On Oct. 27, the rapper XXXTentacion will perform at the Adams Center as part of the "Halloween Lit Party," a celebration of middle-aged PR representatives learning how to use the word "lit." Just what else the show might celebrate is an uncomfortable question.
At this point in his career, the 19-year-old rapper is about as known for his music as he is for the criminal charges against him, which include false imprisonment, witness tampering, domestic abuse and aggravated battery of his pregnant girlfriend. Her testimony in a Florida court earlier this month suggests that XXXTentacion threatened her with physical and sexual violence whenever he felt jealous or insecure.
That seems like an uncanny coincidence, given how many of XXXTentacion's lyrics are about using sexualized violence to assert his dominance over women and other rappers. On the second verse of "Look at Me," his breakout single, he raps, "I took a white bitch to Starbucks / that little bitch got her throat fucked ... Got like three bitches; I'm Mormon / Skeet on your main bitch's forehead."
Such casual misogyny and equation of sex with dominance—not just of women, but of other men and of the rap game itself—is a pervasive theme in contemporary hip hop. Along with violence and wasting money, it can be taken as one of the three obligatory motifs of modern rap. It's something many rappers include in their lyrics but not in their lives. In this case, however, XXXTentacion seems to rap about being an awful person who hurts women while also being an awful person who hurts women in real life.
What is a hip hop fan to do? As someone who has continued to listen to rap since Public Enemy, I have spent the last 25 years telling myself that misogyny, violence and dumb materialism are themes that artists indulge ironically, as conceits of the form. Listening to Ghostface Killah does not support dealing crack, because he raps about that subject the same way Louis L'Amour wrote about gunfighting. This excuse does not hold up for XXXTentacion. Knowing his music and learning about the allegations against him is like finding out L'Amour spent his weekends murdering Indians. It makes it impossible to enjoy the art with a clear conscience.
That's how Maggie Bornstein sees it, anyway. The 19-year-old UM freshman is organizing a protest against XXXTentacion's performance, arguing that his appearance at the Adams Center contradicts the university's stated commitment to making campus a safe place for women. Bornstein does not expect UM to cancel the event, but she "hopes the university will conduct itself in a more consistent manner moving forward," and that the protest "will make them aware that students are actively holding them accountable."
What about free speech, though? In the spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness, shouldn't the university host a rapper who stands accused of threatening to put a barbecue fork in a pregnant woman's vagina at the same time it promises to "take decisive action to rid campus of known assaulters?"
When you put it that way, the "it's just art" argument seems like a dodge. If the allegations against XXXTentacion are true, it's not just art. It's real life and real violence. Even if the allegations aren't true, paying him to come to campus and rhyme "bitch" with "bitch" for 40 minutes does not jibe with the university's mission to make women feel safe—especially not when it has conspicuously failed to protect women in recent years.
It kind of pains me to write this, because I like "Look at Me." I like SoundCloud rap in general. The production is gross and the lyrics indulge hip hop's laziest tropes to a stupefying degree, but it's the closest we have gotten to a punk rap. That's an upheaval the genre desperately needs. I'm not willing to throw my support behind a serial batterer of women, though, in exchange for a new sound.
I probably would have been, if I hadn't started thinking about it. I would have gone on liking The Cosby Show and Woody Allen movies, too. I don't know what I'm going to do about Miramax productions now. It's tempting to wish I didn't know about the awful things the men behind these works of art did. I could even get mad at whoever pointed them out to me. But that would be to demand an ignorance that is no longer my privilege. You don't get SoundCloud without getting Google, too.
I'm an art jerk. I've spent decades arguing that the meaning is in the work, not the person who produced it. That might be true for artists who are dead, or for those who are so little-known that they might as well be. But Bornstein is right about XXXTentacion. He is alive and young and inexcusable in his treatment of women, and we all know it. We can choose to reward him or not. That's on us.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the false distinction between aesthetics and morals at combatblog.net.