Rihanna, pleading guilty to a felony count of assault which was made very public by the media. The result since? Brown has made a recovery and comeback of sorts, considering he doesn’t have much of a decorated history either. He has since released 6 successful albums and has enjoyed the fruits of his vocal labour. Right now, he plays the other half of Lil Dicky in the chart-topping hit comedy single ‘Freaky Friday’.
After his altercation with Rihanna, some people decided to remove him from their playlists, some didn’t care, some continued to support him, and some forgave him with time. Now, what’s the difference between these two men? Can we agree that there is no ambiguity in whether their actions were right or wrong? The difference lies in the fact that because Brown’s actions weren’t so egregiously wrong, many chose apathy instead of denouncement. “He was a kid. He grew up in the spotlight.” Much of it was chalked up to youthful ignorance. Most just didn’t care. Has he been rehabilitated? Has he changed? These are questions that are interesting to ask but in application likely don’t contribute towards people’s opinions of him.
This illustrates my next point. For most things in life, we don’t attach our morals and our beliefs to the activities we participate in. We enjoy hockey without thinking about the gentrification of homeless people when we build new arenas, we eat beef without thinking about the contribution of methane into the atmosphere or the amount of water it takes to raise cattle and we listen to music without regard or acknowledgment for artist’s personal grievances.
We typically make a separation between an individual’s actions and their identity because we just want to enjoy art for what it is without the baggage that comes along with whoever created it. Their identity often eclipses their actions. But unfortunately, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Their identity is the only reason the art exists, and therefore cannot be ignored. It seems that for most of us, the only time we enact our moral compass is when someone’s actions are so reprehensible that we have no choice but to make a stand and view the person’s actions and identity as one. We leave anything that falls within the murky grey area up to chance.
Given this information, there is obviously a line that exists where you go from identity separation to combination. But where is this line? Why does Weinstein exist on one side while Chris Brown resides on the other? And in response, is it fair for us to ask society to be so woke that we are fully aware of everything we interact with? Conversely, is complacency in ignorance a fair argument? It’s quite apparent that there is some happy medium which balances out ignorance and asserting your morals. Although this may be an unpopular opinion, I believe that your beliefs should reflect most of your actions. I know it’s unreasonable to expect every person who listens to a random song to research the background of the individual who created it, but I do believe we have an obligation to understand those that we objectively and directly support. It can seem overbearing to believe we can influence change in the short term. Our inability to see in the short-term the direct impact in the long-term is what prevents us from realizing change. We all recognize the insignificance of our size and let that direct our movement. We look at ourselves as a drop in the bucket, instead of a drop in and of ourselves. We make up the bucket. In deciding to not listen to X’s music, you would be making an inordinately small impact on his estate’s bottom line or his popularity. You are, in the end, just one person. It’s easy to listen to one of his songs on Spotify and say “Fuck it. You can have the twenty cents.” But similar to voting in politics, this infinitesimal perspective that pushes us towards apathy grounds us in place. This is what makes us stagnant. How can we expect to move forward if we never communicate our beliefs, regardless of how small those forms of communications are, like choosing to not stream an artist on Spotify? Ultimately, we are the ones who hold the power in establishing our societies moral boundaries, we just need to exercise it, together. Your actions do matter.
Let me be clear, I’m not asking anyone to quit listening to X’s music or to adopt my set of beliefs. But the next time that you hear something about an artist that contradicts your beliefs, take the time to ask yourself some of the questions I asked. Decide for yourself whether enjoying someone’s art is inherently supporting their identity. The first step in enacting change is self-awareness, and maybe we can hold more people accountable for their actions if we uphold standards across the board, not just for the outliers that unite us in their egregious wrongdoings.