“I like it when bad people die.”
– Christopher Hitchens
“Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.”
– Romans 12:14, King James Bible
Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy is dead. He was 20 years, four months, and 26 days old when he died, shot dead while leaving a motorcycle dealership. There is a photo circulating on Twitter of him propped in the back of a car, mouth agape. Apparently he had no pulse as the photo was taken.
Onfroy was better known to most as the rapper XXXTentacion (ten-tah-see-yon). X, as he was called, was a controversial figure – the kind of controversy that makes Kanye West look like The Fresh Prince. The day before his debut album released, X posted an Instagram video of him hanging himself. His concerts have become centres of violence and disorder. He has been arrested three times, and charged with gun possession, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment, witness tampering, and aggravated battery of a pregnant victim. The pregnant victim was his ex girlfriend, Geneva Ayala. She has described a history of abuse and torment – physical and psychological. There is a photo circulating on Twitter of her eyes swollen shut and her lip split and bleeding – the handiwork, she says, of her ex-boyfriend. X responded by releasing a song named after Ayala. The lyrics read “She showed me fake love, can’t forget how it hurt, no. Made a list of my regrets and you were first, love”.
I believe Ayala. I have no reason to doubt her. X did nothing to contradict (let alone convincingly counter) her accusations. He expressed openly antifeminist sentiments in a recent interview, and his entire image traded on the idea of loathsomeness – self loathing, loathing others, being loathed, and doing loathsome things. Yes, I believe Ayala. I believe XXXTentacion beat his pregnant girlfriend and tormented her, that he broke her phone and threatened her life for complimenting another man on Snapchat, that he pummelled her again and again, to the point where she needed $20,000 worth of surgery to repair the damage. I believe that XXXTentacion was an abusive, cruel, and stupid young man, who showed every sign of glorying in that image, and no signs of redeeming himself.
And now he is dead.
And I do not know just what to feel.
It’s hard to know how to respond to the deaths of people you despise, especially when that death is tragically unexpected and completely unnecessary. Deaths of truly evil people in wartime (or something like it) – those are easier to square. The circumstances made it necessary, we tell ourselves. A sane utilitarian calculus demanded it. We may be right, and it may quiet the pit gnawing at us somewhere deep within. But even with the death of Osama Bin Laden, a monster, a reprobate, a vicious reptilian bastard, a man who unquestionably deserved Seal Team Six and more – I find it difficult to glory.
I do not, through this position, wish to assume some moral authority. I am not one. I just know that XXXTentacion is dead, and I am not happy about it.
To be clear, I despise X. I always have and I always will. I am lucky in that my simple and unqualified loathing of him as a person wasn’t complicated (as I know it was for many – and that’s perfectly fine) by a love for his music. I found it, on a superficial level, a trite emulation of what other folks (Death Grips and Dälek first among them) have done so much better. Lyrically, his preoccupation with how hard it was to be an abuser was sickening. I hated him as an artist and despised him as a person. I did so long ago and will continue to do that. It is an easy position to take.
But I didn’t want this. I don’t think anyone really wanted this.
X, for all his controversy, was a seriously popular figure in American hip hop. His death will raise a great many questions. Some will come already answered, like the link between aggressive music and actual violence (tenuous at best), or the terror of gun crime in America (it remains, shockingly, a problem). Others, like how we should evaluate the artistic legacy of someone like X and what the emotional response to his death should be, have no clear answers.
I call myself a Christian. I’m not quite sure why. I think it’s a longing for a comfort I had as a child – the security of religion, the connectedness it provided. The act of prayer is absolutely a source of relief and release. I do not think I would have made it through my university years did I not have some faith in the words I whispered to the sky. But my faith doesn’t extend indefinitely. God, do I have doubts. The existence of the divine is… unlikely. At the very least it is incomprehensible. There are a thousand different questions I have about my professed faith, and in all likelihood almost none will ever be answered. But I focus now on one area: the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. “But I say to thee, resist not evil”, Jesus tells us in the King James Bible: “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
This is not the part where I implore my readers to forgive XXXTentacion his trespasses. That would be wholly inappropriate for me to ask. When it comes to cases such as these, turning the other cheek seems impractical and undignified, if not downright mendacious and ignorant. Some people, of course, are capable of extraordinary feats of forgiveness – Michelle Knight, one of three women abducted by Ohioan Ariel Castro, managed, through years of meditation, therapy, and prayer, to forgive the man who held her prisoner and raped her repeatedly for 11 years. Her journey is chronicled in her remarkable book Finding Me. My admiration for her strength and grace is boundless. She is a better person than me, and a better person than I expect anyone to be.
But that is not to imply those who cannot forgive X are bad or worse people. Forgiveness is terrifyingly personal, and most Christian traditions premise it on heartfelt redemption made in good faith. To say XXXTentacion did not attempt this is an understatement.
Another complication to my faith is my near-unceasing admiration for Christopher Hitchens, an extraordinary writer, and in my view the late 20th century’s greatest political journalist ( at least as far as the English language is concerned). Hitchens is renowned for his antitheistic atheism, accompanied by his erudite vitriol. After Jerry Falwell (a truly sick and odious creep) died, Hitchens wasted no time in decrying him on CNN. “If you’d have given him an enema”, Hitchens said of the gluttonous Falwell, “you could have buried him in a matchbox.” He endured great criticism for his disrespect of the dead, but remained unapologetic, as the epigraph herein contained shows.
In many ways, I have no problem with Hitchens’ attitude to Falwell. Deifying the recently passed and forgiving them their failings is careless towards anyone said failings might’ve hurt. For a man such as Falwell, who suggested that 911 was the direct result of the United States recognising the LGBT community as human, those failings (and their accompanying hurt) are so great that they transform carelessness into cruelty. Hitchens called this a “grotesque offence to truth and morality”. He was right. And he was right to do it just after Falwell died.
But where I take issue is glorying in his death. There is a line – a fine one – between refusing to sanctify the deceased, and celebrating their demise. And death isn’t a punishment like anything else. It is final, and terrifying, and grotesque. The fact that it is natural and inevitable does nothing to numb its effect or still the terror it inspires. Death… death is too often dismissed as another unfortunateness, frequently by political extremists, who adore the notion of human life sacrificed at the altar of ideology.
XXXTentacion was scum. But he was only 20 year old scum. Who knows what his future held before him. Human beings are capable of the most amazing transformations and tales of redemption. X will never get his.
I am not sorry that he is no longer with us. But I am sorry – painfully sorry and ill – that he died as he did, and that his death, for some, is cause for celebration. I cannot imagine the relief his victims must feel knowing that he will never touch them again. I don’t want to invalidate or criticise that. Not for a second.
But I do want to caution against those who imagine that, because of what he did, his life was forfeit. Death is not yours to deliver, and certainly not yours to celebrate. A 20 year old kid has died. A stupid and cruel kid, but a kid.
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”
– Gandalf the Grey, from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
For more hip-hop related posts, read my retrospective review of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, or my profile on Unkle Adams.