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XXXTentacion: Slain rapper whose turbulent life informed his brutal but influential art

Allegations of violence did not damage his commercial viability, and he was admired by the likes of A$AP Rocky

Lily Fletcher
Wednesday 11 July 2018 15:01 BST
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Spotify removed the star’s music from its popular curated playlists, though devotees and critics alike agree that it was trailblazing and pushed boundaries
Spotify removed the star’s music from its popular curated playlists, though devotees and critics alike agree that it was trailblazing and pushed boundaries (Rex/Shutterstock)

The court transcripts that detail XXXTentacion’s alleged abuse of his then-girlfriend are sickeningly sadistic. The South Florida rapper courted much notoriety before he was shot dead in Deerfield Beach, Florida, aged 20.

​Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy drew his professional name from the Spanish word tentacion (temptation). His rise to fame over the past two years ran parallel with countless controversies and allegations of violence – which made him a hot and divisive topic of discussion on social media. For his admirers, this only added to his mystique which itself was a source of debate.

Music fans pondered whether they should listen to his music at all. Spotify even removed his music from its popular curated playlists which soar artists’ play counts and foster their growth.

But his devotees and critics alike tend to agree that his music was trailblazing and pushed boundaries. A mix of hip hop and emo, it revealed a depressive disregard for his own and others’ lives, but many argue it changed hip hop forever, palpably influencing the world’s most renowned and progressive artists.

Onfroy was born in Plantation, Florida to Jamaican parents Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy and Cleopatra Bernard. However, he spent most of his childhood in Pompano Beach and Lauderhill in South Florida with his grandmother Collette Jones.

His short life was characterised by an intensely close yet turbulent relationship with his mother. When he was six years old, Onfroy tried to stab a man who was attempting to attack her. This was the first incident that caused him to be admitted into a young offenders’ facility – he would find himself in another later for fighting at school.

Onfroy’s mother was 17 or 18 when he was born, and she was unable to adequately provide for him. He didn’t live with her and instead grew up moving from homes of friends, family and babysitters, with stints in juvenile detention. After the age of 12, Onfroy lived largely with his grandmother who was his most reliable caregiver. He said: “My grandma really feels like my mum. My mum almost feels like more of a sister.”

Onfroy’s mother’s name Cleopatra was branded across his chest, one of his many tattoos that include a tree tattoo in the middle of his forehead, an elephant head on his throat and 17 (the name of his debut album) on his temple. When she wasn’t around Onfroy became desperately depressed – one of the defining features of his life. Onfroy said in an interview that he used to start fights at school to try to get his absent mother’s attention. “I chased her. I used to beat kids at school just to get her to talk to me, yell at me.”

The rapper with two children in the video for ‘Look At Me’ (YouTube) (YouTube/XXXTENTATION)

One of Onfroy’s female classmates once had a crush on him and, in typical adolescent style, she demonstrated this by punching him. Onfroy reportedly said he asked his mother whether he should hit her back. She advised him to give the girl three warnings and if she continued to hurt him, then he would have to “handle it”. Onfroy took her words to heart, he said that “her word was my bond”, and when the girl next bothered him, he “slapped the shit out of her and kneed her”.

He was expelled from school for fighting on a number of occasions. By the time he was in high school, Onfroy had begun to commit other offences and had been charged with armed robbery, possession of a firearm, resisting arrest and possession of oxycodone (the opiate in Percocet), according to his 2016 interview with the underground hip hop podcast No Jumper.

In his sophomore year, Onfroy was sent back into juvenile detention for gun possession charges. Onfroy said he shared a cell with a gay inmate whom he repeatedly called a “faggot” and recounted warning a guard that, “if he does anything I disapprove of, I’m gonna kill him”. Onfroy claimed that his cellmate was staring at him while he was naked and that he responded by stomping on the boy’s head and strangling him. The boy screamed. “The guard hears him, and I’ve got his blood all over my hands, all of my chest, literally,” Onfroy recounted. “I was going crazy. I smear his blood on my face, on my hands. I got it, like, in my nails. I got it all over me. I was going fucking crazy.” Onfroy told the story for the first time two years ago and claimed the guards didn’t charge him. There are no records of the incident, and he later refused to discuss it.

After his release, Onfroy began to make music – mostly underground mixtapes. But in 2016 he burst onto the mainstream thanks to the online success of his song “Look At Me!,” a short and luridly distorted track supposedly recorded in just 15 minutes with aggressive lyrics (”I took a white bitch to Starbucks/ That little bitch got her throat fucked”) that set the tone for his early career. Onfroy belongs to the SoundCloud rap genre which embraces the underproduced, unpolished lofi sound, dominated by heavily distorted bass, and its artists’ punk rock personas and lyrics that constantly reference violence, suicide and prescription painkillers.

In August 2016, shortly after the artist rose to fame, Onfroy was arrested on charges stemming from an alleged incident in November 2015 of armed home invasion, robbery, and aggravated battery with a firearm. He pleaded no contest to those charges in March 2017 and was ordered to serve six years of probation.

