XXXTentacion, the controversial rapper whose career flourished in spite of a long history of abuse, has a hotly contested legacy. After Jahseh Onfroy was killed last June, a debate raged on social media over the right way to mourn a man who was cruelly gunned down after a short life of well-documented cruelty. The competing urges to honor XXXTentacion posthumously and to call out abusers came to a head last weekend at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, which are pre-recorded and will air on October 16.
The late XXXTentacion was reportedly recognized with the Best New Artist award. In a video from the ceremony, Onfroy’s mother Cleopatra Bernard appeared to be accepting the award on behalf of her deceased son. Meanwhile, during a pre-recorded freestyle, Chicago’s Vic Mensa spoke out against industry abusers and complicit fans. According to Page Six, the rapper “called the late Florida rapper an abuser and criticized those who have supported him despite his violent past.”
DJ Scheme, a frequent XXXTentacion collaborator, flagged the freestyle on social media and elicited a frenzied backlash, tweeting, “When y’all hear Vic Mensas fucking freestyle at the BET awards y’all are going to be fucking disgusted. @VicMensa SUCK MY DICK.” He accused Vic Mensa of dissing his “dead brother,” writing, “yo bro how u gone say ‘Your favorite rapper is an abuser’ and then follow it with a line saying ‘Some shit X some shit so I won’t live long’ u can deny it but everyone who was there heard that shit.”
Despite the ugly mentions that followed, Vic Mensa didn’t deny the freestyle or walk back his remarks. Instead, he posted a video addressing the backlash, and making it clear that he meant every word he said. “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,” Mensa said into the camera. “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, and I offer my deepest condolences for her loss at the hands of gun violence.”
“However, I vehemently reject the trend in hip hop of championing abusers and I will not hold my tongue about it,” he concluded. “I don’t give a fuck about getting attention, I care about bringing awareness and holding people accountable for their actions.”
According to Pitchfork, there’s a strong argument to be made that XXXTentacion’s meteoric rise is tied up in abuse—that the rapper succeeded not in spite of but in part due to an October 2016 incident in which he allegedly “punched and kicked” his pregnant girlfriend. As The Daily Beast previously reported, “His ex-girlfriend detailed his alleged abuse in a deposition. 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.”
That Daily Beast article went on to explain how XXXTentacion’s fans went out of their way to attack the rapper’s accuser; when she set up a GoFundMe for her hospital bills, they filed reports with the crowdsourcing website until her page was shut down: “Upon hearing the details of what happened to her, after seeing how an abuser with a fan base can visit more pain onto a victim even after her wounds have started to heal, it’s difficult to understand why so many notables have decided to sanitize who this young man was.”
Many of hip-hop’s most powerful voices have taken part in this sanitization project, all but erasing XXXTentacion’s multiple victims in the process. That long list spans from Lil Wayne, who featured X’s vocals on Tha Carter V’s “Don’t Cry,” to contemporary Lil Xan, who immortalized the rapper with a new tattoo dedicated to “the legend.” J. Cole and Diddy were among the many stars who mourned the rapper on social media. Kanye West tweeted, “I never told you how much you inspired me when you were here. Thank you for existing.” In August, West was photographed wearing a custom shirt with the late rapper’s face on it, which was then officially released by XXXTentacion’s estate. Kanye has also announced that XXXTentacion will appear on his upcoming album, Yahndi. In addition to being one of the biggest names in the industry, Kanye is also Vic Mensa’s mentor, a man who’s given him platforms and opportunities—which just goes to show how much Mensa has to lose, personally and professionally, by refusing to stand down.
The message that Vic Mensa is sending—his insistence on believing and amplifying women, even when it’s unpopular—is a polarizing one. It also puts other industry abusers in an uncomfortable position. The hip-hop community, like the larger music industry, suffers from a lack of accountability; survivors, when they do come forward, are not always heard, and abusers rarely face professional repercussions. In 2017, Vulture’s Craig Jenkins reflected on the “new wave of rap violence,” concluding that, “The current climate of simply shoveling more money and clout at rappers with dangerous tendencies and hoping they’ll straighten themselves out is untenable.” But clout is its own currency, and more established artists seem shockingly willing to cosign problematic up-and-comers just for the hype; recently, Nicki Minaj collaborated with 6ix9ine, a convicted sex criminal.
In condemning those who choose to champion abusers, Vic Mensa is calling out a widespread complicity that, while in no way unique to hip-hop, is likely to burn bridges within the industry. Adam22, the influential podcast host behind “No Jumper,” which aired XXXTentacion’s first long-form interview, attacked Mensa over his freestyle. In a video, Adam22 cited DJ Scheme’s tweets, saying, “I guess in the song he had some offensive things to say about X and he called him an abuser…which seems really, really fucked up given that the kid is dead.” He accused the rapper of “talking shit” and “trying to get a reaction.”
Mensa and Adam22 went on to spar on social media, with Mensa referencing the multiple sexual-assault allegations against the podcaster, and an old blog post in which he wrote about a woman who he started talking to when she was 16, and “joked” that, “If statutory rape is wrong I didn’t wanna be right.” Adam22 responded, “Lol you disrespect a dead legend in front of his mom. everyone is shitting on you and you think bringing up a fake allegation is gonna work. Nice.” He also pointed out that, by Mensa’s own admission, the rapper choked an ex-girlfriend during a fight. “I’m not proud of that,” Vic Mensa said during a 2016 Breakfast Club appearance. “That was something I had to learn and grow from. I have the utmost respect for women.”
Considering the fact that the freestyle hasn’t even aired yet, it’s safe to assume that the backlash has just begun—and that XXXTentacion apologists will continue to fight for their hero’s legacy, whether that means going after victims or attacking critics.