XXXTentacion, Social Media, & the Policing of Grief

The divisiveness surrounding XXXTentacion's death makes it clear that in our current cultural climate, the idea of separating someone’s art from their reality has never been viable or realistic.
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Monday, June 18, at approximately 3:57 p.m., rapper XXXTentacion (born Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy) was gunned down by two masked men in an armed robbery attempt. Soon after, witnesses began uploading video footage to social media, claiming the musician appeared to be without a pulse. Onfroy was rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead by the Broward County Sheriff's Department at around 5:30 p.m. the same day. 

As the saga unfolded, social media conversation became increasingly vitriolic—some expressed indifference and even pleasure at Onfroy’s fate, while others hoped the 20-year-old would pull through. When his death was officially confirmed, celebrities and fans reflected on Onfroy’s short life.

For some, Onfroy’s passing represented the end of a terrifying legacy of normalized violence. Prior to his death, the rapper was facing charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering, all stemming from the alleged abuse of his ex-girlfriend. Little more than a week prior to his murder, a conversation about his violent history was re-stoked by an in-depth feature published by The Miami New Times. In the piece, the rapper also remorselessly recounted beating a gay cellmate nearly to death. 

In spite of Onfroy’s violence—which stretched beyond incidents of homophobia and domestic violence—many readily embraced the late artist, claiming his talent and personal life had no intersection, and that the charges against him were still pending. Still, the divisiveness surrounding Onfroy’s death makes it clear that in our current cultural climate, the idea of separating someone’s art from their reality has never been viable or realistic.

Passionate social media dialogues illustrate that when a public figure whose legacy is marred by doing harm to others is cut down by the very violence he seemingly thrived on, it creates a maelstrom of conversation about accountability, celebrity, and the parameters of public grieving. Immediately after Onfroy’s death, famous faces including La La Anthony, actress Skai Jackson, and others who personally knew him, took to Twitter to express their sadness. In some cases, their words sparked outrage, and feelings that Onfroy was being deified by fans and celebrities at the expense of those he hurt. If one were to screen social media sentiments alone, the subject feels clear-cut: Either Onfroy was the worst kind of human being whose death does not deserve mourning, or he was a flawed, misunderstood young black man who had the potential, and supposedly the will, to change.

On one hand, Onfroy’s success in life, while initiated by his talent, was also predicated on people in positions of power turning a blind eye to a pattern of abusive behavior. Doing so unquestionably did a disservice to the black women and LGBTQ+ people his violence directly impacted. The idea that he needed to be protected and unilaterally forgiven because he was a black man existing within the racist structures of America only follows a painful tradition that sees the needs of cisgender black men considered before that of women and other marginalized people of color. When Onfroy’s fans and supporters preach that his death and musical talent make him deserving of forgiveness, without acknowledging how his life legacy visited trauma on others, it creates a revisionist history that is deeply hurtful to those whose pain has already been cast in the shadow of his celebrity.

It also sets the tone that in the hierarchy of blackness, upholding patriarchal structures is more important than acknowledging the shortcomings of flawed male figures. The indifferent, at times, even celebratory response to his death, particularly from black women and those in the LGBTQ+ community, is essentially an inversion of the power structures visited upon them daily.

If a gay black man knows that Onfroy almost beat another gay man to death, and in his life Onfroy never apologized or acknowledged the wrongness of this act, and on top of that, if many of his fans either turned a blind eye or saw nothing wrong with his behavior because his position as an artist and marginalized black male mattered more, than as an act of self-love and protection, that man might choose to value his identity as a gay black man above all else. Particularly, he might do so if the holistic actions of his fellows in the black community show him that protecting that part of his identity holds little value to them. In doing so, empathy (even in Onfroy’s death) might be beyond the realm of what that person feels he deserves.

This type of thinking is understandable for those who have been ignored in favor of creating the mythos of XXXTentacion. Nevertheless, doing so has worked to turn Onfroy’s death into a spectacle. Those who feel an iota of grief are immediately categorized as enablers of abuse, and those who feel indifferent are looked upon as callous monsters who dance on the grave of a fallen hero. Onfroy’s death, like his life, is complex. For the people his music touched—like La La Anthony’s 11-year son—grief is unavoidable. Yet in expressing sadness it is also possible to acknowledge that Onfroy was far from a guileless martyr who was unfairly persecuted.

Similarly, for those who are indifferent, or perhaps even relieved by his death, it is possible to express anger without being dehumanizing. After all, if Onfroy’s brutishness in life brings everlasting condemnation, to adopt the very tactics that made him so reprehensible to many is to enact the very same violence he perpetuated.

To think in such binary terms breeds a sense of moral superiority that makes the policing grief, or the justified lack of it, larger than the potential for fruitful dialogue about what Onfroy’s life and death represented both to those who appreciated him, and to those who resented him. 

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