If you're not into rap music, a couple of days ago the name "XXXTentacion" would have probably made zero sense to you. If you are into rap music and you were familiar with the young rapper, you probably had a passionate opinion of him, but on one extreme or the other.
(Trigger warning: this post deals with domestic abuse and violence.)
Rapper XXXTentacion was murdered yesterday. He was shrouded in controversy, including allegations of savagely beating his pregnant girlfriend, as well as beating a gay man nearly to death in jail (this article contains all of the details you need to know; be warned; it's tough to read). People on social media have been offering their opinions, some of which have celebrated his death, while others have mourned him as a prodigy that was trying to better himself, while others have condemned those celebrating or mourning him.
Here's the thing, though: redemption is a story for the living. The conversation around X can no longer be about his redemption and his fans can't pretend to assume he would have redeemed his heinous actions, when it's now impossible to know. On the other side, it's important to consider why we as a culture allow people that have been generally negative to be successful.
We live in a culture where people are told to separate the art from the artist. Abusers like Chris Brown and R. Kelly are "prodigies" or "geniuses" that create great art, so we shouldn't look at how they are as people, or how they treat the people in their lives, especially women, or at the very least, we say things like "Ughhh I know he sucks, but his music is soOoOoO good."
Abuse and decency are a spectrum. Kanye West, one of my favorite artists growing up, has been a provocateur but has never been accused or convicted of anything near what Chris Brown or X have been. But Kanye is an artist with an immense platform, so his support of Trump was personally disappointing and potentially dangerous with more widespread consequences. His comments regarding slavery have only proliferated his spiral into ignorance. He is massively successful, so his comments are not as self-inflicting as they would be for others. He has such a large brand that he's too big to fail. It's why we should hold people with such large platforms to a further accountability and the argument that they are "tortured geniuses" is unacceptable. (This isn't entirely unrelated, but for similar reasons, it's why I don't believe we should always assume the best intentions from presidents, politicians, lawmakers, billionaires, CEO's, athletes, owners, etc. They are so successful that many lives are in the balance when they make decisions, so we should hold them accountable and not assume they're looking out for us all the time. At the end of the day, the "genius" or "successful" label protects many bad people from proper repercussions.)
There are a couple problems with this discussion of artists being geniuses, as well as separating the art from the artist. First, it assumes that art is zero-sum. If X, or Chris Brown, or any number of abusers in any industry, has their platform removed, that notion claims we're missing out on something as a society. It assumes that these men (as it so happens, it's mostly men, likely because our patriarchal society tends to value men and their actions over women's, and white men's over everybody else's) are the only ones capable of creating that substantial art. It assumes that somebody more talented, but with less fortune, or less access, wouldn't hop right in and create art of equitable value. Or even worse, it assumes that somebody else isn't capable of creating better, more influential art. The potential of these men, even though they damaged their own reputations, is considered to be more valuable than the potential of those that would replace them.
Secondly, the "genius" label is bad anyway. Many rap fans loved X's music. Many, many rap fans despised his rap, and many, many, many people reviled him for the actions that he himself committed. Who makes the decision that somebody is a genius or prodigy in their profession? America is so systemically biased towards meritocracy. The belief that because somebody is successful they are inherently good or talented or deserving of that success is so pervasive and permeates our culture to the deepest levels. There is no reason to hold these people to almost god-like status because they are successful. I understand the value of having role models, but it's time that we view people, especially artists and "successful" people, as role models for how they are as people, and their decency, as opposed to the "art" they create, which they themselves get to manicure and perfect to put out into the ether. The art that we consume is exactly what they want us to consume, but it does not reflect their entire character or who they are. That's where we should value people; not simply by their quantifiable successes.
And the final point: telling people to separate the art from the artist has deeper ramifications for the people that are adversely affected by abusers. The people defending XXXTentacion are saying that he was trying to better his life and that nobody deserves a tragic or short death. I don't support wishing death on people, but I also don't support the idea that you must forgive somebody for their transgressions simply because they died. When we do this, we tend to dismiss the voices of those that are harmed by him. If death absolves you for your sins, then that doesn't lend itself to promoting corrective action to become a better person. I also don't believe that people have to mourn him or pretend he was anything other than who he was and who he presented himself to be. When you tell people that it's inappropriate to "speak ill of the dead," you dismiss the long-term repercussions that his actions have on the living, including his victims and those harmed by his actions. It's in these moments that we should elevate those that speak openly on domestic abuse and violence; we should elevate the voices of women, of people that are less fortunate, of other artists using their platform for good.
X had explicit, vulgar, offensive lyrics; he spoke, on a podcast, about the way he brutally attacked a gay man for looking at him; on multiple occasions, he responded harshly to his critics. I don't believe people that make mistakes are beyond repair, but I also don't believe it is the responsibility of anybody other than ourselves to make the amends we need to make in order to reach redemption. It's difficult to say if he was making amends for those actions; the lawsuit was ongoing. I'm not in the place to say he did or didn't.
I understand that XXXTentacion my have had a positive influence on a lot of people. That's true for all abusers, all bad people, and all good people. I'll even admit that before I learned of the allegations against him, I liked a few of his songs. There is art that we enjoy from people that are not good people. It's difficult to cope with this, especially when we discover this about the artist after we already enjoyed the art. I don't have all the answers.
I hope, in the future, we elevate the artists that are most deserving. I hope we help those that need help, especially victims. The unfortunate reality is that we also must want to help abusers, through proper intervention, psychological therapy, and rehabilitation; first to prevent further damage to victims, and secondly, to save themselves. I hope we continue believing women that are the victims of abusers. I hope we can make this a better planet for all people, but we have to all want to achieve that goal.