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The Tainted Grace of Jahseh Onfroy, Hidden Among Controversy and Violence

"“I ain’t have no positive upbringing, you know how fucking hard this shit is? You know how fucking hard I try just to be a good role model for these kids while at the same time being myself?”-XXXTentacion on Instagram, November 2017"

For those unfamiliar with one of America’s most controversial, contradictory social media personalities and artists, XXXTentacion is Florida’s 20-year-old Jahseh Onfroy, a multidimensional recording artist with a cultish fanbase. He brings a new dimension to popular music not just for his unique musical innovations but also through his use of social media and direct connections to his fans.

The American underground hip-hop scene and social media have been increasingly and gradually intertwining for over a decade; in the past few years, however, a diverse group of young artists and producers—utilizing social media platforms like SoundCloud and Instagram—have made significant steps in redefining the face of the genre. Onfroy is one of them; he defies mainstream media coverage by utilizing social media to connect with the masses. But increased media attention has also shed light on a history of violent behavior consistent throughout Onfroy’s life and those of other artists in a similar context. Major American media outlets emphasize his connection to the resurgence of violence in hip-hop—in which he has definitely played a part—and disregard Onfroy as any form of role model due to his violent past; but they focus only on the the harm he propagates while ignoring his potential for aiding progress. Onfroy is lumped together with a group of artists who are similar to him only by their violent lyrics and utilization of shock value, not by musical genre or cultural message. Onfroy’s confusing and sometimes problematic form of social activism has hidden hints of grace and positivity that do not receive coverage. Onfroy’s position as a social activist must be reconsidered, given the complexity of his status as a social commentator, artist, and abuser. Separating the art from the artist is never pragmatic, and Onfroy must be analyzed wholistically: his visions, violence, obscenities, and music all alongside each other.

Onfroy is currently awaiting trial for domestic assault and witness harassment of his ex-girlfriend; he vehemently denies the accusations. Onfroy’s criminal tendencies have justly contributed to his being grouped into a larger context of gender violence within contemporary hip-hop. The negative effects he may have on his young generations of fans are however not limited to promoting violent abuse; Onfroy’s August 2017 fake suicide stunt, and the coverage that ensued, detracted from his more graceful and progressive messages on mental health, at the same time exposing his sensationalist approach to social media. He also possesses an almost Trumpian hubris and obsession with loyalty that does not aid his larger social causes and, rather, devalues the legitimacy of his social justice platform. Like Trump, he seeks publicity through evoking the Id in American media consumers and stimulating explosive reaction around violent conflicts. Critics of Onfroy are completely just to criticize and condemn him for all of these reasons—but to deny his power and social force is dangerous. As a living intersection of mental health, race, and sexism with millions of followers—some unrelentingly loyal—his influence should be further analyzed. To completely write him off as morally corrupt and refrain from analyzing his unique social and musical potential would be counterproductive. It is even more counterproductive to analyze his music while ignoring his complete persona.

There is more to XXXTentacion than an angry, aggressive, and depressive abuser: Not only does he stand out among the SoundCloud generation as a promoter of intellectual conversation around systemic injustice and mental health, he is a victim of systemic injustice. His innovative and versatile recording and production style expresses the complexity of his status both as a victim and violent perpetrator. News outlets are quick to analyze white-passing school shooters as victims of mental illness, but they rarely do the same for violent artists of color with troubled pasts who openly discuss mental health. Erykah Badu advocated for a more “humanist” approach to Onfroy and his platform, noting that “sick people do evil things; hurt people hurt people.” Growing up in a dysfunctional household with little parental guidance and economic mobility, Onfroy did not choose the violent environment he was raised in. But he understands how his story is part of a larger group of individuals within America: a group afflicted with mental health disorders, stifled by hypermasculinity and extractive commercialization, and faced with systemic oppression. Emblematic of continuity and change, blending rock with rap, screams with 808s, fans and artists revere Onfroy for his genre-bending eclecticism and signature bass distortion. The opening track on 17, his independently-released debut album, reveals Onfroy’s desire for emotional fan connection and disdain for commercialization. The album as a whole is introspective and reflective while short and erratic; it received praise on social media from rap icons like J.Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Critics, on the other hand, labelled the album shallow and lacking in nuance. While Onfroy can sometimes come across as conforming to a more generally applied emo stereotype, he is compelling for highlighting emotional extremes across a wide spectrum. His turbulent history reflects the dynamic emotionality of his music, whether it be screamo, slow R&B, or lyrical rapping.

