Grappling With The Complicated Life and Painful Death of XXXTentacion

Travis Shinn
XXXTentacion, photographed in 2017.

On June 18, just before 4 p.m., 20-year-old Jahseh Onfroy, better known as XXXTentacion, was sitting in his BMW in the parking lot of a motorcycle dealership in his native Broward County, Fla., when he was shot by two assailants. Onfroy was killed instantly; the attackers fled with a Louis Vuitton bag containing a few thousand dollars, while bystanders filmed Onfroy’s lifeless body and posted the footage to social media as emergency vehicle sirens wailed in the background.

It was a senseless end to the life of XXXTentacion, the controversial rapper known as much for his emotive songs about depression and suicide as for the violent incidents he allegedly perpetuated in his own life. For the past year and a half, since his first appearance on the Billboard charts with his breakout single, “Look at Me!,” in February 2017, X has confounded critics by capturing the ears of millions of young listeners across the country, ultimately landing two albums in the top two slots on the Billboard 200 and posthumously earning the No. 1 single in the country, “Sad!,” in the week after his murder.

His meteoric rise to the mainstream was both fraught and propelled by the allegations that preceded it: In October 2016, he was arrested and charged with a brutal assault on Geneva Ayala, a young woman who had been his girlfriend and was pregnant at the time, and who, according to court documents, had been “punched to where both eyes became shut and [she] could not see.” X repeatedly denied the allegations, and a trial was continually delayed. But meanwhile, trouble continued: Fights and near-riots erupted regularly at his concerts; his only national tour was cut short after his cousin was shot in Florida; allegations of witness tampering led to further felony charges against him; a video that showed him punching another woman emerged on social media, which she later explained was a joke.

Through it all, his fan base only grew: Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu and J. Cole were among the celebrities drawn to his music, sensing the painful truths he would mine in his songs, making the same connection as millions of kids who appeared to relate to his pain. Music industry executives recognized his commercial potential. Capitol Music Group’s Caroline signed a deal to distribute his label in 2017 after SONGS Music Publishing had signed him as a songwriter. And there were signs that he was attempting to rehabilitate his image: a benefit show that raised $30,000 for a victim of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.; a pledge to donate $100,000 to domestic-violence-prevention programs; a role as an ambassador for the Miami Children’s Initiative, announced in March, to work with local youth. On June 24, less than a week after his murder, XXXTentacion had planned another charity event for his Helping Hand Foundation, which he planned to launch with his mother.

Ultimately, X’s murder appeared to have nothing to do with his personal struggles. In 2015, while I was the senior editor at hip-hop magazine XXL, our staff published an examination of the current status of the legal cases in 52 rappers’ murders. In the past three years, that story has had to be updated over a dozen times to include more cases. More than a quarter of those murders appeared to be totally random, the result of robberies like X’s, or cases of mistaken identity, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time; over two-thirds remain unsolved. All of them involved gun violence.

The brief life and violent death of XXXTentacion were marked by pain for many. There is the pain of Ayala, who allegedly suffered abuse and is still suffering now at the hands of a particularly virulent subsection of X’s fans. There is the pain of his mother, Cleopatra Bernard, now in the unimaginable position of having to bury her own son. There is the pain of his friends, family and team of advisers. There is the pain that permeates his music, and the pain of his millions of young fans around the world. There is the pain that none of this had anything to do with the art, the artist or the person at all -- that there is, now, no possibility of closure for anyone.

But the artist’s legacy is still unfolding, with plenty of his recorded music still unreleased. His charitable works will continue; a benefit fund, supported by such artists as Lil Uzi Vert, Nicki Minaj and Lil Yachty, was announced. And, as his mother announced in an Instagram post three days after her son’s death, there is a child on the way; his longtime girlfriend discovered she was pregnant just weeks before X was murdered.

This article originally appeared in the June 30 issue of Billboard.