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XXXTENTACION was born Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy in 1998 at Plantation General Hospital in Plantation, Florida, a mere two and a half miles from Lauderhill, Florida. Lauderhill was the town he would call home for longer than any other, which was not long. He was born on a cool and peaceful Friday. Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky monopolized the headlines. Google had been founded just that year, and Florida had not yet cemented its reputation as a bastion of American insanity.
Jahseh’s father, Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy, was living at 817 Thirty-Sixth Street in West Palm Beach. Dwayne, along with partner Tashno Freeman, would go on to raise daughter Ariana Onfroy and Jahseh for the first year of his life.
Dwayne was a handsome and observably confident young man. His voice was deep, relaxed, and heavy with Jamaican patois. Still, he had a difficult time during his early years in Florida. Court records show he was evicted in 1997 and taken to court at least twice for paternity issues by two different women, neither of whom was Jahseh’s mother. Spokeo lists eight different residences for him between 1993 and 2008, mostly in the West Palm Beach or Haverhill area of Florida.
Jahseh was a healthy and beautiful baby, with one exception: his heart. Baby Jahseh had a ventricular septal defect, or what’s commonly referred to as “a hole in the heart.” Specifically, the hole is located in the wall between the two lower chambers of the heart. The defect is common but it can strain the heart, forcing it to work harder in order to pump blood. For most people, the hole closes by adulthood. Yet, this condition circumscribed the life of young Jahseh. Other kids would be warned not to play rough with the boy. “You don’t want his heart to stop,” adults would warn. He would never grow taller than five foot six.
Jahseh’s mother, Cleopatra Eretha Bernard, was a Jamaican immigrant who, like his father, settled in South Florida. However, Cleopatra and Dwayne’s relationship was short-lived.
In an interview with Michelle Solomon of The Florida Files podcast from October 10, 2018, Dwayne Onfroy described baby Jahseh as able to command attention from birth. Every parent believes their child is beautiful, but this baby, he said, was different. “He was beautiful. My son was literally, a beautiful boy. Not a handsome boy, a beautiful boy.” Dwayne would dress Jahseh in deliberately masculine baby clothes only to find himself walking down the aisle of a Walmart and hear someone tell him what a beautiful baby girl he had. This continued until Jahseh was about five years old. Dwayne attributes the mix-ups to his “long eyelashes, like a little girl.” Since his death, fans and reporters have drawn comparisons between X and Tupac Shakur, another rapper famous for having an overtly masculine persona but also long, and some might say, feminine, eyelashes.
“You’ve seen his mom…,” Dwayne continued in the interview, and it’s clear what he meant. Cleopatra Bernard is arrestingly beautiful. Even today, she looks no older than her grown son did at twenty.
A few months after he was born, Jahseh moved in with Dwayne, Tashno Freeman, and his half sister Ariana. “My mom basically took care of all of us—me, my brothers, and both of my young aunts,” Ariana said in a YouTube video featuring footage of her early childhood. She and Jahseh lived together for about a year, according to Ariana. Their home was far more picturesque than one might imagine, given the rapper’s comments about his upbringing.
In the video on Ariana’s YouTube channel, Dwayne Onfroy is featured in a home movie, which takes place inside a West Palm Beach apartment. There is a fully trimmed Christmas tree looming in the background. The colors are muted and bleeding as a result of the late-nineties camcorder technology. Jahseh makes his entrance crying. He is less than a year old, an adorably lumpy little boy dressed in a white T-shirt and diaper. Tashno instinctually soothes him. Moments later, Dwayne can be seen proudly hoisting both his children, describing them as the lead players in the movie.
In the video, Dwayne sports a fishnet tank top, mid-length dreads, and the signature sharp eyes that all those with the name Onfroy appear to share. At this age he is the spitting image of Digital Underground–era Tupac Shakur. Dwayne jokes with his children, stating that every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. He says that young Jahseh is playing the antagonist by whining and crying, while the chipper, well-behaved Ariana is the clear protagonist. It’s a dynamic that will play out for the siblings throughout their childhood, with Ariana always quietly on her best behavior and Jahseh always loudly demanding acknowledgment. It seems that Dwayne Onfroy—despite being a new father—already had his kids all figured out.
“Always preaching,” Ariana remarks over the footage. According to Ariana, this was a reliable snapshot of life in the household—Dwayne preaching and Jahseh, whom they lovingly called “Ahseh,” crying. Several times in the video, little Jah begins to cry. He is picked up and he goes quiet. Tashno had grown accustomed to soothing young Jahseh, since he had lived with them for nearly a year. Only a month or so later, his mother Cleopatra Bernard would take her son to live with her.
A source who knew both parents says the change was a result of discord within the Onfroy household. Dwayne had yet another child outside his relationship with Tashno. One day, she’d had enough. She called Cleopatra and asked her where she could meet her to hand off her son. Tashno met Cleopatra at a gas station. From that moment on, everything changed for Jahseh. Sudden and abrupt upheavals like this would eventually become a fact of life for the boy.
During the next few years, Jahseh would move around the Broward County area, usually residing in the city of Lauderhill. He stayed mainly in a section of the city known as Deepside, located west of the Florida Turnpike (the other side was called Shallowside). Deepside extends all the way into the neighboring city of Sunrise, where Jahseh would later attend high school. Deepside generally represents the areas of both cities that are considered the poorest and most dangerous.
