Ahead of XXXTentacion's Domestic Violence Trial, Can the Industry Focus On the Music?
On Oct. 8, 2016, then-18-year-old Jahseh Onfroy was arrested in Miami-Dade County in Florida and charged with four felonies: aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness tampering. The charges stem from allegations made by Onfroy’s then-girlfriend who, according to an arrest report, had been “punched to where both eyes became shut and [she] could not see.” Photos of the bruising on her face spread across social media.
Four months after the arrest, Onfroy’s debut single, “Look at Me,” released under his rap moniker XXXTentacion, debuted at No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100. His music career has been on a steady upward trajectory since: “Look at Me” peaked at No. 34 in April; his SoundCloud followers more than quadrupled to 1.4 million; and on Sept. 3 his debut album, 17, released on Bad Vibes Forever/EMPIRE Recordings, launched at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, becoming the highest-charting debut in EMPIRE’s history. It has earned 313,000 equivalent album units in the U.S. through Oct. 12, according to Nielsen Music.
Excerpts from the January testimony of Onfroy’s alleged victim, which were published by Pitchfork on Sept. 8 and described her claims in graphic detail, didn’t slow his ascent. His album remained in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 for the next three weeks, and stands at No. 14 on the Oct. 28 chart. Onfroy has repeatedly denied each claim, saying the alleged victim was jumped by others and was not pregnant at the time of the incident. In videos posted to social media, he said, “Everybody that called me a domestic abuser, I’ma domestically abuse y’all little sister pussy from the back.” A trial is set to begin Dec. 11.
Onfroy, who walked the red carpet at the BET Hip-Hop Awards on Oct. 6, has picked up high-profile fans that include Kendrick Lamar, who tweeted: “listen to this album if you feel anything. raw thoughts.” Erykah Badu posted on Instagram: “I <3 xxx,” while pop singer Noah Cyrus featured him on her latest single, “Again.”
Onfroy’s manager, Solomon Sobande, 28, began working with the MC in late 2016. He was drawn to the honesty and range of Onfroy’s emo-leaning, lo-fi music, which is often barely classifiable as rap and addresses depression and violence that Onfroy says permeated his upbringing.
“He’s just a young kid that was lost and needed a chance in life,” Sobande tells Billboard, adding that he believes Onfroy is innocent. “So much stuff around him touched my heart. I just came to the point like, 'I gotta help this kid.'”
One music executive told Billboard it was important to separate the artist’s behavior from the music itself, and that while the allegations against Onfroy “were very uncomfortable to read” and “very difficult to think about,” they were still just allegations and likely not “the whole story.”
“We deal with young people that have volatile lives -- it’s part and parcel of the business,” says the executive, adding that Onfroy’s music is art with “a strong point of view.” Even the video for “Look at Me,” which shows Onfroy putting a noose around the neck of a young child, has an important message, this executive added, despite barely being able to watch it as a parent. “If I felt like what was driving the interest was the conflict [surrounding his personal behavior], I would be conflicted. But the music is really powerful, and in my business, that’s what it’s about.”
Onfroy’s rise comes amid intense national conversation about the mistreatment of women, from workplace sexism to sexual assault, most recently centering on Harvey Weinstein. In May, allegations against guitarist Ben Hopkins from the indie band PWR BTTM led to the group being dropped by its management and record label within 48 hours; in September, Canadian punk band Zex was dropped from its label a day after sexual assault allegations against guitarist Jo Capitalcide emerged, with the label, Magic Bullet, making donations to women's groups in the band's Ottawa hometown.
In August, comedian Eric Andre tweeted, “Why are we not ok with neo nazis but we listen to rappers who beat and rape women?” and named XXXTentacion specifically. Executives at Onfroy’s label, EMPIRE, and his publisher, SONGS Music Publishing, declined to comment for this story.
But the music industry has long backed artists in the face of controversy. In HBO’s The Defiant Ones, Jimmy Iovine talks about resisting pressure to offload Dr. Dre’s Death Row Records from Interscope amid widespread concern over the influence of gangster rap. This year, Atlantic Records released two top five albums from Kodak Black after allegations emerged that he had sexually assaulted a woman in a South Carolina hotel room last November. (He was indicted for criminal sexual misconduct earlier in October.)
“In rap, violence is not a barrier to entry -- in fact, it lends credence to the artist,” says veteran crisis manager Howard Bragman. One top major-label executive with several acts on their roster that they allow “are no angels” said, “In this business you have to put up with a lot more than you’re comfortable with."
As music distributors, says another veteran music executive, “we’re the last people that need to respond to [accusations of violence]. There’s everybody from families to the government to the local police. Do I think that it’s right for someone to beat someone up? No. Should that person be taken to justice? Yes. The rest takes care of itself.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Karp and Carl Lamarre.