After that first arrest, more allegations surfaced about Onfroy’s alleged domestic abuse of his girlfriend, who was pregnant during some of the incidents. One such allegation was that he attacked her so severely that he damaged her optic nerve. Onfroy was arrested again in October 2016. He was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering to which he pleaded not guilty. In the victim’s testimony delivered in January 2017, she alleged that his abuse included threatening to penetrate her with a barbecue fork, headbutting her because she was humming the verse of an artist featured on his song, breaking plastic hangers across her legs, and strangling her until she nearly passed out.

In December 2017 he returned to jail after a judge ruled he had violated bond conditions stemming from his 2016 arrest. He was released again but remained on house arrest in his Tuscan-style mansion in Parkland, Florida which he had bought for $1.4m (£1.1m) in November 2017.

Onfroy also caused outrage for inciting racial hatred online, with tweets that include “death to darkskins” and “LIL DYLANN ROOF”, referencing the white supremacist who killed nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. He also sparked major backlash last year when the video for his track “Hanged” depicted a child being hanged as he pulled the rope. In the video, Onfroy leads a black and a white child up to a noose and then proceeds to slip the noose over the white boy’s head.

Unlike other artists such as Chris Brown and R Kelly whose music was well-known before it became controversial because of the violent allegations against them, Onfroy’s celebrity and charges are closely entwined. While in prison, Onfroy began to get recognition from huge names in the music world and became troublingly famous. A$AP Rocky tweeted that he couldn’t wait for Onfroy’s release and many accused Drake of stealing the flow from Onfroy’s breakout song “Look At Me!” on his 2017 track “KMT”. Drake denied copying the song, but Onfroy accused him, saying in an interview: “He is not a man. I think he’s a b****, that’s a b**** move.”

Furthermore, Onfroy was contemptuous about the accusations and openly mocked them, stating in a September 2017 video posted on Instagram “Everybody that called me a domestic abuser, I’m going to domestically abuse y’all little sisters’ p***y from the back.”

His continued commercial viability is alarming. Although an overwhelming number of victims raised their heads above the parapet in the MeToo movement, perhaps we are witnessing the level to which society has become desensitised and accustomed to hearing about public figures committing such atrocities. Alternatively, it is testament to what accused assailants can still get away when their victims – like Onfroy’s – are low-income and people of colour.

In late 2017, Onfroy signed a $6m deal with Caroline Records – his success had hitherto existed separate and distinct from traditional music industry machinations; without a label or press. He had released his debut album 17 in August 2017 – which entered the US charts at No 2 – solely off the back of a distribution deal with Empire. The album is under 22 minutes long and consists of 11 narcoleptic songs that openly deal with feelings of depression, heartbreak and suicide – seven of which charted on the US Billboard Hot 100.

In March 2018, Onfroy released his latest album ? which went to No 1 on the US Billboard 200, despite minimal promotion and criminal charges mounting against him. In May, a source close to Spotify said that his song “SAD!” had been removed from Spotify’s popular RapCaviar playlist, where it had previously held the No 8 spot. The track was considered to contravene a new censoring policy that would not tolerate content that “expressly and principally promotes, advocates or incites hatred or violence” based on personal characteristics like race, religion, sexual orientation and disability. Spotify’s hateful conduct ban has since been revoked.

In his final months, Onfroy made various questionable attempts to rehabilitate his image and clear his name. He was accused of pressuring his ex-girlfriend to drop the charges against him, and claimed to have donated money to a domestic violence charity, although it was never proven that he actually did.

Unusually, for an artist so young, he had alluded to his own death. “Worst thing comes to worst, I f***ing die a tragic death or some s*** and I’m not able to see out my dreams,” he said in a video posted on Instagram earlier in June. “I at least want to know that the kids perceived my message and were able to make something of themselves and able to take my message and use it and turn it into something positive.”

​Onfroy was gunned down in an apparent robbery in Deerfield Beach, about 43 miles north of Miami on 18 June. He was leaving a motorcycle dealership in his BMW when he was approached by two masked, armed men, who reached inside his vehicle, removed a small bag, and shot him multiple times. Onfroy was rushed to hospital where he was pronounced dead. Twenty-two-year-old suspect Dedrick Devonshay Williams was arrested two days after the shooting. He is charged with first degree murder without premeditation.

A banner reading “Rest In Peace, XXXTENTACION” was added to the top of Spotify’s RapCaviar playlist in the wake of Onfroy’s death, for which the streaming platform received criticism given that it had previously censored his material under its now-defunct hateful conduct policy. The slain artist’s track “SAD!” racked up 48.9 million US streams in the week after his death and became the first posthumous No 1 for a lead soloist since Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” in 1997.

Kanye West tweeted a tribute to the deceased artist, “Rest in peace I never told you how much you inspired me when you were here thank you for existing.” Both of West’s recent albums ­– Ye and Kids See Ghosts (with Kid Cudi) – recall Onfroy’s music which barely engaged at all with normative hip hop bravado or bragging of material gains, but reverberated his mental illness, extraordinary misogyny and drug-addled insecurities. Although the sound and raw emotion of his music will also make waves for years to come, Onfroy’s legacy will justifiably focus on the abhorrent cruelty of the crimes he allegedly committed against vulnerable people for which he never expressed remorse.

Jahseh Onfroy, XXXTentacion, rapper, born 23 January 1998, died 18 June 1998

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