“You have to separate the artist from their art.”
The words rebound off the walls of the internet and through my brain every time a beloved artist gets themselves into hot water. Growing up, my father always used to tell me, “creative geniuses can be some of the most fucked up people on the planet,” citing names like Bill Cosby, filmmaker Roman Polanski, and R. Kelly; “What they did was terrible, but in a hundred years, it’s their music we’ll remember, not their scandals.”
Time may be the great equalizer for some, but since fans now have constant access to all their favorite entertainers through on-demand services, where do we draw the line? At what point does an artist’s culpability close the gap between a hot beat and a disturbed distance?
Kanye West openly supporting and meeting with Donald Tr*mp—he has since distanced himself and deleted all tweets about The Donald—hasn’t stopped many of us from listening to his music (yes, even the old stuff) or buying his overpriced merch, but given every scandal and allegation that’s befallen rappers in the past, I tend to draw the line at violence and sexual assault.
Much like former DJBooth scribe Nathan S., I haven’t touched an R. Kelly album or song since digesting the full extent of his (alleged) horrific sex crimes. Initially, I took Piñata out of my rotation when Freddie Gibbs was arrested in France last year in connection with a sexual assault in Austria from 2015 (of which he was acquitted). Chris Brown has been out of my ears since he brutalized Rihanna the night of the 2009 GRAMMYs. But even given the extreme nature of some of these incidents, fans by and large don’t seem to care. Brown is still one of the most bankable musicians on the planet, and Kelly’s musical legacy has him headlining festivals even without any recent radio hits.
When I look at the hype machine boosting XXXTentacion and Kodak Black, I can’t help but see this cycle repeating itself all over again. Both are 19-year-old rappers from South Florida with lengthy arrest records and who are currently in custody, but for specificity’s sake, I’ll be focusing on their assaults.
I hadn’t even heard the name XXXTentacion until news of him violently assaulting his pregnant ex-girlfriend to the point that she was blinded surfaced last October, which along with Drake allegedly jacking his flow during a live performance in Amsterdam, has only served to boost the kid’s popularity.
His 2015 SoundCloud single “Look At Me!”—which features bars like "Can’t keep my dick in my pants / My bitch don’t love me no more"—entered the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time last month (it currently sits at No. 66), and co-signs from A$AP Rocky, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Uzi Vert and others have ensured that he’d be on the tip of everyone’s tongues. When your fans include YouTuber PewDiePie and disgraced Breitbart editor Milo Yiannapolous, though, maybe you’re on the wrong side of history.
With four mixtapes, one Gold-certified single in “No Flockin,” and 2016 XXL Freshman status under his belt, Kodak Black had already made a name for himself before being accused of raping a fan after a February 2016 show in Florence, South Carolina, where he’s currently awaiting trial. Before I read the allegations, Kodak's Institution mixtape was in heavy rotation. But after I read them, the .zip file was swiftly tossed it into my digital trash bin.
Of course, that didn’t stop #FreeKodak from taking over the internet, prioritizing a man’s squandered talents over a woman’s accusation that many still aren’t taking seriously. Just last week, Kodak's "Tunnel Vision" jumped 19 spots on the Hot 100 to hit No. 8, which helped him earn the first top 10 hit of his career.
Guilty or not, that both Kodak and Tentacion’s stars continue to rise and shine amid all this controversy makes me uncomfortable. #FreeKodak and #FreeX may have started as rallying cries for preexisting fans trying to maintaining their innocence, but in reality, they’ve acted as advertisements to bring in new listeners. Not only are these alleged crimes not slowing down the careers of either artist, but they’re also boosting their profiles.
Just because I can’t bring myself to personally revisit some of this music, doesn't mean there aren't plenty of reasons why others can. The prison industrial complex unfairly targets Black men and some fans feel the need to fight the system by hoping their favorite rapper can beat it. Plenty of rap artists have been falsely accused in the past, including Desiigner and Kodak himself in a trial prior. And sometimes, fans are just not in a position to give up their jams without a fight.
Michael Penn II put it best in his excellent Noisey article “What Does It Really Mean To Say #FreeKodak?” from last year:
“But when we say #FreeKodak—or any other beloved MC in this position—which freedoms do we demand? Freedom from reduction to a statistic, from the prison-industrial complex churning labor and death from black bodies like clockwork? Or are we calling for Kodak's freedom from accountability, from atonement, from punishment so he may return to fulfill his obligation to bop in the club once more?”
My money is on a combination of all three factors. It’s true that many Black men have been set up for failure by the prison industrial complex (Desiigner and Kodak both managed to beat false charges last year), but justifying fuck shit from buzzing names like Kodak, Famous Dex, or Ian Connor without actually moving the needle on prison reform does nothing for no one.
I find the fascination with—and indifference toward—abuse and sexual assault as a marketing tool disgusting, but I ultimately can’t tell you how to interact with the music. I can only hope that you take the time to think before pressing play on a single that is being crushed under the weight of a rape or battery charge.
Consider the very real women who have to face the scorn of Rap Twitter on top of a skewed justice system. Is it still worth supporting?
One playthrough of XXXTentacion is enough for me, but for others, it's important to remember that an artist being pushed to even greater heights as a result of a severe act of abuse will say more about idol worship in 100 years than “Look At Me!” ever will.