Heartache and Backlash After a Young Rapper’s Death

As news spread Monday of the death of rapper XXXTentacion in a Florida shooting, a familiar social media ritual began to play out, with celebrities posting rest-in-peace wishes and respectful tributes to his talent.

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Ben Sisario
, New York Times

As news spread Monday of the death of rapper XXXTentacion in a Florida shooting, a familiar social media ritual began to play out, with celebrities posting rest-in-peace wishes and respectful tributes to his talent.

“I never told you how much you inspired me when you were here,” wrote Kanye West. “One of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,” Diddy posted on Twitter alongside a photo of the two laughing, adding, “REST IN PEACE YOUNG KING.”

But a backlash came almost immediately, in long comment threads on Twitter and Instagram, with readers criticizing those stars for failing to immediately condemn XXXTentacion — whose real name was Jahseh Onfroy — for some of the brutal acts he was accused of. A familiar debate returned in force: Can you separate the art from the artist?

A 20-year-old who rose quickly from underground fame on the music platform SoundCloud to the uppermost rungs of the Billboard charts, XXXTentacion was awaiting trial on charges including aggravated battery of a pregnant victim, false imprisonment and witness tampering. Excerpts from a deposition in the case, and a recent investigative article in Miami New Times, included disturbing allegations that he had badly beaten his former girlfriend, including extended attacks of punching and choking.

He was shot outside a motor sports dealership in Deerfield Beach, Florida, in what the Broward Sheriff’s Office said appeared to be a robbery.

After producer Diplo posted a brief note on Twitter, simply saying, “Thanks for inspiring me,” with a photo of him with XXXTentacion, many commenters took him to task, answering, “I’m sure his victims share your sentiment” and “This is irresponsible and disappointing.”

A few hours later, Diplo followed up with a series of more nuanced statements on Instagram. On his own feed he wrote, “He has his faults and we was willing to pay for his sins.” And in a response to a post by Questlove, the Roots drummer, he posted: “Should not disregard his domestic violence but lot of people riding the hate wave,” adding, “they forget this was someone’s child too and deserved a second chance.” (A spokeswoman said that Diplo was not available for comment Tuesday.)

Similar conversations played out on the social media feeds of musicians including Joey Badass, J. Cole, Travis Barker and John Mayer, with some fans calling XXXTentacion the Tupac Shakur of his generation and others condemning him as an unabashed abuser. (Social media being social media, there was also no shortage of conspiracy theories that he was still alive.)

In another widely circulated post, R&B singer Jidenna called the accusations against XXXTentacion “horrific” but argued that people can change.

Whether XXXTentacion had repented was another subject of vociferous debate. Last year the rapper said he would donate money to a domestic abuse charity, then said he gave it to children’s causes instead.

XXXTentacion’s music quickly jumped in popularity as news of the killing spread, with his songs climbing the internal rankings at Amazon and iTunes. According to Nielsen, sales of his single “Sad!” rose by 1,140 percent Monday compared with the day before, and album sales jumped by 4,730 percent in the same period. (Nielsen did not have numbers available for activity on streaming services, where XXXTentacion was particularly popular.)

The rapid criticism — and follow-up comments by some stars — was a new wrinkle in the usual pattern of online reactions to celebrity deaths, reflecting the controversy that surrounded XXXTentacion’s brief career.

“We have seen some of our heroes fall in recent catastrophic headlines,” said Vickie Nauman, a veteran digital music executive, “leaving fans feeling duped and manipulated as well as mortified by that hero’s behavior that was enabled behind closed doors.”

Last month, XXXTentacion also became an unlikely symbol of the suppressive powers of digital platforms when Spotify singled him out as one of only two artists affected by a newly implemented “hateful conduct” policy — the other was R. Kelly, who has been dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct for decades.

Spotify removed both musicians’ work from its editorial playlists but drew industrywide complaints that its policy amounted to a blunt form of censorship. It followed less high-profile examples of erasure of controversial artists like the indie duo PWR BTTM, whose music briefly disappeared from streaming services after one of its members was accused of sexual misconduct and anti-Semitism.

XXXTentacion’s banishment from Spotify’s playlists was brief. Within three weeks the policy was rescinded. (Kelly, on the other hand, remains unpromoted.) And Monday, Spotify seemed to forget all about its previous criticism, giving XXXTentacion’s music the top spots on its highly popular RapCaviar playlist and promoting a “This Is XXXTentacion” playlist on its main page.

A Spotify spokesman declined to comment on the changes. On Tuesday afternoon, XXXTentacion still held the top two spots on RapCaviar.

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