Art vs. The Artist: Is It Okay To Celebrate The Work Of Bad People? Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Art vs. The Artist: Is It Okay To Celebrate The Work Of Bad People?

As the shocking death of rapper XXXTentacion still publicly resonates, Kieren Williams explores the indeterminate morality of separating music from a problematic musician

Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy, known by his stage name XXXTentacion, died June 18th 2018. He was an undeniably talented artist who confronted his own struggles and demons in a way unseen in most of mainstream society. More than that, he did it on a public platform that made it impossible to hide anything. He bore his entire soul to the world through his music, both the good and the bad.

In songs like ‘SAD!’ and ‘MOONLIGHT’, XXXTentacion let others know they weren't alone in their suffering
I am a big fan of his music; the album is a fantastic body of music and his open confrontation with issues such as depression is something I have found helpful in dealing with my own mental health. In songs like ‘SAD!’ and ‘MOONLIGHT’, he let others know they weren't alone in their suffering and expressed and embodied the crushing sadness and crippling darkness that has clung onto so many of us in ways we never could. In this act, he has lightened our own burden and made getting through each day that bit more bearable. The reassurance and importance that there are others like you out there and in hearing your own problems enunciated cannot be over stressed. His music has brought light to the dark for so many people, showed when, after his death, his streams on Spotify shot up to the hundreds of millions almost overnight.

And yet, in spite of all of this, whenever his music comes on I find my thumb hovering over the skip button. This is because XXXTentacion, to be brutally honest, was not the best of human beings. The most notable crimes he committed were the aggravated battery of a pregnant woman by strangulation and brutally beating a man whilst in prison- you can listen to the interview he freely gives on it here. He was a great artist but a flawed man to say the least. You could argue that we all have flaws and that we all make mistakes, but there's making a mistake and then there's strangling a pregnant lady, trying to kill a man in prison, and then callously boasting about it. The art was amazing, but was the artist lacking?

The art and the artist are one and the same, one reflects the other. It is the prism through which it examines the world, the axis it makes sense of life upon
A stance many seemingly take is to separate art and artist, to have a clear distinction between the two and not let one impede the other; they may believe that a clear division must exist so that we can appreciate amazing art regardless of the artist behind it. I disagree with this, quite wholeheartedly. It is impossible to make such a separation, it is a false dichotomy, it is ignorant and also harmful. The art and the artist are one and the same, one reflects the other. It is the prism through which it examines the world, the axis it makes sense of life upon. One cannot exist without the other. Imagined divisions are just that, imagined- they are not divisions in reality. I buy a XXXTentacion song and I am giving money to a man who has committed the aforementioned crimes, I stream the latest Chris Brown album and I'm supporting a man guilty of assault. In this small act, I am supporting the art and the artist, I am standing with one and the other simultaneously and condoning their actions. You are telling them it is acceptable to strangle pregnant women or beat partners bloody because, whatever they do, we will still support them, that you will support them economically and that we will stand by them regardless. That’s what I’m doing, you’re doing, hell, we’re all doing. We are saying their crimes are not crimes, rather that, because of their art, we hold them to a lower moral standard, that we will allow immoral behaviour bordering on literally evil because of it. So, I would argue it's not as simple as a separation between the art and the artist because there is no actual separation and, as such, when supporting one, we do the other as well.

A solution? Well it's pretty simple. Don't listen to their music, surely?

Some would argue that a prison sentence, like the one that XXXTentacion faced, is punishment enough as it is what the law states and, because of this, no further action should be taken against them. Others would point to why this debate is raised over only XXXTentacion as other artists are celebrated despite their crimes, many simply earning the title of 'problematic' at best. And, if we are going to start crucifying artists for their crimes, then where do we stop? When pop stars try to bully lesser know artists, do we clamp down? Or is it reserved to only those who have committed serious enough crimes? I would also like to point out how this debate is often the reserve of hip hop alone whilst other genres escape free of persecution.

I would argue it's not as simple as a separation between the art and the artist because there is no actual separation and, as such, when supporting one, we do the other as well
I believe that action, in this instance, should only be implemented from individuals and not in the pseudo-digital lynch mob fashion seen in Spotify banning XXXTentacion and R Kelly from their playlists before either had been found guilty in a court of law. Should they wait until the sentence has been passed? The precedence this sets, one of censorship, is an interesting one given the long history of criminality amongst a lot of genres of music and songwriters. It is a precedence that often smacks of racism; Tyler, the Creator was banned from the UK for his lyrics - not crimes, lyrics - that he has stated are not true, all whilst there are rock bands who scream about rape and pop bands who shove overly-sexualised goals down the throats of impressionable kids who go unpunished. There is undeniably a racial element to it; black artist get strung up more than white ones. No, they do not commit more crimes in any way, it's just aforementioned crimes are reported on and criticised more; look simply to the British media’s treatment of the likes of Stormzy. The action here must come from individuals, not a cyber-mob.

Artists need to understand their actions, their crimes, affect themselves beyond a simple jail sentence, a fine (that they can easily pay) or a slap on the wrist. However, this must only be implemented on artists who are deserving of such punishment, who have been found guilty under a court of law, not just those whose lyrics you don't like and who you can whip up a mob of angry mothers online to go after. It cannot be a precedence of censorship on lyrics people don't agree with; that is not a crime nor anything wrong. It has to be a controlled process that requires a bottom up emphasis, but also help from the larger streaming services on top. What I'm emphasising is the control such actions needs to be executed with, that punishment should be served. I believe this with all my heart, but the lines drawn on who is deserving of such a thing must be definite and clear. Mob mentality cannot takeover, but artists must know that, if they commit crimes, they shall suffer and their art will too.

I try to skip the songs of problematic artists, though not as often as I should. I feel none of us do. This is why I say it starts from below with us. We all need to be more critical on our actions and their consequences, how we lend support to people we know do not deserve it. There isn't a separation between the art and artist, to pretend so is ignorant and harmful to the plight of those who suffer because of them. The art and artist are synonymous, and should be treated as such, for better or worse.

A degree that's Lara Croft, a blog that's way too personal, a penchant for raising cain and an inability to shut up (ask my kickboxing coach) (@Bambacaluva)


5th August 2018 at 10:00 am

Last Updated

5th August 2018 at 4:26 pm

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Samuel Kenwright