Joshua Gualtieri considers the ethical implications of projects released by record companies well after the death of their creators
If we pull apart the strands of the death of a musical artist in the 2010s, a distinctly modern pattern emerges: whispers circulate on social media before the release of official confirmation, after which a wave of grief will engulf timelines around the world, carrying celebrity condolence posts atop it. There will be news stories, think-pieces, takedowns, and a period of public mourning most likely rounded-off by a symbolic celebration of the artist – a tribute at the Grammys, say, or an eerie holographic performance at a music festival. One feature of this cycle has persevered, a feature which is as old as recorded music itself – the posthumous release. Something for fans to remember the artist by, or a cash-grab by devious managers and family members - it depends on who you ask. The debate about which of the two categories a release falls into usually centres on the issues of intent and control – whether the album or song was something that the artist had wanted to release, and whether they would have been happy with the form that it took.
In 2019, the cycle is no different – at least not in the case of controversial “Soundcloud rapper” XXXTentacion, born Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy. Onfroy’s death on 18 June last year has done little to dispel interest in his music; the day after he was shot and killed in Florida, Onfroy’s song “SAD!” broke the record for most streams of a song in a single day with over ten million global streams, breaking a record that had previously been held by Taylor Swift. Since then, two further albums have been released under the XXXTentacion moniker. The solo album Skins was released in December of last year, reaching number one within the first week of its release and featuring the likes of Kanye West and Blink-182’s Travis Barker, and this January saw the release of XXXTentacion Presents: Members Only, Vol. 4, the fourth instalment in a series of releases by Onfroy’s group Members Only, released on what would have been his twenty first birthday.
So, are these the cynical moneymaking releases deplored by those who argue in favour of an artist’s right to creative control, or token releases for a young and grieving fan base? In the case of XXXTentacion, any answer to this question is going to have to bear the weight of a past both troubled and troubling. Onfroy’s musical career began in 2013 when he was serving time in a juvenile detention centre on charges of gun possession, a stint in which he assaulted a gay cellmate in a homophobic attack. In June 2016, Onfroy was arrested on charges of robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. In October 2016, he was arrested and charged with false imprisonment, witness tampering, and aggravated battery of his then-girlfriend, for which he was jailed. The arrest report describes the victim’s face as being punched “to where both eyes became shut and victim could not see”. The report also states that she was pregnant at the time, though Onfroy denied this. He was awaiting trial for these charges at the time of his death, having entered a plea of not guilty.
Onfroy maintained his innocence up until his death, but in October 2018 Pitchfork released a 27-minute long tape acquired from the Miami-Dade County state attorney’s office, on which he admits to having "fucked [his ex-girlfriend] up" and states: “That girl is scared for her life. Which I understand." On the same tape Onfroy claims responsibility for having stabbed eight people on Deerfield Beach, Florida. Pitchfork reports that both the prosecution and Onfroy’s defence considered the tape to be a confession.
Yet for many fans of XXXTentacion’s music, Onfroy is an artist worth celebrating despite his history of violence. In particular, XXXTentacion is championed for lyricism addressing issues regarding mental health, especially those of depression and suicide, as well as for his influential incorporation of elements of grunge and emo music into rap. He was known for a willingness to engage with his fans both in person and online, and for giving other artists a platform to make their own start in music. For Onfroy’s loyal young fans, the shocking violence and criminal behaviour committed during his lifetime is (to an extent) understandable: Onfroy’s early life was itself violent and unstable, a fact cited by Onfroy and many of his defenders in explanations of both his own acts of violence, and his own struggles with mental health which he channelled into his music. Fans who feel a connection to the latter are quick to minimise the former, and would dismiss remembering Onfroy as “domestic abuser” in favour of “problematic genius”, a statement (since deleted) which featured in the bio of Onfroy’s official Instagram account after his death. And this kind of image rehabilitation is hardly without precedent: Miles Davis, John Lennon and Marvin Gaye are all artists who committed domestic abuse in their lifetimes, but whose legacies have remained largely untarnished by journalistic disapproval. Admirers of the music are happy to forget the men. And if these XXXTentacion releases have been rushed out to capitalise on the desire to rehabilitate, regardless of their quality or Onfroy’s own wishes, then they are ethically dubious in more ways than one.
For Onfroy however, this does not seem to be the case (though you could be forgiven for thinking so). Skins is an album that definitely doesn’t sound finished – it clocks in at under 20 minutes, and the tracks are sparse and short. However, according to XXXTentacion collaborator and producer John Cunningham, the album was almost finished before Onfroy’s death: “The songs and the ideas and the vision of it all was done or very close to being done”. Given Onfroy’s form for deliberately making songs that defied expectations about recording quality and completeness, Cunningham’s admission arguably exonerates Onfroy’s label from any ethical doubt. Any unease that remains can only be attributed to Onfroy himself: as Sheldon Pearce of Pitchfork writes, “If the very power of [Onfroy’s] music, in the eyes of his cult-like following, lies in its 'realness' then it’s impossible to separate the same music from the real suffering inflicted in its name."
When it comes to Members Only, Vol. 4, it is harder to tell where the line is. Judging by the limited range of contributions that Onfroy makes to the album – he is credited on only 6 songs out of 24, with snippets of his voice being used in other tracks as hooks or melody lines – it is doubtful that his contributions to the album match his intentions for it. However, the record is far from a cynical release; the other members of Members Only use the space to mourn their friend, and his voice almost haunts the songs. They do not lionise Onfroy the man as a martyr, but speak about the sadness of his murder, a wrong at least as great as those he committed in his lifetime. At the end of it all, these releases can’t erase Onfroy’s past, and nor should they. For all the impact he made during his short career, I doubt that the legacy of XXXTentacion the artist will ever be discussed without reference to the actions of Jahseh Onfroy the man. They serve merely as the last mark he made on the world of music; and past that, there isn’t much more to say.