When “Look at Me!,” a vicious two-minute blast by XXXTentacion, began climbing the charts last year, it sounded as awesome as a rip in the fabric of space-time. But what came spewing out of that hole in the weeks that followed was abhorrent — increasingly detailed accounts of the brutal physical abuse that the young Florida rapper had allegedly been inflicting on those around him.
Then, on Monday afternoon, XXXTentacion — born Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy — was shot dead in the Florida sunshine, near a motorcycle dealership in Broward County. News of his killing spread across social media in handheld video footage, his unresponsive body slumped slack in the driver’s seat of a matte black BMW while a bystander felt around for a pulse that wasn’t there. It was grotesque. Here was a 20-year-old who made horrific art, dying a horrific death that found its way to our pocket-size screens with horrific quickness.
Sometimes death offers to clarify things with its binary force — alive/dead, on/off, here/gone — but what death ultimately creates is chaos. Can any order be made here? XXXTentacion was a stylish, sadistic young rapper who channeled his fury into fame, but also into violence. He died with a No. 1 album to his name — and while awaiting trial on charges of battery, false imprisonment and witness tampering (charges to which he had pleaded not guilty).
He encouraged his fans to find hope in the fog of their despair, but bragged enthusiastically about the joy he felt in brutalizing others. His music brought solace to the depressed, the same way it granted validation to violent young men like him, legitimizing the pain of so many while paving over the suffering of countless victims of domestic violence. And before he had a chance to redirect his life, his life was taken from him. Can we hold all of that in our minds at once? Do we need to?
Music itself has always allowed us to feel more than one way about it. When “Look at Me!” first permeated the Billboard Hot 100 last year, it was easy to catch a thrill from the song’s assaultive distortion — not to mention the parallel thrill of watching a teenager without a record label dump noxious new fluids into the mainstream. But as more detailed stories of XXXTentacion’s alleged crimes began to surface, we learned that the song’s violence wasn’t just unfolding in his head.
For listeners, that’s hard to straighten out. Music exists as a public vibration of air, but it’s the stuff of our imaginations, too. Listening to a hateful song in the privacy of our minds will not turn us into a hateful people — but it might make hateful people feel more comfortable in their hatefulness. The possibility haunts us. We know that we can control the power that art wields over our minds, but we worry about everybody else — “the kids,” our kids, any stranger on Twitter, any impressionable brain that lacks the media literacy required to survive in the new digital America.
And this is the madness of our country right now — feeling profoundly paranoid about the hateful thoughts that might be hiding in the heads of others. What does it mean to die as a voice of your era when your era was a nightmare?