Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy was small — he reportedly barely tipped 125 pounds on a scale — but he led with his fists. Violence radiated off him.
“I’ve been fighting since I was a kid,” he once said.
When Onfroy was 6, he tried stabbing a man who was messing with his mom, he would later boast. As a juvenile offender in a South Florida lockup, he brutally beat a gay inmate, a story he gleefully told interviewers.
As he mounted the hip-hop hierarchy under the name XXXTentacion, the rapper brawled with concertgoers and tossed verbal barbs at megastar Drake. He allegedly turned his fists on his girlfriend for nothing more than humming another rapper’s track.
Yet all the violence did little to hamper Onfroy’s rise from the SoundCloud underground to radio. In March, his second studio record “?” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s 200 album chart. The success, however, came as he awaited trial in Broward County, charged with domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. His accuser — Geneva Ayala — recently documented the horrific abuse to the Miami New Times.
That brief, turbulent career ended Monday with a burst of gunfire. As The Washington Post reported, two armed assailants cut down the 20-year-old rapper as he was shopping for motorcycles at a dealership in Deerfield Beach, Fla. No arrests have been made. Law enforcement has suggested the shooting may have been an attempted robbery.
Onfroy’s early death will likely do little to still the controversy stirred up by his improbable cannonball into the mainstream. The rapper’s popularity put pop music in a moral bind, a hip-hop version of the ongoing debates swirling around film directors Roman Polanski and Woody Allen: How can you celebrate the work of an artist accused of such deplorable acts?
But for Onfroy, violence and legal problems did not ride in after his success, the way Tupac Shakur was consumed by the mythology he celebrated in his verses. The South Florida native’s rootless life was marked by rage from the start.
Onfroy was raised in Broward County, Florida’s second largest county by population, sandwiched between Miami-Dade to the south and Palm Beach to the north. The region is economically diverse, tracts of megamansions rubbing shoulders with neighborhoods of dilapidated low-slung bungalows. The rapper has said his parents were Jamaican. On his Tumblr page, Onfroy also claimed Egyptian, Indian, German and Italian ancestry.
The same eclecticism was reflected in Onfroy’s musical tastes. When hip-hop magazine XXL splashed him on the cover of its 2017 “Freshman Class” issue, a rundown of rising talent, he was asked to name the artists who influenced him. His tastes ran toward rock and punk — Kurt Cobain, Papa Roach, Cage the Elephant and even Coldplay. “I’m really into multi-genre things that aren’t just based around rapping itself,” he told the magazine. “I’m more inspired by artists in other genres besides rap.”
In many of the mug shots featuring Onfroy related to his long list of legal troubles, tattoos stand out. A tree was inked directly into his brow between his eyes. An intricate elephant head covered his neck. And across Onfroy’s slight chest: “Cleopatra,” a nod to his mother Cleopatra Bernard. After giving birth to Onfroy at 17 or 18, according to the New Times, Bernard was a touch-and-go presence in her son’s life.
“My mom just had it hard,” Onfroy told the hip-hop podcast No Jumper. “Raising a kid was her last priority, so what she did, she passed me from hand to hand to people that could care for me. During that, I wasn’t put in situations that were the best.”
But Onfroy found the trouble he could cause with his fists was an easy way to pull in his mother’s attention. “I chased her,” the rapper said in his No Jumper sit-down. “I used to beat” kids at school, he explained, using the n-word, “. . . just to hear my mom yell at me or talk to me.”
The violent outbursts got Onfroy expelled from middle school, then landed him for a period of time in a group home, according to New Times. By 12, he was mainly living with his grandmother. “My grandma really feels like my mom,” the rapper told the paper. “My mom almost feels like more of a sister.”
In high school, Onfroy’s outbursts led to arrests for armed robbery, burglary, possession of oxycodone, possession of a firearm and resisting arrest. While serving a stint in a juvenile detention facility, he not only beat up a gay inmate, as he would later claim, but also met a fellow inmate named Stokeley Clevon Goulbourne, the New Times reported. When both were released, they began making rap songs together — Goulbourne as Ski Mask the Slump God, Onfroy as XXXTentacion.
SoundCloud, the music streaming service that allows artists to upload tracks, became the duo’s primary platform. As Post music critic Chris Richards noted in March 2017, the site“is making popland a more democratic place,” providing a space “where dissident sounds can rise up from the digital margins and make a more resonant noise.”
According to Vulture, Onfroy began posting songs to the service in March 2014. In December 2015, he uploaded “Look at Me,” a track that would eventually spill onto the Billboard charts 10½ months later.
But 2016 was chaotic. At the end of the previous year, Onfroy was charged with home invasion robbery and aggravated battery (in March 2017, he pleaded no contest to the charges and received probation, according to court records). According to New Times, his relationship with Ayala also began careening from one violent episode to another. Ayala told New Times on one occasion Onfroy threatened to assault her with a barbecue fork and a wire barbecue brush.
“He told me to pick between the two, because he was going to put one of them up my vagina,” she later told prosecutors in a deposition cited by New Times.
Terrified to leave the relationship, Ayala stayed and alleged that she suffered abuse throughout summer 2016. She was attacked “every three or four days,” she told New Times. “[H]e beat her at times, choked her, broke clothes hangers on her legs, threatened to chop off her hair or cut out her tongue, pressed knives or scissors to her face, and held her head under water,” according to the paper.
“His favorite thing was to just backhand my mouth,” Ayala told New Times.
The violence allegedly continued after Ayala discovered she was pregnant in October 2016. That same month, Onfroy was arrested and later charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness tampering.
He has since repeatedly denied the domestic abuse allegations.
But none of these gruesome legal charges slowed the rapper’s rise. Because of the groundswell of support on SoundCloud, as well as praise from rap stars like Danny Brown and A$AP Rocky, Onfroy’s profile continued to balloon. “Look at Me” landed on the Billboard Hot 100 list in February 2017. In the meantime, the rapper bounced between jail and house arrest as his various criminal charges churned through the court system. When Onfroy’s first album was released that August, it debuted at the No. 2 slot on the charts.
The artist’s nasty personal history — and his inclusion on XXL’S “Freshman Class” cover — sparked denunciations. “XXXTentacion is Blowing Up Behind Bars. Should He Be?” Pitchfork asked in an article on Onfroy’s criminal history. “You should not be able to beat up a pregnant woman and still have a career,” music critic Tom Breihan wrote on Stereogum. “We should not continue to make him famous.”
In the last months of his life, Onfroy seemed to try to steer himself down a different path. He spoke online often about inspiring his fans and making up for his past mistakes. Last February, he posted a song dedicated to survivors of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“[F] ollow your dreams, and know that even though you have lost, you have guardian angels watching over you,” he wrote to the survivors on Soundcloud. “Day in and day out, the last thing they want is for their lives to be lost in vein [sic[, make them proud! live full, healthy, genius lives!”
When Miami New Times reporter Tarpley Hitt recently tracked down Onfroy, he was living both under the cloud of his legal trouble and in the lap of luxury. The rapper was on “modified house arrest” while awaiting trial. But he was also spending his days inside a $1.4 million Tuscan-style mansion with a BMW parked out front and friends swinging in and out of the front door.
“Would I change anything about my journey?” Onfroy said. The answer was a resounding, expletive-laden “no.”
This post has been updated.