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The Unsolvable Difficulty of XXXTentacion’s Death

The rapper with a violent past and a thriving career has died at 20 years old. What he leaves behind is not easy to parse.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

I was 21 years old when the person who wrote what I then considered to be the truest articulation of depression I’d ever read died. David Foster Wallace had written (among other things) a short story called “The Depressed Person.” I don’t know or even care whether that story “holds up”; I can’t read it anymore. But I do know that, although I was then in a happy and stable time in my life, the news of his suicide felt like a bowling ball to the gut, and I couldn’t dislodge it for days. I felt awful just knowing that this person and his words — words that had helped me through dark times, through the simple and even crude act of their expression — were no longer living entities. There wouldn’t be any more new words should I need a new kind of help from them. I do not wish that feeling on anyone, particularly anyone younger than 21. Artists who concern themselves with these sorts of issues have an outsized impact on their fans, whether they use that power responsibly or not.

On Monday afternoon, the controversial rapper XXXTentacion (born Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy) was shot in his car and later pronounced dead at an area hospital. He was 20 years old. If you are aware of his music and do not yet know about the criminal charges against him, please take some time to read Tarpley Hitt’s thoroughly reported profile for the Miami New Times, published just a few weeks ago. If you don’t know what to do with the mixed brew of rage and sadness you feel upon finishing it, please consider donating to this GoFundMe campaign, or an anti-domestic-violence organization like RAINN. I believe the survivor’s horrific accounts of his abuse, and I believe that they will be forever tied to X’s legacy. But if we act as if he never existed, or as if he was not as popular as he was (his most recent album, ?, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart, and the lyrics website Genius reported that he was the platform’s most popular new artist of 2017), or as if his fans didn’t see some articulation of their own hurt and hopelessness in his music, we’re lying to ourselves. It sits uncomfortably with me, too, but it’s true: Something about what he was doing was really getting through to people, and very young people in particular.

Of course I do not wish to draw parallels between David Foster Wallace and XXXTentacion — not between their art, their behavior, nor the circumstances of their deaths. I merely want to say that I know what it’s like when a person (however flawed) who has made your depression and anxiety feel like a real, valid thing in the world dies. Our society is abysmal at talking about mental health. We’re creating a volatile world in which depression and anxiety are understandable conditions, and yet we gaslight people into thinking their illnesses are invisible. We are failing the kids; the kids are hurting. We ignore that at our own peril.

Right after his death, an old Instagram Live video of X began circulating on the internet. While driving, he says into the camera:

“Worse thing comes to worse, I fucking die a tragic death or some shit and I’m not able to see out my dreams. I at least wanna know that the kids perceived my message and were able to make something of themselves and able to take my message and use it and turn it into something positive and to at least have a good life. If I’m gonna die or ever be a sacrifice, I wanna make sure that my life made at least 5 million kids happy. Or they found some sort of answers or resolve in my life, regardless of the negative around my name, regardless of the bad things people say to me. I don’t give a fuck. Because I know my goal in the end and I know what I want for everyone and I know what my message is. So I just wanted to say I appreciate and love all of you and believe in you all. Do not let your depression make you.”

So much of what he said was not worth repeating, quoting, or emulating. That part is.