Pedro Vasquez // Pedro Vasquez
When Aaliyah died, it felt like a gut punch to me. That same feeling surfaced as I simultaneously discovered firsthand the brilliance of Kurt Cobain, Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., treating my bartered collection of burned, Sharpie-scrawled mix CDs like inherited heirlooms and seeking guidance in their respective legacies. Over the years, with the artists I lost while becoming a maturing fan of music, such as Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Prince, and most recently, Prodigy, the first thing I thought of when I heard the news of their passing was myself. Where I was when I heard the news; what my gut reaction felt like; who I wanted to speak with first to process the initial details; what songs I found solace in; who introduced me to the artist in the first place; what I wanted to genuinely write about in a sea of other just-as-diehard fans sharing their thoughts in a world that lives under a trending microscope; and what their legacy, in my mind, would be.
However, upon hearing the news that XXXTentacion, a 20-year-old controversy-laden rapper waiting to stand trial for over a dozen felonies in a nationally publicized domestic violence case, had been hunted down, robbed of his Louis Vuitton bag and fatally shot on Monday (June 18), I had a different reaction: "Damn."
With the news still fresh, the conversations were just starting to begin and instead of feeling like my world had stopped, like I had in the past when learning of various celebrity deaths, I instantly thought instead about his impressionable and impassioned fanbase, his mother and his ex-girlfriend. Where does this leave them? How can we get better at holding young artists accountable for their actions while also giving them room, and the opportunity, to grow? What does restorative justice look like in the hip-hop community where "cancel" culture is just as prompt and fleeting? How can we move forward when allegations of abuse made against some of our top 5 rappers can legitimately go ignored, let alone met with any degree of acknowledgement? Why is it still so easy to "just enjoy the music" knowing what we know when it comes to our "problematic faves"? Will XXX be known as a talent gone too soon or an abuser who wasn't brought to justice?
Hours after the confirmation of XXXTentacion's death and frustratingly contrarian reactions dominated the timeline, news broke that 21-year-old emerging rapper Jimmy Wopo had also been fatally shot the same day, losing his life to gun violence while in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Again, I instantly thought of the fans younger than me. I thought about what it's like to be a teenager and lose someone close to you, or even what it's like to experience watching someone else lose someone at a young age. The questions you have and the variety of feelings that linger. The hole in your heart that wasn't there before. Wondering how to fill it and what to do next. The ruthlessness that comes with social media and the alarming increase of desensitization to gun violence overall. What to do when someone you looked up to is taken too soon.
These thoughts, however, are compartmentalized next to my own reflections of XXXTentacion as the heartless, ill-tempered and violent ex-boyfriend who responded to charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and later, witness tampering and witness harassment, with a statement that included the words: "For all you dumb fuck ass n**s that thought this stupid bitch was pregnant, I've got the paperwork signifying that she wasn't pregnant. So when I get out, I'll fuck all your little sisters in the fucking throat hole." His alleged victim, Geneva Ayala, lives vividly in the back of my mind as I type this, much like Kelis' raw interview detailing allegations of domestic violence against her former husband, Nas, does, especially in the wake of his new album, Nasir. The cards rap has dealt us so far in 2018 are nothing short of complex, to say the least, and we are merely at the beginning stages of having these difficult, and yet historically cyclical, conversations.
When it comes to processing a famous rapper's death, particularly in regard to the undeniably polarizing artist born as Jahseh Onfroy, it doesn't end with an empty hypebeast-fueled "RIP" tweet nor is it over at a detailed, heartfelt "gone too soon" Instagram post. Both are up for due diligent criticism. For better or for worse, that is why a discussion of the complexities these particular moments of mortality bring is warranted, and with optimism, why it is important to outline the lessons his younger core of fans should keep close to heart.
We all know there are ample reasons to grimace at those openly supporting XXXTentacion, in life and in death, just like there are layers to consciously choosing not to support or mourn him. However, as X's supporters are experiencing in real time, losing someone who you looked up to for guidance, especially when it comes to feeling less alone and other topics related to mental health in general, is not an easy thing to process.
