‘Every day was an ethical quandary’: telling the difficult story of XXXTentacion

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Courtesy of Hulu/HULU</span>
Photograph: Courtesy of Hulu/HULU

In one of many chilling scenes in the XXXTentacion documentary Look at Me, the young musical artist whose real name was Jahseh Onfrey leaves a Florida jail and Googles himself. It’s March 2017. At the top of the search results is Onfrey’s bio, accompanied with a mugshot from his 2016 arrest for brutally imprisoning and assaulting Geneva Ayala – his girlfriend at the time. The detailed bio, evidence that he made it, has him squealing.

Related: The cult of XXXTentacion: how fans pay tribute to an abusive rapper

While Onfrey was inside for nearly six months without a data plan, a 2015 song he uploaded to SoundCloud called Look at Me went viral alongside that photo of his tatted face, Cruella-styled black-and-blond locks and piercing stare. His raps and rap sheet captivated the internet. His breakout success was immediately and intricately tied up with the horrifying domestic abuse, which, in that moment, didn’t seem to bother Onfrey in the slightest. His celebratory squeal, which the film plays against the haunting and twisted sounds of Look at Me, leaves knots in the stomach.

“Every day was an ethical quandary,” says Look at Me’s director, Sabaah Foloyan. She’s describing her experience grappling with the legacy left behind by the Billboard-topping artist, who was murdered at 20 during a 2018 gunpoint robbery. Before she got involved, Foloyan says she set her terms with the film’s producers, who include Onfrey’s mother, Cleo Bernard, and his manager, Solomon Sobande. She said the documentary about the Florida musician would have to honestly confront “the good, the bad and the ugly”, including the assault and battery allegations that Onfrey publicly denied while he was alive.

“Women don’t have any incentive to lie about abuse allegations,” says Foloyan, declaring a stance that’s diametrically opposed to all the toxic XXXTentacion stans who trolled and terrorized Ayala on social media, refusing to believe what she endured at Onfrey’s hands. Foloyan says she half-expected Bernard and Sobande to be scared off from her position. Instead, they embraced her take on Onfrey’s story, which isn’t simply about a celebrity behaving badly.

Onfrey was diagnosed bipolar. He struggled with that openly in his music. Fans gravitated towards his vulnerability on hit songs like Sad, which gets into abusive and suicidal thoughts. His social media feed is also a live document of wildly erratic and violent behaviour, tearful pleas for empathy and heartfelt hopes for healing as he passed through various recording studios and detention centres. His is a story about mental illness, a predatory music industry that rewards bad behaviour and a carceral system that stands in the way of healing.

Foloyan is uniquely suited to tell that story. She has been a mental health advocate at the Urban Justice Center and also worked at the Osborne Association, an organisation that assists individuals and families affected by the justice system. She has an intimate understanding of how the criminal justice system exacerbates the country’s mental health crisis – too many resources are directed towards incarceration instead of assistance and healing.

Look at Me also makes for an interesting follow-up to Foloyan’s first film, Whose Streets?, which was about the protests in Ferguson fafter the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Whose Streets? homed in on the power social media gave the community to organize and demand justice for a Black teen. Look at Me is about how social media brought out the monster in a Black teen who didn’t have access to the help he needed.

In Look at Me’s early scenes, we see Onfrey as social media savvy in the worst ways. He would live-stream his vicious attacks because he knew they would get people to notice both him and his Soundcloud account. He had his friends create multiple online accounts to engage people in his music and tweak algorithms in his favour. As previously mentioned, his arrest after leaving Ayala battered landed him millions of followers, a new manager and a record deal.

Look Aat Me is about how social media brought out the monster in a Black teen who didn’t have access to the help he needed. Photograph: Courtesy of Hulu/Hulu

This is also the story of hip-hop. The genre was born to represent, uplift and empower but it also has the tendency to glamorise misogyny and violence.

“These young people are responding to what sells,” says Foloyan, explaining that young talents like Onfrey can’t calculate how their contributions affect society. “They’re responding to what is incentivised on a very basic level. I think it’s a question of who are the adults in the room? … Who is really profiting off of the way that this culture is shaped? I do think a lot of responsibility needs to be taken by the people who hold structural and trendsetting power.”

I asked Foloyan how much responsibility falls on Onfrey’s manager, Sobande, who entered the scene while the teen was doing his six-month bid, and whether there’s something predatory about the documentary he is producing, which could be accused of finding yet another avenue to profit off bad behaviour.

“Solomon’s perspective is that he was an advocate for a young man who was really, really troubled and really, really talented,” says Foloyan, who adds that she isn’t ready to assign blame to anyone. “But I think that this person’s manager and representative is a part of that overall machine. Solomon came into this situation without really much clout. He was acting out of survival and personal ambition. That’s a little bit different than someone who is sitting on top and greenlighting and financing certain things.”

Foloyan’s refusal to place blame is true to an overall ethos she brings to this conversation. She doesn’t find blame helpful or constructive. She feels the same way about condemnations against Onfrey online, which she likens to posturing rather than problem solving.

“We have an unevolved revenge-based carceral reaction when something bad happens,” says Foloyan. “We run to a corner, raise our flag and say, ‘I’m on this side. This is what I believe. Look at how right I am.’ But what happens in this situation is Geneva was left out to dry. She was unprotected and unsupported, even with all the energy that was put behind canceling him. The energy that was put behind canceling him ended up magnifying him further.

“What we’re really doing is just consuming people’s pain as entertainment,” Foloyan adds, acknowledging that this conversation also resonates with the way the public is digesting the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial, which has inspired memes and TikTok parodies mocking the former for not being the perfect victim. “Our public scrutiny is not always constructive. And I think that it’s more constructive if we were a little bit more curious about our own lives and the people around us. Because we have a situation where survivors are unprotected and unsupported.”

  • Look at Me: XXXTentacion is now available on Hulu in the US with a UK date to be announced

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