On Mourning, Learning a More Sober Fandom, and Letting Go

DEERFIELD BEACH, FL - JUNE 23:Hip-hop mourns rapper XXXTentacion after fatal shooting at roadside memorial. The Rapper Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, who performed under the name Xxxtentacion was shot, June 18, 2018 on June 23, 2018 in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Credit: Hoo-Me.com / MediaPunch /IPX

Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, the singer-rapper known as XXXTentacion, died after an apparent armed robbery on June 18. He was 20 years old. His first album, 17,  debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 last August, and a follow-up, ?, landed the number one spot in March. The popularity of his emotionally raw lyrics and sparse, cutting beats did not wane when allegations of strangulation, head-butting, kidnapping and other forms of physical and sexual abuse were made public last September.  In fact, XXX’s appeal only grew; fans as well as music industry insiders seemed to double down on their support. When the streaming service Spotify announced a plan to classify XXX and R. Kelly’s music as “hate content” and curtail promotion of the two artists, representatives of established hip-hop acts and label heads protested. Spotify abandoned the policy less than a month later, citing its “vague” language as one of the reasons for retracting.

I wrote about the accusations XXX’s former partner made against him in a post last month on Kelis, Nas, and hip-hop’s #MeToo problem. At the time, I hadn’t yet spoken to enough people younger than me, like my 16-year-old nephew, to try to understand the hold XXX’s music had on them. I hadn’t thought enough about how, when I was 15, I’d lose myself on the dance floor to 2pac’s “How Do U Want It,” finding respite from everything going on at home. Pac had already been accused and convicted of sexual assault by then, and though I didn’t yet have the language of feminism to help me process things, I have enough faith in my own intelligence to believe there was more to my love of Pac than simply ignorance or self-hate. He had a ferocious creativity and communicated a sense of striving and overcoming, and he was defiant of the hypocrisy of respectability. I needed to tap into all that to survive those times. Like XXX, Pac often toyed with the possibility of his own early death, and he lived racing towards it. At 15, I read this, too, as defiance.

Still, adult-me is resolutely angry about the harm these and other hip-hop men have caused. I am also curious about what it is in XXX’s desperately sad body of work that his fans cannot bear to part with. I can wager guesses, because we live in desperate times. This is a burning house with a weaponized high court, menacing ICE agents, screaming toddlers at the border and the killing of innocents in our interior. We want our heroes to transcend these circumstances, but often, they simply reflect our own horror right back at us.

Reporter and critic Stephen Kearse tries to make sense of XXX’s enduring appeal in a thoughtful essay for Pitchforkfor which he speaks to some of XXX’s listeners.

I sought out XXXTentacion fans expecting to meet reactionaries and trolls mired in bad faith and adulation—a cult, essentially. Instead I found folks who make the same choices and suspensions of disbelief as other fans and listeners, consumers enthralled by and navigating the same badlands of treacherous content as the rest of us. These fans’ relationship to XXXTentacion was—and, perhaps more than ever, is—entirely based on the music and its importance to them, and everything outside of that was dismissible hearsay. For them, “the charges” against him took the form of a vague stigma without a particular origin.

I was alarmed by their skepticism, but the way XXXTentacion’s fans conflated newsgathering, rumors, and #inspiration was no different from radio DJs or Reddit users opinionating into the void. Stigma is the opposite of prestige, but it functions the same way, providing a readymade lens for interpreting art regardless of new terms or information. This doesn’t mean that XXXTentacion and his fans were beyond reproach or that the widespread reluctance by the press to embrace his music was unwarranted. But it does reveal the limits of music being treated as a lifestyle—to embrace or reject wholesale—and artists being worshipped rather than engaged with, challenged, doubted.

If our current cultural moment is predicated on a more honest reckoning with who we idolize and who is harmed by that idolatry—the abused, the assaulted, the discarded, the ignored—perhaps we should also consider the how just as emphatically.

Kearse says a large part of our problem is the nature of fandom itself — how we adore our favorites so unequivocally. He wonders how we can love what we love soberly. By the end of the essay, Kaerse describes how his own approach to listening to and critically engaging with music has changed.

Taking abuse allegations seriously has altered how I discuss music, professionally and personally. I don’t leave artists’ controversies out of reviews or shy away from the hard questions in interviews. I don’t mount convoluted defenses for questionable lyrics, even for dead or respected artists. I respect and acknowledge the apprehension of other listeners when a song or line or tweet grates. Above all, I no longer stan, for anyone. I realize this could never be the universal approach to ethical consumption—contrary to the saying, not everybody’s a critic. But it’s a system of constant engagement, with artists, with their actions, and with myself. Even for my faves, finality never comes.

Is this sober approach to fandom enough of a stand? Kaerse’s piece reminded me of the work of Pearl Cleage, whose essay “Mad at Miles” from a now out-of-print  volume of the same name, grapples with the crimes jazz innovator Miles Davis admittedly committed against actress Cicely Tyson. Certainly, the fans of Davis occupy a more rarefied space in the American imaginary than those of any Soundcloud rapper. It’s nearly impossible to conceive of a world where Kind of Blue isn’t heralded. In her piece, Cleage spends time with Davis’ music and takes care to consider its utility, asking, “Can we make love to the rhythms of ‘a little early Miles’ when he may have spent the morning of the day he recorded the music slapping one of our sisters in the mouth?”

While Kearse gives us a blueprint for ethical consumption of the work of artists who cause such harm, Cleage suggests there can be none.

XXXTentacion’s death has caused another surge in his music’s popularity. I listened to “SAD!” for a while on a trip last week. On the track, the rapper threatens suicide if a lover leaves. That’s an abuse tactic, and it me hurt to listen. I wondered if my nephew, who makes beats and had been mournful of the late rapper’s death, was okay, so I reached out. That is all I know to do.

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