Last week, XXL released its annual Freshman Class issue. Over the years, the cover has become the de facto co-sign for talent on the cusp. And since winners are reader-voted, it's also become a realistic temperature check of how far an artist's popularity transcends beyond their fiercely dedicated fan communities.
Proceedings took a turn toward a potential ethical nightmare this year when it was revealed that viral rapper XXXTentacion was among the chosen freshmen. The Florida emcee, born Jahseh Onfrey, stands accused of brutally beating his ex-girlfriend, who was allegedly also pregnant with the couple's child at the time of the incident. Though the case is still open (no court date has been set), that didn't stop many from questioning XXL's judgement. Particularly since Chicago rapper Famous Dex was reportedly dropped from consideration after a video showing him physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend surfaced.
So, was XXL wrong for including XXXTentacion in what is the hip-hop equivalent of Vogue's September issue?
Certainly not by any legal measure, but from an ethics standpoint they are walking on tenuous ground. Doing so could have disastrous repercussions in one of the most mercurial tribunals in existence - the court of public opinion.
For years, the world of media has held to the standard that it is acceptable to treat an artist and their art as separate entities. However, that mindset is being increasingly rejected as fans and consumers put pressure on brands and properties to hold entertainers accountable for egregious behavior in their personal lives.
Part of the growing expectation that celebrities be decent people in and out of the public eye is a by-product of the social media generation. Right now, there is little real distinction between entertainer personas and real personalities. Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and countless other interaction-based streams allow unprecedented access into deeply personal moments. Katy Perry's live-streamed therapy session and the Big Brother style peek into her life leading up to the release of the Witness album would have been inconceivable even a decade ago when pop stars were still had a whiff of romantically inaccessible diva to them.
The result of such easy access is the conflation of "brand" and "persona." In essence, someone like XXXTentacion is now the physical embodiment of his brand, and with that comes having to surrender the notion that ones personal life is not subject to public scrutiny. This new reality is precisely why when the video of Famous Dex attacking his girlfriend surfaced, PUMA promptly severed ties, despite the fact that the incident occurred in a private home.
Of course the argument that XXL would make is that there is irrefutable evidence of Dex's transgression while the accusations against X are still somewhat tied to hearsay. On top of that, the evidence against Dex was revealed to the public in a manner that basically forced brands and publishers to distance themselves lest they be accused of supporting misogyny and violence.
And while it's true that pictures of X's alleged victim looking battered and bruised circulated the internet, so too have a confusing amount of alternative facts. The rapper himself has steadily denied the accusations, even going so far as to claim the alleged victim was actually jumped by a group of girls. In fact, there has been so much misinformation that many of X's fans genuinely believe that he has already been acquitted of wrongdoing (he hasn't). Complex additionally reports that there are threatening audio recordings, 50-plus pages of medical records consistent with the victim's claims of abuse, and multiple affidavits from witnesses.
So on the one hand, suspending judgement until the case goes to court is doing no less than making the assumption of innocence until guilt is proven, which arguably falls in line with the supposed ethos of our entire legal system. On the other hand, to do so as a publisher is also to play a dangerous ethical game.
If down the road XXXTentacion is cleared of all charges perhaps it will appear that the magazine simply listened to the desires of its readers and refused to criminalize an innocent, perennially stereotyped personality without adequate proof. Yet if X is actually convicted, XXL may look back at this moment with some serious regrets. It will undoubtedly look as though they have chosen to uphold the unfortunate narrative that the abuse of women in hip-hop is less important than the dynamism of an artist who also happens to be an abuser.
Either way, the cautious reaction of other publications should have been a good indication of the importance of seriously deliberating the pros and cons of including a personality who is currently considered so controversial. It's hard not to notice that Pitchfork, Fader and other properties have neither actively disparaged nor given large-scale coverage or praise to the rapper. The smartest option for XXL would have been to adopt a similar approach until there was more clarity around the incident.
Get acquainted with the entire 'XXL' Freshman Class of 2017 here.