The Dangerous Extremism Of XXXTentacion's Hero-Villain Complex
Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy — famously known as XXXTentacion — is dead. The 20-year-old was shot and killed in Deerfield Beach, Florida on Monday. The rapper became a trending topic on Twitter as celebrities, critics, and fans offered their condolences to his family and friends. But some refused to mourn XXX, indifferent to the notion that the alleged abuser had been dealt a sort of karmic retribution. The conflicting responses to XXX’s death reflect the extremism he embodied — recklessly unbalanced, always teetering too far left or too far right.
XXX first introduced himself on SoundCloud, where he released a slew of singles that showcased his versatility as an artist. But the songs he initially gained attention for also highlighted how violent and volatile he could be. “Yung Bratz” not only samples a fight he was a part of but uses a screenshot from the altercation as the track’s cover art (warning: the image is show below and is graphic). In the picture, he can be seen smiling while choking another man, whose eye is swollen shut and surrounded by blood. Then, there’s “Look At Me!” Originally released in 2015, the track started to gain traction in 2017 after being compared to a song Drake previewed at a show in Brussels (the track ended up being More Life‘s “KMT”).
With its newfound virality, “Look At Me!” was re-released, with the cover art a picture of XXX’s mugshot after being arrested in Miami-Dade in 2016. He was already facing two charges — armed home invasion robbery and aggravated battery with a firearm — and was now being charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering.
From May to October of 2016, XXX allegedly violently assaulted then-girlfriend Geneva Ayala on numerous occasions. In her deposition, she said that he “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 underwater in their bathroom while promising to drown her.”
The accounts of Ayala’s assault in October that led to XXX’s arrest are harrowing. Speaking to the Miami New Times, she recounted an incident where he “punched, slapped, elbowed, strangled, and head-butted” her. He also threatened to kill her and her unborn child.
By the time XXX was released from jail in March 2017 he had amassed a cult following, the success of “Look At Me!” and the controversy surrounding his legal troubles culminated into his first summer headlining tour that same year. Controversy continued to follow the rapper as he trekked across the country. A riot occurred outside of Chicago’s Concord Music Hall after a show was canceled; XXX punched a fan during a performance in Denver, and XXX was knocked out onstage during a performance in San Diego.
The chaos only added to the allure of XXX’s anarchism. He transformed into rap’s villain, describing himself as a “demon” and “son of a serpent” in his infamous XXL Freshman Cypher, and waved off criticism of his alleged abuse by declaring he’d “fuck ya’ll little sisters in their throats” and “domestically abuse ya’ll little sisters’ pussy from the back.”
Despite this long, sordid history, to some, XXX seemed to be trying to change. On August 25, he dropped his debut album 17, an 11-track release that addressed subjects such as depression, suicide, and failed relationships. There were some standouts, most notably “Jocelyn Flores,” a song dedicated to a model and close friend of XXX who died by suicide.
17 distorted XXX’s persona as a villain. He created an album to help his fans — predominantly teens — cope with their angst, and they resonated so strongly with it that it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart with little to no promotion or publicity. An endorsement from Kendrick Lamar distorted XXX’s perception further. If Kendrick — who’s heralded as a rap hero — was cosigning XXX, then maybe he was a hero, too?
— Kendrick Lamar (@kendricklamar) August 26, 2017
XXX tried to transform his image. He donated TVs, toys, instruments, stuffed animals, school supplies, and gaming systems to SOS Children’s Villages in Florida (the organization helps children in foster care), and spoke with the children as well. He documented the moment and shared a video online to his fans, encouraging them to participate in charitable acts in a movement he called the “Helping Hands Challenge.”
“I really not only wanted to record it to set some positive energy in the air but also to kind of influence other people to do it as well,” XXX says in the 11-minute-long video. “I was actually going to start a movement ‘The Helping Hand,’ where you guys record you doing good things for people, and kind of spread that positive energy.”
He also said he’d donate “over a 100 thousand dollars” to domestic-violence-prevention programs but there is no evidence that he ever followed through with that.
As XXX was delving into his reinvention, whether sincere or feigned, his case against Ayala was still outstanding. By December 2017, the rapper was back in jail and faced seven new charges including different degrees of witness tampering and witness harassment. According to TMZ, prosecutors believed he coerced his ex-girlfriend into signing previously submitted documents that claimed she wanted the charges dropped. After a short stint, he was later put on house arrest ahead of his trial and was released shortly after so he could go on a tour supporting his 2018 album, ?.
? maintained the emotive and vulnerable sensibilities of 17 while highlighting XXX’s versatility as an artist. There was a tribute to the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting (“Hope”) as well as songs that addressed mental illness (“Schizophrenia”), and songs dedicated to love and heartbreak — most notably “Sad!,” in which he sings,
“Who am I? Someone that’s afraid to let go, uh / You decide if you’re ever gonna let me know (yeah) / Suicide if you ever try to let go, uh / I’m sad, I know, yeah, I’m sad, I know, yeah.”
There’s an extreme to the chorus — XXX’s manipulative warning to a lover that if they ever leave he’d take his own life. The excessiveness of the statement wasn’t a red flag for his young fans, who helped propel “Sad!” to the No. 7 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and making it his first top-ten song. To some, there’s just the relatability. To others, it’s toxic; trying to control someone’s freedom.
That XXX navigated life in such extremes reflects the way people have spoken about him since his death. There was no nuance to XXX — everything he did was with unflinching disregard and intensity. It’s inevitable that he’d be discussed in extremes: a hero and villain; martyr and menace.
The responses surrounding XXX’s death are indicative of America’s tense political and social climate and how that translates to the online world. When cancel culture has become a de facto alternative to addressing wrongs and individual solutions are conflated with systemic ones, nuance is difficult to have when tensions are at a discomforting high. Maybe XXX was moving toward balance in his life; maybe not. In his absence, what he has left behind is a legacy of extremism — a monomaniacal approach to life that was dangerous no matter what. XXX referred to himself as “the wolf in sheep’s skin.” An embodiment of conflicting and contrasting extremes, it seems — much like his predicted death — he was right.
Following XXX’s death, a memorial took place in Los Angeles, where several hundred fans took to Melrose Avenue to remember the slain rapper. What began peacefully quickly divulged into chaos as people climbed on top of cars and jumped from the roofs of buildings into crowds. The memorial ended with police officer arriving on the scene and using rubber and pepper bullets to disperse the crowds.
— NBC Los Angeles (@NBCLA) June 20, 2018
The youth that took to the streets of Los Angeles had lost their leader. But their leader was just as lost as they are.