In a thread on the celebrity gossip site Oh No They Didn't! that unspooled Monday night, commenters reacted to the news of 20-year-old rapper XXXTentacion's murder. Earlier in the day, two gunmen shot the rapper dead after he visited a motorcycle dealership in Miami. Now, his death is being mourned in a manner perhaps peculiar to our current moment.
"Boo-fucking-hoo," eulogised one commenter.
"Good," wailed another.
"Lmaooo wow, Florida finally did something right," grieved a third.
"Yasss," sobbed a fourth.
"So sad...That all abusers don't get shot," wept yet another, referencing the domestic abuse charges on which X was awaiting trial at the time of his death.
The flippant unconcern, even joy, over the young man's death lay in stark contrast to the outpouring of grief from fans who actually found solace in the rapper's music. He was a part of a wave of hip-hop artists — 6ix9ine, Lil Pump, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Lil Peep (who died in November, aged 21, from a drug overdose) — who made their bones on SoundCloud and built an enthusiastic following among the young and social media-obsessed. X's music, like many others in the SoundCloud rap scene, revolved around themes of depression, nihilism and desperate hedonism. Months after his first album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, X was on the radar of established and prolific rappers like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky and Kanye West.
After news of his death came out, West went to Twitter to mourn. "Rest in peace," he wrote. "I never told you how much you inspired me when you were here thank you for existing."
How do you mourn famous men who do bad things (and who have had bad things done to them in turn)? The starkly different reactions suggest we're no closer to reconciling such matters than we were before the #MeToo movement began in earnest. But perhaps this question is a distraction, pulling our focus away from the deeper issue of why we have to ask it to begin with.
XXXTentacion, according to numerous reports, was a deeply troubled man. He was also an abuser. It seems almost incongruous to refer to him as a man. Aged 20, seemingly racked with trauma, anger and insecurity, the rapper had barely stepped into adulthood. And yet, he had a long list of controversies, long enough for a full lifetime.
His given name was Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, and as much for his music, he was known for his history of sexual and physical assault allegations going back to 2015. The most heinous of these allegations came from an ex-girlfriend, whom he allegedly beat, strangled, threatened to kill and held against her will. All this while she was pregnant with his child.
There was also his homophobia, as demonstrated in an interview on the podcast "No Jumper" where, in graphic details, he recounted beating up and nearly killing a cellmate in juvie, whom he referred to numerous times as a "faggot." X got angry because the cellmate had stared at him.
These stories of horrific behaviour created a line in the sand, a line which separated those who rocked with the rapper and even defended his actions no matter what, and those who felt he was just one of a long list of misogynistic, abusive men who deserve to be culturally cancelled.
The Nigerian-American rapper Jidenna called out those gleefully indifferent to XXXTentacion's death on Twitter:
Prior to his death, the rapper had claimed a desire to do good, going so far as to announce plans to donate to domestic violence and rape prevention charity organisations.
And yet his unmet potential to do good doesn't negate the bad he did. The changed man Jidenna and others evoke did not exist. There's absolutely no way of knowing who the rapper might have become, whether he would have owned up to his terrible deeds, apologised for them and atoned for them. His legacy isn't hypothetical ― it's concrete. XXXTentacion never fully held himself accountable for the abuse, and in doing so signalled to fans, followers and peers alike to do the same.
The conflict over the legacy of these powerful public figures who fuck up is also about which memories are privileged over others. This conversation is as agonising as it is necessary, and #MeToo has ensured we will have many more such conversations in future. No longer are people content to let the humanity of victims be occluded by any posthumous celebration of the bad men's work.
But maybe we should also be asking how we got here — how we got to this point where such moral reckonings fall to people like you and me, people with no power to administer anything like justice. Down here it's all binaries and absolutes — black and white, right and wrong, " cancelled" or "not cancelled."
These are the reactions of a society in which men are so rarely held accountable for their heinous actions that even a violent gun death is seen as a workable alternative to actual justice. A system that can't be counted on to litigate X's case properly doesn't exactly encourage moral nuance among the laity. People rejoice at the news of a homicide, perhaps, because they feel like karma is doing something the justice system can't.
A popular tweet shared not long after X's death:
Maybe you don't like this. Maybe you think this is an inhumane sentiment, expressed paradoxically in service of a humane wish for justice. But think of all the powerful people, in law enforcement, in the justice system, even in the music industry, who had to punt on the question of R. Kelly's morality for this judgment to be rendered. Think of all the people who have been in a position to do something who didn't and whose demurral means that it's left to us to approximate justice.
Music was a part of XXXTentacion's legacy. So was abuse. It would be nice if the conversation about the one could account in proper proportion for the other, could account for the greys of his life. But fine moral distinctions are a luxury of people who can be assured the official mechanisms of justice are in working order.