“To be a woman who loves hip-hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours”.—Ava DuVernay
I began writing this story on August 26, 2017—observing carefully XXXTentacion’s emergence into the public eye. And on August 26th, 2017 #WomensEqualityDay, Kendrick Lamar co-signed XXXTentacion‘s premiere full-length debut 17 by enthusiastically gushing over the album’s power to capture raw, honest emotion. The young rapper from South Florida who has a well-documentary of violence: home invasion, armed robbery, and aggravated battery with a firearm. The rapper was released earlier in 2017 for domestic battery by strangulation of a pregnant woman, who was his then-girlfriend. Yet, I never finished writing this story because I thought, even with winning the grace and favor of King Kendrick, ultimately hip-hop could not accept someone like XXXTentacion.
Kendrick, over the years, has been both galvanized as the rap god taking hip-hop in a right direction, yet has been accused of imposing misogynistic comments on women and their bodies. Back in April 2017, the rapper came under fire for his standout single “Humble” and lyrics which allegedly shamed women who do anything to enhance their appearances: “I’m so f**kin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop / Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor / Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks”. Now, one can make the excuse that it’s an earnest attempt to speak to how black women should love themselves in their natural state, yet this lyric works two-fold 1. It implies that women who digitally enhance their look are self-hating, and 2. Pits women against each other in some sad Twitter melee to prove who has more worth. And yet at this point, we expect it from our favorite rappers—to objectify women, to assert their clout and wealth, and quietly we accept it. Myself, too many times, included. We hold Kendrick to a particular standard we just do not hold other rappers to. For better or worse, whether you agree or not (numbers stand the test of time) Kendrick is a living legend. His singular presence has left a profound mark on the culture. This is why I must be critical of Kendrick and who he chooses to publicly support. When he speaks, he has the hearts and minds of the hip-hop community in his hand.
While Kendrick missed the mark entirely, it’s difficult to see him as a stereotypical rapper who scapegoats womens’ bodies to sell a hot track. Kendrick has shown massive support for SZA throughout her career, especially with CTRL out in the world and now with her name on the credits for Black Panther. Kendrick constantly picks regular-looking women to be in his music videos. That was my initial confusion over his co-signing the young and very troubled rapper, a troubled young man who has said he would seek revenge by fucking the throats of someone’s sister. Yet, the more I think about it and withhold prejudice, I can see why Kendrick and a lot of young men see themselves in X.
XXXTentacion, born Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, grew up in Plantation, Florida which resides in Broward County. In 2014, X was sent to a youth detention facility for armed robbery, armed burglary, possession of a firearm, grand theft, possession of Oxycontin, and the list goes on and on. In an interview, X states he knocked a young girl out for allegedly messing with him. While in the detention center, X would grow close to fellow rapper Ski Mask the Slump God and together they would go onto to form the collective Members Only, dropping collaborative mixtape 1 & 2 of the collective’s respective name. On October 6, 2016, the assault which gained him even more notoriety transpired—X beat his then-pregnant girlfriend to the point of near blindness.
According to the Miami-Dada arrest report, the “victim’s eyes [were] punched to where both eyes became shut and [the] victim could not see”. While prosecutors had to remove sworn statements from several witnesses, among them the alleged victim, it coincides with charges against X for witness tampering. While the claim of witness tampering has only be substantiated as mere speculation, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that X and his crew threatened and muscled witnesses into compliance. What I find the most frightening is the tenacity of his fans to defend his behavior at all costs and the incredibly illogical leaps and bounds they make to call all of this anything other than what it is.
This is what I call the “J-Cole Effect”, how an artist positions themselves to be the voice of the underdog or the voice of many, thus gaining devout love and loyalty which subsequently exonerates the artist from any real consequence of their words or actions. I remembered when “Friday Night Lights” dropped that I knew J. Cole’s greatest superpower was that of the big brother archetype. “At its best, the tape has an organic warmth that lends it an immediate approachability” stated one Pitchfork review of Cole’s work. Jermaine Cole, whether you like his music or not, is renowned as a sweetheart in the rap game. His “real, neighborhood feel and down to earth persona”, reaching out his fans and actually following through on his promises makes him that much more lovable. At the bare minimum, to have a big brother archetype that can adequately express a young boy’s interior landscape is magnificent, to know you can stay true to who you are, where you come from and be successful. Cole successfully appeals to the young man who still finds himself reminiscing about girls who got away or what he had to sacrifice to make his dreams possible. He appeals to the young boy who dreams bigger than his body when no one believed in him or saw the vision. He raps to those who have something to prove and, truth be told, it feels good to have someone as big as Cole reflecting your lived experiences and winning.
