It seems as if every other hilarious tweet on my timeline is some version of a “stan” account. Stans, likely named after the Eminem song about an obsessive fan, are enthusiastic supporters of any pop culture fixture. If you like something, odds are that there are 100 Twitter accounts solely devoted to its existence. But this kind of obsessive infatuation has a dark side, as many artists are now being accused of abuse, harassment, or other inappropriate actions. The Internet could provide us with a chance to learn more and to question the behavior of revered artists, but instead it has only encouraged more people to burrow into their loyalist factions — at times, this means that fans may defend people accused of heinous crimes.
In no case has this trend been more apparent than in the case of rapper XXXTentacion. The musician, whose real name is Jahsej Onfroy, gained a loyal following after uploading his music in SoundCloud. His songs, which were unconventional, grunge-inspired deviations from the mainstream tastes of rap radio, became surprisingly popular — earlier this year, his album “?” debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. However, Onfroy quickly gained attention for something besides his music, as he was accused of some truly repugnant behavior. He viciously attacked his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Geneva Ayala, and beat a homosexual inmate while in juvenile detention. This virulent sexism and homophobia both overshadowed and reflected his music, which was laced with machismo and streaks of angry misogyny. Onfroy had become one of pop music’s most polarizing figures before his twentieth birthday. Then, on June 18, he was shot and killed in an armed robbery.
Onfroy’s death only solidified the poisonous discourse that had always surrounded his life and music. For fans, Onfroy had become a victim and a martyr. For detractors, his behavior was inexcusable, and many argued that Onfroy was hardly deserving of praise and eulogies. In the midst of this fighting, it is worth questioning how XXXTentacion got popular in the first place, and the implications of defending people like Onfroy.
This kind of passionate fandom is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it has been aggressively amplified through social media. When a star interacts with fans online, fans build relationships with their favorite artists — they feel like friends, not just celebrities. On Instagram, a fan may spend more time learning about an artist’s day-to-day life than they do about their actual friends and family members. When this relationship is forged, it can grow deep — fans feel a level of intimacy that goes far beyond enjoying albums or going to concerts. It’s hard to let go of a best friend, even if it’s one you’ve never met in person. This kind of passionate defense was fully in swing after Onfroy’s death, as fans accused anyone still discussing abuse allegations of being disrespectful. These fans’ support was unwavering, and they seemed to have no qualms about supporting Onfroy’s career before or after his death.
While Onfroy’s supporters had always glossed over his most disturbing activities, responses from other high profile rappers showed similar tendencies. While it is hard to fault anyone for mourning a person’s death, the volume of tributes felt more than a little slimy. Most ignored the controversy altogether, while others offered veiled acknowledgements. (J. Cole mentioned that he had “strong desire to be a better person”). Troublingly, T-Pain suggested that most men were guilty of domestic abuse, accidentally proving the problems with celebrating XXXTentacion in the first place. When most of the hip-hop establishment mourns Onfroy and accepts his martyrdom at face value, they implicitly suggest that protecting a boys’ club is more important than valuing women. It is a microcosm of the problems the #MeToo movement tried to expose, and a reminder of how far this fight has to go.
None of this is to say that there is one correct way to respond to XXXTentacion, or to issues of abuse more generally. There are honest discussions to be had, and where we draw the line is not black and white. But for so many fans, any possible criticism is an attack against an artist they are desperate to defend, no matter the circumstances. This knee-jerk reaction eliminates nuance, minimizes the role of marginalized groups and emboldens abusers. While Onfroy’s music career took off, Ayala had run away from home. She needed medical treatment after Onfroy’s attacks. Her attempts to raise money online were met with further harassment and abuse. Even after Onfroy’s death, her life has been profoundly damaged. She has been betrayed not only by Onfroy, but by a culture more willing to find humanity in violent abusers than in the women they attack.