Prior to Pitchfork publishing gruesome details from XXXtentacion’s accuser’s deposition last Friday, many in the music industry regarded allegations of domestic violence against the rapper as an inconvenient detail that, while unsettling, was easy to ignore. After all, his album, 17, just hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart; the rapper (whose real name is Jahseh Onfroy) was also featured on XXL’s Freshman 15 list, positioning him as a rising star.
But Pitchfork's extensive report cast a shadow on XXXTentacion's successful year: The deposition spelled out an alleged pattern of violence and torture, details of which culminate with XXXTentacion kidnapping his then-girlfriend and holding her prisoner in a North Miami Beach apartment. He now faces charges for aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering.
These gruesome details should be a wake-up call for industry gatekeepers, whose continued silence on the matter is deafening.
The debate of whether we should separate art from artist is a long and sticky one: How many of us are disturbed by the accusations of sexual abuse against R. Kelly but still can’t help but “Step in the Name of Love”? And how many of us forget Rihanna’s bruised face when we hum along to Chris Brown’s “Loyal”? For many, it’s difficult to sever allegiance to an artist after years or even decades of fandom. Our love of these artists’ work, coupled with implicit gender bias, often prevents us from holding them accountable.
But this pattern of normalizing domestic violence and sexual abuse in the entertainment industry has to end somewhere. Perhaps the generations of people raised on R. Kelly will never fully turn their backs on his music. But people in powerful positions in today’s industry also have a responsibility not to make icons out of a new generation of abusers.
Well before his accuser’s deposition was published on Pitchfork, it was known that XXXTentacion faced an October trial for allegedly beating a pregnant woman. And yet the San Francisco record label Empire -- whose roster includes progressive, feminist singer Goapele -- still put out 17. (Empire did not respond to KQED’s request for comment about the future of its relationship with XXXTentacion.)
Furthermore, the rap tour Rolling Loud, which makes its Bay Area stop at Shoreline Pavilion on Oct. 21–22, features XXXTentacion and two other accused abusers: Famous Dex and Kodak Black. A surveillance video circulated last year of Famous Dex chasing and beating a woman in a hallway; and there’s an ongoing sexual battery case against Kodak Black along with new allegations of him assaulting a female bartender at a Miami strip club. (The organizers of Rolling Loud also did not comment on the matter when contacted by KQED.)
These artists have faced some backlash -- most notably from comedian Eric Andre -- but their careers have continued almost undisturbed. Part of the reason is that XXXTentacion, Kodak Black, and Famous Dex’s followings skew largely young and male. And in a country that lacks progressive, consent-based sex education, those fans might not fully comprehend the gravity of the allegations. But the onus is not solely on the fans: right now, the wheels of the music industry are turning to make viral upstarts like XXXTentacion into idols through record deals, PR campaigns, and prominent bookings.
It’s one thing for a viral Soundcloud hit like “Look At Me” to propel XXXTentacion into the public eye. But festival curators, record executives, and editors at tastemaking publications like XXL have the power to turn a fleeting 15 minutes of viral fame into a long-term, mainstream career, and they need to wield that power wisely. There are plenty of other buzzed-about, up-and-coming artists who haven’t been accused of domestic violence or sexual assault who industry gatekeepers can choose for these lucrative, career-defining opportunities.
“Booking a show or running a music label is an imperfect science, but it involves a lot of really deliberate decisions,” said Will Bundy, the co-founder of culture blog Wine & Bowties and its popular Oakland festival, Feels. “When you see XXX on a bill -- or you see Famous Dex, or you see R. Kelly on a bill -- someone is writing a check. You’re making the conscious decision to put money in that person’s pocket. If you have the luxury of choice and a big budget, I can’t imagine why you’d feel like you can’t avoid people who do these disgusting things.”
Hip-hop is a notoriously male-dominated industry, so male artists who use their platforms to speak out against gender-based violence can have a powerful impact. For instance, rape accusations against A$AP Mob-adjacent fashion stylist Ian Connor went largely ignored -- despite the fact that several alleged victims came forward -- until rapper Theophilus London called him out on Twitter last year. The beef with London -- and the press it generated -- made Connor’s name synonymous with sexual assault, and Connor has since receded from the public eye.
Since the release of his accuser’s deposition on Pitchfork, public condemnation of XXXTentacion has become louder. Stefan Aguilar, a.k.a. DJ Aux Cord of the popular Bay Area DJ collective Another Party Fam, tweeted that he will personally unplug the laptop of any DJ who plays XXXTentacion or Kodak Black at his parties, which draw thousands of attendees every first Friday.
— DJ AUX CORD (@heyauxcord) September 9, 2017
Aguilar had known about the domestic abuse allegations, but "I didn’t know how heavy it was 'til I read the article that just came out,” he said when reached by phone. “The biggest thing is that the majority of our guests are women. And we have girls in our collective, so we have to make sure that everyone is comfortable.”
“Abuse is so ‘normal’ in the music industry,” tweeted Richmond singer Rayana Jay the day the deposition was published on Pitchfork, adding that “It’s a cycle that’s been going on forever. [It] has to stop.”
Abuse is so "normal" in the music industry and it's fucking sickening. It's a cycle that's been going on forever. Has to stop
— BAD MOM (@RayanaJay) September 8, 2017
As for XXXTentacion, he still hasn't shown remorse -- or indicated in any way that he takes domestic violence seriously. He responded to the allegations with an explicit Instagram video where he threatened his accusers with more sexual violence. "I’ma f--k y’all little sisters in they throats, I swear to God. I swear to God, everybody that called me a domestic abuser, I’m finna domestically abuse y’all little sister p---y from the back."
His response speaks for itself.