Onfroy’s paradoxicality exposes itself clearly in his extended three hour interview with well-known hip-hop media personality DJ Akademiks. He not only laments the negative effects of music commercialization and the unfairness of his scrutinization in the media but also expresses an uplifting yet ominous perspective on his own work; he believes his amorphous approach to genre and meticulous attention to musical detail will allow him to aid people struggling with depression through his cult of personality. Throughout the interview he denounces his previous idealization of suicide and speaks of a desire to live and spread positive influence. He believes in a pragmatic approach to curing systemic racism that is problematic in its color-blindness, but optimistic in its calls for unity. In other comments on race, when Onfroy exclaims, “I’m not even gonna pull the race card” in reference to his media scrutinization, he identifies how the media ignores his positivity while sensationalizing his violence with prejudice. Yet, at the same time, by referring to a “race card”, he is also contributing to the stigmatization of black agency. Statements like these make him ever the more confusing.

Nonetheless, Onfroy’s raw emotion is indicative of the rage felt by a number of marginalized young people of color and although he does not see himself as a revolutionary, he is progressing the face of the genre while building on its history of dealing with the mental health of the oppressed. His pronouncement, “I want to teach them to be self-aware; I want to teach them how to compromise, and find true love; how to respect themselves so they can feel important without idolizing the numbers that I have….and I’m also still learning to teach myself appreciation,” uncovers his emphasis on self-perception and desire to end technology’s manipulation of mental health. Carrying on a legacy of emotionality from artists he openly admires like Kurt Cobain and The Weeknd, Onfroy pushes an agenda of emotional self-reflection through his lyrics and interviews laden with sexist undertones. Onfroy has also advocated for decreased substance abuse in the context of Lil Peep’s death by overdose; an Instagram post uploaded around Peep’s death demonstrates his progressivism and calls for a celebration of creativity rather than violence and substance abuse. These points of emphasis that he verbalizes in interviews and on Instagram, along with his platform of social outreach—such as his donations to orphanages and domestic violence shelter and a planned anti-rape event—point to Onfroy’s increasing emphasis on social reform. In addition, after the Parkland shooting in his native Broward county, Onfroy released a song dedicated to the slain students titled “Hope”. The platform of gun reform that surviving Parkland student-activists have emotionally embraced is in line with Onfroy’s anti-gun ideology that he expresses in his interview.

Onfroy is inherently controversial. That’s part of the gimmick: His lyrics, his name, his music videos, his interviews, his Instagram stories; they all are part of Onfroy’s idiosyncratic style of click-baiting. He is acutely aware of the power he holds over his cult of followers, and wants to persevere for them. He is contradictory. He is uplifting yet scarring, angry yet composed, confused but informed. But understanding of emotional complexity, self-awareness, and discovery of self-importance are what he has come to advocate for in 2018. These points of emphasis are extremely relevant to his young, millennial audience. Some of this positivity is part of a process of redefinition that Onfroy publicized in late 2017 in which he shaved his eyebrows and dyed his hair, attempting to change his media image as he came face to face with criminal charges. Hopefully he can find the guidance to more effectively craft the power of the positive sides of his message. It is unlikely that his positive visions will ever be well-received, given how America typically reacts to innovative expressions of black activism and especially because of Onfroy’s violent controversy. But given upcoming collaborations with notable activist-rappers like Joey Bada$$, Onfroy can potentially combine his unique social media savvy and emphasis on re-awakening and self-reflection with Joey’s coherent and expressive denunciations of systemic oppression. We should certainly condemn the oppressive structures he supports through his words and actions, and as a society we should seriously consider how we perpetuate oppressive ideals by supporting these artists while ignoring their negative fallacies. But it is similarly unwise to analyze Onfroy’s negatives in absence of the context of his more positive visions.

"Followers who ignore the misogyny and violence Onfroy has associated himself with are misguided and problematic; but if Onfroy goes to prison, it is up to the media to acknowledge the nuance they obscured."

In today’s day of social media-oriented, charismatic orators lauded for authenticity, the young Onfroy has an ability to self-reflect and turn a negative platform into something incredibly nuanced, humanly contradictory, and potentially positive. His fate remains unknown, and although it may seem foolish to look for guidance from a criminal facing decades in prison, Onfroy has established his voice in the minds of young social media and music consumers. The mainstream media has done its job presenting Onfroy’s fallacies to his young followers, and followers who ignore the misogyny and violence Onfroy has associated himself with are misguided and problematic; but if Onfroy goes to prison, it is up to the media to acknowledge the nuance they obscured. Doing so would progress our understanding of social media influence, the psychology of cyclical abuse, and the mental health of the marginalized.

About the Author

Joseph Hinton '20 is a Senior Staff Writer for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Joseph can be reached at joseph_hinton@brown.edu