[TW: This article discusses suicide, domestic violence and sexual assault]
I had just turned 12 years old when Drake’s song “HYFR (Hell Yeah Fucking Right)” was released as part of the album “Take Care” (2011). I was becoming aware of rap at the time and feeling super cool about it— all the scandalous curses and commanding beats had me smitten with the genre from the start. I bought “Take Care” on iTunes (remember that?) and listened to it over and over, memorizing the words so I could impress my friends, all of whom were equally awed by this uniquely blunt style of music.
I was 18 years old when “HYFR” came on my Spotify shuffle and, out of amusement and nostalgia, I let it play. When I reached Lil Wayne’s verse, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He rapped, “I flew jet, she flew commercial / but we still met, later that night / after my session, she came over / I was aggressive, and she was sober / I gave her pills / she started confessing and started undressing.” There it was, a fairly detailed description of sexual assault, right in the middle of a song I had grown up listening to. As the verse unfolded in my earphones, I was painfully aware that I still knew every lyric by heart. Somehow, this account of one of the worst crimes conceivable had been with me always, tucked away into some back corner of my adolescent (and now young adult) mind. All these years I had known the words without bothering to listen to what they were saying.
And I wasn’t the only one. I did a little research and found out that “HYFR” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 2012. I started playing it around with friends to see how they would react. The opening bars were always met with a chorus of “Oh, my God I haven’t heard this in so long,” and faces turned to shocked stone when I revealed why I was bringing this deeply mediocre record back into our lives. No one remembered Lil Wayne talking about drugging and having sex with a woman. No one didn’t know all the lyrics.
I’m 20 years old now, and it’s been at least a year since I made that discovery. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in recent months, but in the context of artist Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy, better known by his stage name XXXTentacion (X). In 2016, X was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant victim—namely his girlfriend at the time, Geneva Ayala. Her testimony was leaked by Pitchfork, and the trauma she suffered at X’s hands is too great to imagine. She eventually dropped the charges. However, X ended up on house arrest for three months on the count of witness tampering (Pitchfork, “XXXTentacion Prosecutors Plan to Split Up His Case,” 01.12.2017). On June 18, 2018, three months after his house arrest ended, X was robbed, shot and killed in his car in Florida.
In my community, at least, social media completely blew up. About half the people I know were posting about how we shouldn’t mourn the death of such a horrible person, and we should never listen to his music; the other half were talking about how a loss is a loss, particularly when the person had such immense talent.
I fell (and still fall) somewhere in between—X was absolutely, unequivocally a loathsome human being. I also have a hard time celebrating or dismissing any death. There is no excuse for X’s actions. But I’m not sure if shutting out his art is the right way to address what he did. I feel that there’s value in learning about the mental processes and emotional states of perpetrators so that we can arm ourselves and each other with more effective tools to combat sexual assault and domestic violence. X’s art is all about his state of mind, and I think we can use that as an educational resource. When X’s music comes on and people immediately turn it off, I wonder about all of this.
I want to be clear: I do not in any way justify what X did. Nothing that I write below is a defense of him or his actions. I am simply challenging the notion that boycotting his music is the best way to deal with this issue. I also understand that engaging with this music may be triggering to some and, of course, I fully respect that. I am simply arguing that domestic abuse is a prevalent and real problem, and, for those of us who are able to listen without experiencing emotional trauma, to ignore work which might help us understand and combat violence is to let ourselves off the hook.
A common argument against this viewpoint is that we should not be financially supporting people who do horrible things. While I agreed with this sentiment when X was alive, his death renders his financial interests irrelevant.
Another counter to the case I’m making is that we should not privilege or normalize the work of people who commit monstrous acts. This is a valid point, and maybe it’s better than mine. My response is simply that batterers are privileged and normalized in our society already, and an effective way to combat that hierarchy might be to listen when they describe how they became who they are. X’s art is an opportunity to do so.
It affords us the chance to step inside the head of a perpetrator and learn what cultural and psychological factors led him to do nightmarish things. X himself emphasizes this point in the track “Introduction” from “SKINS,” (2018) his first album to be released posthumously. In a robotized, monotone voice, the artist speaks directly to his listener, “Hello. You’ve come here in search of release, huh? Feeling the need to inspire your soul? Wanting to disappear into a place you can feel outside of your skin? Well, you’ve found one. A place within my mind.”
So what is it like within X’s mind? Let’s go back to an older album, “17” (2017). Perhaps the most well-known song from the record is “Jocelyn Flores,” a soft, crooning track which X wrote following his friend’s suicide. The lyrics detail the extreme guilt that the artist felt following Flores’ death: “Picture this, in bed, get a phone call / Girl that you fucked with killed herself / That was this summer when nobody helped / And ever since then, man, I hate myself / Wanna fuckin’ end it” (Genius, “Jocelyn Flores,” 2017). X goes on to explain that this is not his first experience with suicide: “Memories surface through the grapevine / ’Bout my uncle playin’ with a slip knot / Post-traumatic stress got me fucked up.” These lines indicate that the rapper was suffering from depression in addition to his self-proclaimed PTSD. It’s also evident that he had childhood memories of mental illness and suicide within his family (indeed, his uncle did kill himself), and that he blamed himself at least for the loss of his friend, if not his uncle, too.
Fast forward a year and X released the album “?” (2018). On the track aptly titled “SAD!”, he rapped, “Who am I? Someone that’s afraid to let go / You decide if you’re ever gonna let me know / Suicide if you ever try to let go.” X was so terrified to be alone that he felt he would rather die than be without Ayala. I am not a psychologist, but it seems likely that this powerful fear was linked to X’s experiences with suicide and the guilt he felt about not having helped people he loved. He would do anything in the world not to feel the emptiness of loss again.
And he did do anything—he did the most heinous things possible. According to Pitchfork’s summary of Ayala’s testimony, “[X] slapped her and broke her iPhone 6S, because she had complimented a male friend on his new jewelry” (Pitchfork, “XXXTentacion’s Reported Victim Details Grim Pattern of Abuse in Testimony,” 09.08.2017). The details of the assaults became increasingly grotesque and terrifying. A pattern begins to emerge: every single incident happened because X perceived some very normal action of Ayala’s as a threat to their relationship, an indication that he might lose her. At one point, Ayala humming another artist’s verse in an X song prompted the rapper to become convinced that she liked his friend and threaten to cut out her tongue out for singing along. After he was released from jail for an unrelated charge, X believed Ayala had cheated on him and put a knife to her neck. The deeply horrifying and sickening account of their relationship goes on and on.
There is absolutely no excuse for this at all. But there are reasons, and X’s music helps illuminate them. If we were to pay attention to this as a case study and examine the emotions the artist expressed in his work, perhaps it would help us, as music consumers and non-psychologists, to recognize warning signs in our own lives. Perhaps it would help psychologists deepen the existing knowledge of batterers. Perhaps it would help parents raise and support their kids better so that they have the tools to handle their mental illness without turning into monsters. Perhaps it would help all of us protect against domestic violence.
Unlike “HYFR,” X’s music has the advantage of being recognized as deeply problematic. No child growing up today will realize years later that this work is horrendously offensive and harmful, because we all know that already. This makes it the perfect tool to use in educating ourselves. We know what to look for, so let’s find answers instead of ignoring questions. We have to face the painful, scary truth in order to make the world a little bit better and a little bit safer.