In this vein, XXXTentacion also has this gift. This is not to compare Cole and X, but to recognize that with such magnificent power it must also be paired with a clear and responsible temperament, which X just does not possess. Through his successful single and his success only furthered with his indictments, this has provided him access to the sympathy of his fans. There is an audacity and irreverence about XXXTentacion that makes him relatable and desirable to young men. He entices violence while getting away with behavior that other men wouldn’t do for fear of any consequences. The “J-Cole Effect” makes it so fans will either justify abhorrent behavior, feign ignorance, or flat-out deny the artist did anything wrong when the evidence is overwhelming. Young men who are angry, depressed, and have no healthy or safe outlet to negotiate their sorrow, rage, etc. turn to X in a metaphorical pat on the back as if to say, “I survived the worst and if I got through this so will you”. Yet, X prides himself in rallying his fans towards ugly and trifling actions, even going as far as assaulting a fan at a show. X fans mocked and ridiculed the young woman saying she “got what she deserved”. The young woman was branded a “liar” and “someone trying to make a quick buck off X” instead of seeing her as a victim at the hands of someone on an ego trip.
I used to think “Men in hip-hop hate women” but the deeper I look, I realize it’s a far more complicated and nuanced than that. Hip-hop has never been shy about how much of a boy’s club it is. Fans of hip-hop (unsurprisingly and overwhelmingly men) are conditioned to see women’s bodies as a means to an end, to validate and solidify their manhood and prowess. The “J-Cole effect” covers this as well; multiple examples of Cole throughout his career of using pejorative slurs towards gay men and women yet being able to hide under the guise of “getting a message across”. The repeated use of women as an accessory towards the validation of masculinity is one of many reasons why men are seldom up in arms over violence towards women or the violence isn’t taken seriously until a man finally steps up to call it out. I mean, why care about a piece of furniture being broken when I get 100 more just like it…? Being called the “hardest rapper in Florida” by well-respected contemporary A$AP Rocky has not only allowed his career to flourish but encourages his violent tendencies. And now Kendrick. For the Rap god to rally behind someone who is so unabashedly remorseless in his behavior & outright violence towards others and towards women, initially defied logic. I really thought Kendrick had to turn a blind eye but Kendrick’s eyes are wide open.
When I did finally press play on 17, I was startled by how beautiful and earnest it was. If I had set the bar at all, X obliterated it. I understand fully why Kendrick could be aware of X’s past and present, yet still give him a chance. X created a body of work comes from a young man with a deeply troubled past, absent parents, immeasurable violence, and so forth. But it’s not enough then and it is surely not enough now. At what point do we draw a line? Do we allow X a platform despite his gift when he has proven himself to be a danger to women? And what exactly does that say about us—the fans of hip-hop—who condone violent men as long as they give us the music that speaks to our deepest angst? Back in August, a fan wrote into DJ Booth and made this poignant claim:
“He is the new generation’s troubled mind. Depression will have you become a person you’re not. I truly don’t believe X is an idiot.”
You’re right, Jarell, I don’t believe X is an idiot either. I believe he knows exactly what he’s doing. I also think supporting someone like this makes us complicit in his behavior. I believe Jarell, sadly, represents many of his fans who are smart and are fully aware of his violent tendencies but are fine with it as long as he keeps being the voice of their hurt and pain. As fans, we must take ourselves to task. It’s embarrassing how hip-hop has done little to support young women, reminding us time and time again the opinions and voices of men supersede our literal safety. Some are surprised and even angry about the #MeToo movement when we allow rappers like X to rise to stardom knowing who is he. Fans must hold themselves and their heroes accountable because our engagement in these artists is what determines who will rise and who will fall.
I’m sure X’s new joint “?”, which dropped 3 minutes after midnight, is another emotionally rendering experience which will allow him the line to soar once again on the Billboard charts, but I do not and cannot support this artist, not when there is so much more critical work to be done to make hip-hop a more habitable space for women.
I.S. Jones is a writer living in New York by way of California. She is the Managing Editor of Dead End Hip Hop. Her Twitter inbox is closed until further notice, so please send music to firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s writing herself into a better future. You can tweet at her here