We need to consider the new wave of violence in rapBy Nathan Campbell | 09/28/2017 10:24pm
This past June, the XXL’s 2017 Freshman Class was released. For those that don’t know, XXL Magazine releases an annual list of ten up-and-coming hip-hop artists — artists who seem destined to superstardom. Past honorees have included Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Chance the Rapper and J. Cole. While the list is not perfect (like the time XXL put both Iggy Azalea and Macklemore on the 2012 cover), it’s nevertheless a fun day for me. I studied each honoree. Read about them. Listened to their music on Spotify. Compared them to one another.
But as I moved down the list, I got to the last name, the fan vote: XXXTentacion. His face glaring at the camera. Emotionless. It made me cringe. Nausea slowly filled my body. It wasn’t the stare that caught me off-guard. It was because I knew what was behind those eyes.
This past October, XXXTentacion was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness tampering. Recently, the full testimony of the victim was obtained by Pitchfork. The 142-page transcript depicts a months-long pattern of domestic and sexual abuse inflicted by XXXTentacion, too lengthy and graphic for me to detail here. But his attitude of chaos and violence permeates beyond these criminal charges. In an April 2016 interview on “No Jumper,” he details (or to some, brags) about an incident where he beat a gay juvenile detention center cellmate half to death because he caught the cellmate “glaring at him.”
Yet despite this culture of violence, his album "17" currently resides in the top ten of the Billboard 200, and his song “Jocelyn Flores” has been entrenched in Spotify’s Top 50 since its release. So as chaos swirls around him, XXXTentacion has chosen to double down on his “what if I did do it” attitude and has prospered because of it.
To some, XXXTentacion may just appear to be an outlier or a “bad seed.” I’m not so sure that is the case. Kodak Black, a 2016 XXL Freshman honoree and rapper behind the hits “Skrt” and “Tunnel Vision,” is awaiting trial for a 2016 sexual assault charge, while a second such incident in February has yet to reach a court date. Texas rapper Tay-K blew up this summer with his song “The Race,” which depicted the rapper running from the police. The song was recorded after Tay-K, who is currently awaiting trial for capital murder, cut off his ankle monitor and fled house arrest before being apprehended by U.S Marshals.
But my uneasy feeling goes beyond the behavior of the rappers themselves. It extends to their legions of fans only becoming more emboldened in defense of their favorite rappers, despite the growing evidence of chaos and violence. Success seems to have rendered any criticism moot. In regard to XXXTentacion’s domestic violence charges, many of his fans pounce at the chance to smear his victim, questioning whether his victim was genuinely pregnant at the time or whether she may have used makeup to exaggerate her injuries. On the other end of the spectrum, music writers and bloggers allude to his criminal history only in passing, then delve into his music, lauding his “confessional depression raps” and casting any criticism of his personal life aside.
Violence and criminal activity have always been dominant themes in hip-hop. Jay-Z and Biggie rapped about selling drugs on street corners. For N.W.A and Ice Cube, it was gang violence. 50 Cent built a career on being shot nine times and surviving to rap the tale. For these artists, this violence was a backdrop. They were the voice for those confined to impoverished neighborhoods — communities where violent crime was rampant, but largely ignored by police forces who preferred to enforce a multitude of lesser violations. In this backdrop, these rappers were seen almost as “heroes” in their ability to prosper in the face despair. Their “crimes” were political acts, meant to level the playing field that always seemed to operate on a tilt. And any criticism leveled at rap, whether obscenity trials or late night news segments, only emboldened its fans to further ignore it.
As much as this narrative appeals to rap fans and commentators alike, it makes it increasingly difficult to have genuine conversations about the problems affecting rappers and their fans. Instead, it becomes easier to attribute the misogyny and homophobia to societal forces, pass the blame up to America as a whole and move on. But in the face of this new wave of rap violence, this narrative is transitioning from a noble thought process to apathy tinged with only a passing sense of concern.
But these are conversations we need to have. There is a new wave of rap violence permeating the genre at a time where any Soundcloud rapper can grab a microphone and project male aggression and stories of their crimes to listeners anywhere. It is becoming increasingly difficult to halt these artists before they spiral out of control. All the while, success only insulates these rappers from criticism and builds hordes of fan ready to defend them at a moment’s notice. We constantly rationalize that one must “separate the art from the artist.” But by separating the art from the artist, we are detaching ourselves from any consequences for supporting an artist’s music. It permits us to celebrate abusive men as musical geniuses, while the more troublesome aspects of their lives become mere footnotes.
Rappers like XXXTentacion, Kodak and Tay-K are just the latest in a long line of rappers with dangerous tendencies to have money and clout shoveled their direction. They have been given a microphone to put these dangerous tendencies on full display, putting themselves, their fans and their victims in harm’s way. We are encouraging a reckless situation that we may soon have little control over, much to the detriment of these young men and their fans.
Nathan Campbell is a senior majoring in environmental engineering. His column runs biweekly.