TWIL: You Can’t Always Separate the Artist from the Art

When I was 13, I was a huge fan of Chris Brown. He was tall, cute and talented, and he had my little adolescent heart in a vice grip. Ask any of my high school friends and they’ll tell you that I was practically obsessed with him. It was embarrassing, really. But, that’s how it was.

Then the Rihanna incident happened. I’d like to say that immediately changed everything, but, it didn’t. “We don’t really know what happened,” I’d say. It got worse as more details came out; when I found out he turned himself in to the police, which meant it actually happened, I didn’t know what to think. How could this sweet, sensitive boy who sang all my favorite teeny-bopper love songs hurt his girlfriend? And to that extent? I stopped defending him, but I didn’t know if I could still support him. What he did was terrible, but he apologized. He was young, he could change.

But he didn’t change. Over the years, he’s continued to be violent and abusive and just an all-around terrible guy. Eventually, I gave up. How could I listen to him sing these dumb songs about relationships if his actual relationships were trash? How could he have the audacity to sing “I’m not dangerous” after we’ve seen him be exactly that on multiple occasions? It sucked, but I moved on to obsess over less terrible people. I stopped listening to his music and stopped supporting everything he did.

If I, the former ultimate Chris Brown fan, can give up on him, it’s possible for just about anyone to give up on their “favorite” artists when they aren’t worth redeeming.

With the recent passing of XXXTentacion, people have found themselves in a back-and-forth with his fans and even other artists who have shown their support for him. Many people have argued that he was young and made “mistakes” that he was working to rectify. Even T-Pain (who, I guess, I also have to give up on) chimed in to, more or less, ask what guy hasn’t hit a woman.

The other side to this is people rejoicing in his death.

While no one “deserves” to die young, I do believe in karma. So, while I personally wouldn’t dance on his grave, I see why some people would be relieved knowing one less awful person was walking the earth. Huffpost recently posted a piece that, I believe, gave the most effective and succinct explanation for why people are so happy about it.

“These are the reactions of a society in which men are so rarely held accountable for their heinous actions that even a violent gun death is seen as a workable alternative to actual justice.”

In movies, villains die all the time. People cheer when the bad guy gets got, regardless of their backstory, motive, or sudden epiphany that maybe they don’t have to be so bad. In that context, it’s easier for people to understand when the only way to get rid of somebody is to take them out. But real people aren’t movie villains. However, for some, seeing someone who otherwise wouldn’t be held accountable for what they’ve done is gratifying.

Less than two weeks before he was shot, the Miami New Times published an article detailing the horrible things he’s done in the past. At no point did he apologize or show remorse for any of it. He described how he assaulted his gay cell mate for looking at him funny, and, apparently called him an “f-slur” the whole time he told the story. That in itself showed his attitude hadn’t changed regarding his apparent raging homophobia. And, long story short, the account of the things he did to his ex-girlfriend was disgusting.

He was not a good dude. And the fact that he told some kids to follow their dreams and tossed a couple dollars to some charities doesn’t absolve him of the horrible things he’s done and said. Abuse and unapologetic bigotry are unforgivable, and they should be deal-breakers. But people who loved his music have not budged on their support for him.

“He was so young” is a fair reason to be sad about a death. But it’s never an excuse for literal abuse and violence.

What’s most infuriating is how dismissive people - largely men - are being about very valid concerns, all for the sake of defending art. Even before X’s death, artists like Kendrick Lamar backed him because of how touched he was by his music, and encouraged people to look past all the bad things he did. Even artists I like have talked about how he was an inspiration to them. But if one of the things he did was threaten to commit suicide if his girlfriend left him, and then he wrote about that exact thing in one of his songs (admittedly, this is according to other people - I have never listened to a second of his music, and I don’t intend to), where is the separation? Where does the artist become separate from his art?

In some cases, it’s possible. We all know B.o.B. as the “flat-earther” now, and I think many of us don’t agree with his beliefs. But that has nothing to do with “Nothing on You.” He’s not dropping verses trying to convince us we’re all wrong about space - as far as I know, at least. I’m just trying to hear how all the beautiful girls all over the world have nothing on me. I can enjoy the music he’s made without letting his beliefs taint it.

But when you look at artists like R. Kelly, whose catalog largely consists of sexually-themed songs while he is considered to be a bit of a sexual deviant to say the least, it’s nearly impossible to make that separation. What’s gross about him is literally reflected in his art.

Good art should contain some part of the artist. It should be an expression of who they are and what they think. And if XXXTantacion’s music was as vulnerable and moving as his fans and supporters say, it would reflect the rawness and ugliness of his life. Given what we know about him, it should be fair to say, “no, I don’t like him and I will never give his music a chance.” It’s shocking how, when people do say that, they get attacked for it.

But why is that the case? Is it that violence against women is seen excusable, or even normalized? Or are the artists that good that we, as a whole, are willing to let them get away with anything? What would it take for an artist to be knocked from their pedestal if we’ve let the careers of monsters thrive after it comes out that they’ve done some of the most horrible things imaginable?

When his fans are open-minded enough to see that he was an objectively awful person, the conversation turns into trying to convince people that he was young and didn’t know any better and that he was trying to change. But he hadn’t changed. He was young, but he was an adult. You learn not to hurt other people when you’re a toddler. No one is perfect, and battling with inner demons is a difficult process for anyone. But everyone doesn’t assault their partners and manipulate them into staying with them. His potential growth process never fully came to fruition, and all we are left with is how he unapologetically presented himself. It's unfortunate that he'll never get the chance to better himself, but our thoughts are formed around what he left us with.

As for the argument of whether he deserved to die or not - no one deserves to die, especially so young. His family and friends are probably torn up about it, and I feel bad for them. They deserve some level of sympathy. But there’s no reason to feign appreciation for someone in death when I never celebrated his life. And regardless of how inspirational he may have been to some, there’s no reason for me to look past who he was because anyone told me has a few good songs.

Filed under: Social and Cultural

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