Months after his death, XXXTentacion is still at the forefront of the cultural conversation, raising uncomfortable questions about his legacy and the music industry’s complicity. X—or Jahseh Onfroy’s—latest offering is “Arms Around You,” a newly-released collaboration between the deceased celeb and rapper Lil Pump. Vulture has described the track, which was co-produced by Skrillex, as an “inevitable hit.” It joins an entire oeuvre of posthumous “new” music from X. In September, X’s manager Solomon Sobande told Billboard that, “his client recorded enough material for at least two albums.” X was featured on Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, and it has been reported that he will also appear on Kanye West’s upcoming Yandhi.
These gestures of support and remembrance are unsurprising, given the outpouring of grief from the hip-hop community in the wake of X’s passing. Kanye West, one of the biggest names in the industry, was particularly effusive in his praise. In addition to paying homage to the deceased 20-year-old on social media (“I never told you how much you inspired me when you were here thank you for existing”), West designed a shirt with the rapper’s face on it so that he could continue to mourn publicly. The shirt was eventually released on X’s official webstore.
Paying tribute to a talented young star after their tragic death is rarely polarizing. But in X’s case, the artist’s death, and the subsequent wave of posts and praise, immediately triggered a backlash. While he was alive, X was a controversial figure who managed to maintain an incredibly promising career in spite of a history of abusive behavior and incredibly disturbing allegations against him. As The Daily Beast’s Stereo Williams wrote in the wake of the rapper’s passing, XXXTentacion “was accused of viciously beating and threatening to kill his pregnant ex-girlfriend in 2016. His single ‘Look At Me!’ got him notice in 2017, and his star rose even as the world learned of the brutal accusations.”
“His ex-girlfriend detailed his alleged abuse in a deposition,” Williams continued. “In one particularly harrowing excerpt, she recounts how he allegedly told her to pick between two grill utensils—a ‘barbecue pitchfork’ and a ‘barbecue cleaner’—because he was going to insert one of them in her vagina. She passed out and he did not go through with the threat. She also stated that he beat and stomped her for singing along to another rapper’s verse on his song. While she was pregnant, she said that he beat her until her left eye was swollen and leaking. Her ex-boyfriend and his mother both corroborated her account of what happened to her while she was living with XXX, and the rapper was arrested and charged.”
“None of that seemed to matter to fans and peers, as his debut album 17 brought him greater notice and a spot on XXL’s 2017 Freshman Class list.”
XXXTentacion’s devoted fan base reportedly refused to leave his young accuser alone, and the rapper himself was frequently cruel and unapologetic, at one point saying, “Anybody that called me a domestic abuser, I’m finna domestically abuse ya’ll little sisters’ pussy from the back.”
This week, Pitchfork reported on a previously unreleased “confession,” in which XXXTentacion can be heard conversing “around the time of his October 8, 2016 arrest.” When he died, the rapper was awaiting trial for the domestic abuse case. On the tape, he talks about his alleged victim, saying, “I started fucking her up because she made one mistake. And from there, the whole cycle went down. Now she’s scared. That girl is scared for her life. Which I understand.”
At another point in the recording, he reportedly pledged, “I will kill that bitch if she play with me”; in yet another, he admitted to stabbing eight people.
Given XXXTentacion’s actions, including those he confessed to on tape, the music industry’s apparent dedication to crafting a sanitized legacy for the star is a huge issue. It sends the message that accusations, even if they’re true, don’t matter—particularly if the accused abuser is endorsed by wealthy, powerful people. The longer XXXTentacion remains a presence in the music industry, buoyed up by fans and collaborators who want to continue giving him a voice, the more likely that his victims will be silenced and erased from the story.
The music world already has a reputation for being inhospitable to accusers, and providing refuge and protection for serial abusers. Between the continued success of so many accused stars, and the conditions which make it difficult for victims and survivors to come forward, the music industry is still waiting for the promised Me Too reckoning. This uncomfortable stasis has reached a potential breaking point with XXXTentacion. Should he be celebrated and awarded posthumously, business as usual? Or will Onfroy finally face the professional censure that always threatened to derail his career, but never did?
The recent co-signs of Skrillex, Lil Pump, Lil Wayne and Kanye West seem to indicate that XXXTentacion is perhaps finding even more industry support posthumously. But an incident at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, which was filmed earlier this month in Miami, hint at future controversy. At the ceremony, X’s mother accepted a Best New Artist award on her son’s behalf. But that gesture was countered by Vic Mensa, who reportedly called out X in a pre-recorded rap. Mensa later doubled down on his comments, saying, “Recently I did a freestyle for the BET Awards cypher addressing and condemning rappers who unabashedly abuse women and those who stand up for them and even call them legends.”
“I stand behind those statements. It was pre-recorded weeks ago, and I had no idea a grieving mother would be in the audience to honor her lost son. I never intended to disrespect her.”
Vic Mensa’s remarks at the Hip-Hop Awards—and the swift backlash that subsequently hit him on social media—prove that the debate over XXXTentacion is really just getting started. Vulture already published an entire piece about how the Grammys—which are four months away—might deal with the problematic artist. Mentioning how the awards show has already “fumbled in the #MeToo era,” Dee Lockett wrote, “The Grammys, then, have a choice to make: take a morally impartial stance and vote neutrally, as they’ve already proven they can’t, and nominate X or decide that it will not make another alleged abuser canon.”
When Vic Mensa took a stand, his social media was flooded by pissed-off users, some with XXXTentacion avatars. The message was clear: speaking out against XXXTentacion isn’t going to become any less controversial anytime soon.