Author’s Note: The decision to give public space to someone problematic can be a tough one. That being said, anxious feelings and relevant perspectives shouldn’t be locked away. Writing has always been my safe space to flesh out ideas and purge past trauma. It is with this nuance I implore you to approach an account of alienation spurred by the death of a controversial artist.
On June 18, Florida rapper Jahseh Onfroy, who performed under the name XXXtentacion, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Onfroy was 20. He left behind family, friends, a budding rap career, and damning criminal charges.
His fans and colleagues immediately took to social media to share stories from their interactions with the rapper and the lasting effects his work has had on their own art. Some have compared this loss to the death of fellow Soundcloud rapper Gustav Åhr, better known as Lil Peep. Åhr passed away last November from a drug overdose. He was 21.
Both deaths were sudden and jarring. Yet, even though I was a bigger fan of Åhr’s music than I was Onfroy’s, I am finding that Åhr’s death was somehow easier to mentally grasp. I knew how to feel—sad. That’s not to say that I feel an ounce of happiness that Onfroy is gone. The difference is rooted in the reality that Onfroy’s passing is much more difficult to bear in terms of the difficult questions it raises for me as a music fan, a former emo kid, a detester of gun violence, and perhaps most confusingly, a woman who’s experienced intimate partner violence.
While I have listened to rap on and off since middle school, I began to listen to “emo rap” in earnest over a year ago. As depressive music with a fresh perspective, it quickly became my salvation through some of my darkest times. Inevitably, I became a casual listener of Onfroy. “I Spoke to the Devil in Miami..” still plays in my liked list on Soundcloud. He was a scene mainstay. That cannot be taken away.
As Onfroy’s domestic violence charges came to my attention, I would be lying if I said my relationship with his music wasn’t viscerally tarnished. It was like when those live photos of Taake in my portfolio just didn’t look the same after swastika-wearing (and other allegations I probably shouldn’t say here) emerged in headlines and DMs alike. Some forms of media have been deleted en masse, while others, such as Onfroy’s No Jumper interview, have remained permanent fixtures in my suggested videos.
Yet, everyone from friends from high school to some of my favorite rappers’ relationships with Onfroy’s music have remained unscathed. In a way, I envy that privilege. As I watch the outpouring of grief, my heart hurts for his friends of whom I am a fan. On the other hand, I’m encountering some very difficult-to-swallow guilt for X-support by proxy. Perhaps problematic support is inescapable in any scene due to the trickledown effect of music. Even the most woke atmospheric black metal band is still musically indebted to Burzum. It’s a web of yets and buts with no conclusive ending point.
Leading my confusion further down the rabbit hole is that through my guilt, anger, and resentment, there is a longing for nuance—the kind of perspective that invokes the human decency to distance oneself from grave dancing. While I could bond with Onfroy in the hands we pressed against a rain-drenched window, our life experiences were otherwise markedly different. Championing the death of a black man by gun violence as a white person feels particularly gross. I don’t know what structural violence to which he was subjected, and it’s not my place to speculate. The only moral high ground that I do feel comfortable asserting is that I don’t believe in the death penalty.
Then there comes my lived reality, rendering the issue of separating art from the artist a very trite scratch of the sunlit surface. I have been thinking of the perpetrators of violence against me, and I have, for the first time, considered the possibility of their deaths. Perhaps due to their lingering power over me, I have always thought of myself as the ghost. Would additional deaths bring peace? I don’t think so, but maybe that’s only because I believe living is a worse fate.
These were questions I was not prepared to consider when I was scrolling through Instagram while leaving work on an otherwise uneventful Monday. But, that emotional bombardment is the life that sitting somewhere between victim and survivor yields—a reality that becomes much bigger than the immediate issue at hand, and at the most inconvenient moments. The existence of a song in the depths of a playlist just becomes a speck on the radar as an attempt is made to keep the muzzle on an even more inconvenient truth.
Then a different kind of guilt is bled. A man is dead and a woman is injured. This is not about me. But I don’t know how to deal with this confusion, and by divulging this secret, I feel less alone. That is what music, writing, and writing about music is supposed to be about. In some sort of twisted way, that is also what the entity of XXXtentacion was, in part, about.
Hell, maybe I am SAD! I am sad because that’s always an appropriate emotional response to an untimely loss of life, but even more so because of the questions this loss presents—questions I’m not prepared to answer, assuming there are even answers at all.
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