At what point can we say someone is deserving of death? At what age do we say a person has used up all of their goodwill? We often hear talk of consequences for actions, but this discourse typically mistakes “consequences” for “punishment.”
A logical consequence of jumping in front of a speeding car is that you will be hit by it. Punishment for being a loudmouth at a baseball game is when someone hits you. This is not to say that XXXTentacion’s multiple alleged and confirmed acts of violence amounted to nothing more than being raucous at a sporting event.
If his ex-girlfriend Geneva Ayala is to be believed (and there’s little evidence saying she shouldn’t), the music star was vicious at times, choking, beating, and drowning a woman he claimed to love desperately. To put it shortly: there’s a reason why articles praising X’s music inevitably lead to articles discussing the ethics of these memorializing tendencies. The singer, born Jahseh Onfrey, was complicated. That cliché may be the only fitting term.
Fader’s new Hulu documentary, Look at Me: The Untold Story of XXXTENTACION, looks at Onfrey’s intrapersonal conflicts and contradictions without ever feeling like it is letting him off the hook for any of his actions.
Like many docs on those slain young, Look at Me takes viewers back to Onfrey’s childhood. This is where his seventeen-year-old mother and Rastafarian father gave him a name meaning “God said.” From here, we see Onfrey, known to close friends and family as Jah, grow up.
Even at an early age, Jah seems distant. He doesn’t smile much in childhood photos, though his mother is often beaming. This may be because he grew up in a home that had violence. His father beat his mother, and his mother fought back. She refused to call the police, because, where she grew up, they didn’t do that.
From there we learn of Onfrey’s father going to prison when Onfrey was ten.This perhaps led to him acting out in school. School psychologists diagnosed Onfrey with bipolar disorder, but his mother did not want him medicated. She preferred counseling and talk therapy. If this approach helped, we do not see it in the documentary.
The rest of the portion dedicated to his pre-music life depicts him angry, incarcerated, and in multiple fights. Where fourteen-year-old Onfrey made a turn, however, was when his mother rewarded him with studio time every week he didn’t skip school. It was this positive and reinforcing consequence that helped him hone his craft.
The story becomes what we’d expect from here as far as music bios go.
He begins accruing fame while touring with friend and fellow South Florida musician Ski Mask the Slump God. He begins viral video campaigns to bring views and streams to his SoundCloud account. He and his friends attempt to manipulate Instagram algorithms with multiple sockpuppet accounts to put more eyes on Onfrey.
We get scenes of him at pulse-pounding concerts leading the show. We get behind-the-scenes footage of him and a producer having a eureka moment when they stumble upon creating the hit single “SAD!”
All of this is fine. The scenes of Onfrey dancing around the stage, blurring the line between “rapper” and “rock star” is engrossing. It becomes quickly apparent how and why XXXTentacion’s shows were a can’t miss event for his fans. When the documentary becomes most interesting, however, is when it eschews X, the rapper/singer/songwriter, for Onfrey, the child and teenager struggling with bipolar disorder.
As I said earlier, the documentary is not a hagiography. It is not the legend of a martyr slain in the prime of his goodness and life. It is the story of a wildly troubled young man shot to death eight months before the birth of his child.
The documentary, directed and executive produced by Sabaah Folayan in addition to Onfrey’s mother Cleopatra Bernard, never excuses Onfrey of anything. But it does attempt to contextualize them. And maybe this is wrong.
Maybe, this is a more subtle attempt to garner sympathy for an alleged abuser. If to understand is to forgive, maybe this doc is a wholesale attempt to get us to understand Onfrey’s actions and therefore have us forgive them. This is certainly a possibility, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Instead, what we get is a person as complicated as any other person. More violent than most people, but still a person.
There’s an interesting moment late in the documentary where the interviewer presses Onfrey’s aunt Deandra Ellis about his supposed attempts at redemption. Ellis says Jah was trying to right his wrongs as they were concerned about the alleged beating of Geneva Ayala. The interviewer asks how is that possible if he never publicly admitted this wrongdoing? An admission that likely would’ve saved Ayala from online and in-person harassment.
Ellis does some mental gymnastics to explain that away, saying admitting it to himself and maybe Ayala would’ve been enough. A friend of Onfrey’s sitting in on the interview offers that maybe, admitting it in public would have cost Onfrey the legal case against him. This then begs the question: if we assume prison is a logical, growth-oriented consequence, can one truly be sorry if they’re unwilling to deal with the fallout of admitting guilt? Can one redeem himself of a wrong he refuses to, at least publicly, admit it exists?
Look at Me discusses these questions by way of only hinting at them. Onfrey’s family is involved, but so is Ayala. She has forgiven Onfrey, but the documentary never dictates that we should. In fact, it’s hard to watch sometimes.
Jahseh Onfrey could be a sadistic brute. But then, he could also be a loving older brother with genuine charm. Jahseh Onfrey could be manic and paranoid, but he channeled this into his X persona and became one of the world’s most-streamed artists, even after his death.
Maybe XXXTentacion, Jahseh Onfrey, or both, got exactly what they deserved. Maybe a life of violence, even when you begin taking ostensible baby steps to right these wrongs, will inevitably lead to a violent death. Maybe being shot in the throat three times while being robbed is exactly the punishment Jahseh Onfrey merited.
“Everybody will get a death that is deserving. Everybody will get a life that is deserving,” he says in the documentary. And if we all agree that his actions were often juvenile to the point of pathology, why would we ever cosign such a foolish statement? Jahseh Onfrey didn’t get the death he deserved. He simply got death. This documentary does a fantastic job of looking at his life.
Look at Me: The Untold Story of XXXTENTACION will be available to stream on Hulu Thursday, May 26, 2022.
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Wayne Broadway is a writer from Sacramento, CA. He writes fiction, non-fiction, and is currently obsessed with Pomeranians.