While we don't know what would have happened had he appeared in court, we do know that Onfroy was a young man of color who was tragically gunned down in broad daylight, with the violent incident soon becoming accompanied by a graphic, now-viral video capturing his final moments as his body lay lifeless in a luxury vehicle he purchased with money made off streams, consistently problematic behavior and social media prowess. For many, he was a leader of what Kanye West would refer to as "free thought," with his fanbase often feeling cult-like in its unwavering nature. It doesn't come as a surprise to see many of his diehard supporters feeling lost and on the defensive end in the wake of his passing, while others appear to be sickly reveling in the news and referring to what happened to him as deserved karma without hesitation. If I were 16 years old, I'd have no idea how to feel in this moment, especially considering how, at 28, my thoughts are coming in conflicted waves as well. It's disheartening to see people so morally disconnected but, at the same time, a similar statement can be made of X when revisiting the harrowing 142-page testimony against him. So now what?
For the younger fans reading this, it is my intention for those of you who choose to carry XXXTentacion's legacy proudly in his music, that you also keep in mind that you will have other heroes in your lifetime. Arguably better heroes, at that. There is an outpouring of up-and-coming musicians that are navigating similar hardships regarding mental health, depression, hopeless romanticism, small town angst, suicidal thoughts and, above all, a vocalized desire to make this fucked-up world better. Looking at the success XXX experienced despite the nature of the allegations he was facing is further proof that no one can act as another's moral compass when it comes to the people and art we support, but I do feel we can work toward owning our decisions to support in spite of what we learn about an artist's issues and examining what that means overall.
While some are strongly expressing that there is nothing to learn from Onfroy's death given his horrific, inexcusable actions in life and that he signifies yet another shattered life lost to systemic failures, I respectfully disagree. Instead, I implore his captivated, loyal young fans to seek real life mentors who can offer guidance, keeping music close by as a companion soundtrack but not as one's only source of inspiration, wisdom and therapy. XXXTentacion himself was becoming a case study for working to heal the darkest of demons through art and through action, even if we may never know the true intentions behind his desire to openly document the inner-workings of his journey toward self-indulging betterment or his aim to put on selfless charity events, much like the one from his final post on Instagram that also never materialized.
As XXXTentacion consciously used his eccentric-at-best brand of positivity to control his own flawed narrative, with a court date curiously being pushed further and further into the future while his music climbed higher and higher on the charts, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Juicy J, Young Thug and countless others, namely millions of fans, many of which can't yet legally drink, took note. It is undeniable that XXXTentacion had a magnet of influence and with that, fans must become aware of who they are letting draw them in and for what reasons.
His death is a wake-up call for his peers who tauntingly flirt with gang violence in exchange for clout, such as 6ix9ine, who seemingly is now opening his eyes to the reality that there are real-life consequences his trolling could bring, as well as is a cautionary sign to those who navigate their demons and depression with impulse. It's a call-to-action for fans to reexamine who they are letting influence them through their earbuds and social media feeds and look deeper as to why. It's an opportunity to be a bigger person and, sadly for some, that means stopping relentlessly re-traumatizing XXXTentacion's ex-girlfriend by harassing her online, making it difficult for her to hold a job, and heartlessly sabotaging crowdsourcing efforts (one can donate here). Through those disgusting and unnecessary actions, an unfortunate percentage of X's fanbase is mirroring his admitted, outward lack of regret and sympathy, adding to the heartbreaking nature of the situation. This needs to stop immediately.
When skimming Onfroy's short career and existing discography, one will find it is littered with hard-earned lessons and a yearning, albeit desolate, to be better. If the majority of his loyal fanbase is looking for a way to find the positives he wove into the perplexing mess he left us with, may the takeaway be to be better than the man you prematurely idolized. Put the positivity he tried to preach into practice. Don't be a tourist for tragedy or champion his death and instead learn as much as you can from his choices and the consequences he should have faced but didn't. Understand what it means when you press play on his music. Be open to learning why his life and the legacy he left behind isn't going to be the same for everyone.
Our connection to music, and more specifically the artists who create said music, is personal and often times complicated. It is our individual connection to another's art that allows music to unite us, enabling us as fans to form both a universal bond with others and a deep connection to the artist in question. That's what fandom is. And that's also why the deaths of people we've likely never met (or were fortunate to meet briefly once or twice) but idolize sometimes hit just as hard as the people we do know. For this reason, among many, I hope that the young fans who felt an emotional or personal connection to XXXTentacion get the support they need, just as I hope those who resonate with and feel for Geneva Ayala do too.
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