Artists behaving badly

What exactly are we listening to?

Photo via Wikipedia

Is it possible to separate art from the actions of those that created it? If a serial rapist paints a picture, a beautiful landscape, is it enabling the actions of the artist to actively view his work? Do you still watch The Cosby Show with the same admiration as before?

It’s 2017 and a rapper who’s arrested for threatening to rape a lover with a barbecue fork, among other things, makes an album about depression. It’s not bad either, it avoids the gimmicks of past rap/rock albums and comes off as heartfelt and compelling until you consider the actions of the artist. Now I feel dirty having added to his streaming numbers.

XXXtentacion is a Florida born rapper who began making waves earlier this year when his Soundcloud hit “Look At Me” began to gain traction after reports that multi-platinum rapper Drake stole his flow for his own chart-topping single “KMT.” Since then, XXXtentacion has been known more for his antics outside the booth than his actual recordings.

On March 29, 2017, XXXtentacion was released from prison on charges of armed home invasion and aggravated battery in Broward County, Florida. He’s also been accused of beating up and torturing his then-pregnant girlfriend over a series of months in 2016. His most recent album titled “17” is a self-proclaimed album about depression. On the intro track, he explains that the album wasn’t made for monetary gain and that his main goal is to “cure and numb your depression,” presumably by giving the listener the opportunity to relate to his own mental illness.

“Art is able to evoke emotions that are confusing and even in conflict with your own moral compass.”

Throughout the album, he portrays himself as a victim of his own mind. His own mental illness ends up becoming a justification for his abusive actions towards others in the context of his past criminal charges. It’s tempting, but I don’t feel bad for him, and any opportunity I had to relate to him about my own battle with mental illness quickly leaves when I consider the route he chose in dealing with his.

I’ve spent the better part of my life listening to morally questionable music. Artists glorifying drug abuse, drug dealing, misogyny, murder. I’ve justified this as a unique artistic expression that, while uncomfortable to hear, represents an honest portrayal of life for many Americans. Art isn’t always meant to be politically correct. Art is able to evoke emotions that are confusing and even in conflict with your own moral compass.

Throughout history, artists and creative types have been known for their eccentricities and outlandish, sometimes hateful, behavior. This has often been chalked up to the “tortured creative,” archetype. The paradox of having others relate to your unhappiness. You’re certainly judged more carefully when you are put under the gaze of the public eye.

I’ve set a pretty low bar for rappers. Don’t abuse women, don’t rape, don’t abuse or rape children, don’t be openly homophobic or transphobic in interviews and we’re cool. I’ve had to cut out a great many artists for not meeting these simple standards (I’m talking to you R. Kelly and Migos.) With hip-hop becoming more and more mainstream as time goes on, it’s important to understand who we’re listening to in conjunction with what we’re listening to.

XXXtentacion isn’t exactly a household name, but he also isn’t able to be ignored. His fame is rising faster than ever and he’s somehow been able to receive co-signs from hip-hop heavyweights like Kendrick Lamar, who made a somewhat rare appearance on Twitter to tell the world that he was on his fifth listen of the problematic album. Nobody seems to really care that he’s abused women in the past and that he continues to show ambivalence towards his actions.

Being able to separate the actions of an artist from their body of work is a necessary evil. Whether we’re considering film directors such as Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen, or actors like Mel Gibson and more recently Casey Affleck, whose harassment allegations led to an awkward exchange when he was handed an award from a victim of domestic abuse at this year’s Oscar’s. We all as individuals are forced to pick and choose what we consume. Within the context of his alleged crimes, XXXtentacion’s debut album became almost painful to listen too. His desperate attempt to feel understood and justified deserves to fall on deaf ears within the context of his actions outside of the booth.