Here’s what you need to know about Lauderhill. In 1970, the city had one black resident, according to the Sun Sentinel. By 2010, more than 75 percent of the people living in Lauderhill were African American, with most from Jamaica or with Jamaican ancestry. In fact, Lauderhill has the largest population of Jamaican immigrants and people of Jamaican heritage in the United States, as well as a comparably large Haitian population. Some referred to Lauderhill as “Jamaica Hill.” For Caribbean families living in the United States, South Florida made for a perfect settling place. In fact, by total population, Miami is the largest melting pot in the world, since it has the largest number of recently naturalized citizens of any city.
However, in South Florida, unlike other major melting pots, hip-hop developed slowly. Ish Traoré is a New York City–based cultural contributor who’s worked for Nike and other major brands and is the host of the Woody vs. Papi podcast. Traoré lived in Florida for most of his youth, and he describes the area as mirage-like, a “grassy desert,” where “life doesn’t come at you, you have to go take life.” Part of that might have something to do with a feature of southern Florida that’s shared by many of the most violent cities in America: a vast wealth disparity. For that reason, Miami is a lot like Chicago or Baltimore. Randy Monroe is a firefighter and paramedic in Broward County. According to him, “You have multimillionaires living on Fort Lauderdale beach, and then you have people on food stamps one and a half miles west in Fort Lauderdale.” People who grew up in the area describe Broward as being marked by a kind of celebratory apathy, a place where the pleasant climate and natural beauty act as an opiate for the overall sense that opportunity is perpetually beyond reach. With a large chunk of the area’s wealth coming from retirees and vacationers, South Florida can feel for many like a place where people go to escape or to die rather than to live. For Jahseh, who seemed to demand unadulterated acknowledgment from birth, that wasn’t enough. Jahseh and the people who gravitated toward him would play a big part in changing the reputation of South Florida to hip-hop fans worldwide.
Jahseh often avoided discussing specific details of his upbringing. Tarpley Hitt is the only reporter to have interviewed both Jahseh and his ex-girlfriend Geneva Ayala, with whom Jahseh had a tumultuous, and ultimately, disastrous relationship. According to Hitt, questions about his childhood caused Jahseh to retreat inward.
“You ever seen somebody try to kill your mom in front of you?” These words were spoken by an eighteen-year-old Jahseh Onfroy on a secret recording made by his friend Sunny Fashawn that surfaced after Jahseh’s death. The exact incident to which he’s referring—this attempted murder—has never been independently corroborated. X spoke about it briefly during the interview that helped launch his career, an interview for the podcast No Jumper with the host/hip-hop arbiter Adam Grandmaison, better known as Adam22.
“Me and mom went through it hard. My mom was in some situations where she couldn’t take care of me. A n***a tried to put hands on my mom. I was like six. I bit his flesh out and grabbed a glass shard and poked the n***a.”
X’s description of his childhood with his mother changed often, depending on the situation. He explained to Adam22 that his mother wanted him around but couldn’t afford it, so she often sought help from others to look after him.
In the interview, X displayed an almost Zen-like clarity with respect to his childhood traumas and his relationship with his mom, who had him when she was eighteen. “She was still growing up,” X remarked. Accounts differ as to how close X and his mother were and how much time they spent living together, but one thing is clear: X’s relationship with his mother colored almost every aspect of his life.
While several people recall Jahseh telling the story of stabbing a man at six years old, a source close to the family says that it never happened. No police records correspond with the purported incident.
Many aspects of Jahseh’s childhood are disputed, including some of his own claims. Some say they remember Jahseh living with his mother for a year out of the first twelve years of his life; others claim that he alternated between living with his mother and his grandmother.
“Jahseh was used to feeling like he was never enough for anyone to keep him around for a long period of time, so he got used to exaggerating things,” says a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Lisette Mendoza met Jahseh in the third grade. She said via a Periscope broadcast that when she first saw him he was sitting alone in the lunchroom of their elementary school. She walked over, sat down with him, and introduced herself. A close, long-lasting friendship followed. Lisette claimed that she often noticed that Jahseh didn’t have a lunch in school, so she told her mom about it, and her mom started packing an extra meal for Jahseh or buying him McChicken sandwiches. Still, he craved his own mother’s attention.
“I chased her,” he said in the Adam22 interview, in reference to his mother. X had begun talking about his mom within the first five minutes of the interview. He described how he used to get in fights at school for the sole reason that this meant his mother would have to come pick him up. He did it, he explained, “just to hear my mom yell at me or talk to me.” He told Adam22 that a girl at school used to pick on him. When he asked his mother what to do about it, she told young Jahseh to always give a girl three warnings. If she continues on, she said, this means that she intends to harm you. The next day at Margate Middle School (Jahseh was in the sixth grade), the girl continued to pick on him.
Dillon Stanford was best friends with Jahseh in the sixth grade, and he recalls the incident as representative of the chaotic school environment. “This girl was a little mentally… she was one of those weird, weird, weird girls,” Dillon recalls. He says she hit Jahseh, who warned her to stop. She kept on. He warned her two more times, and then…
“He just threw open fists, but he was pretty short,” Dillon says, adding that he had to punch upward. According to Jahseh he “kneed her.” The fight only lasted for about ten seconds before school security broke it up. Nobody got suspended, according to Dillon. It simply wasn’t that big a deal.
On No Jumper, X used this fight as an example of just how impactful his mom’s words were to him. He said it was at this moment that his mother realized just how seriously he took anything she said to him.
X told Adam22 that his mother was the female version of him, but prettier. Despite X’s description of her as “tough,” his mother’s affable demeanor confounds this perception. She speaks in a Jamaican accent so slight that it could almost be mistaken for British. Her manner is delicate but assured. Dillon remembers her as startlingly attractive even though he was in the sixth grade.
According to sources who claim to have known the family, Dwayne was a present father until around 2008. Before that, he was active in Jahseh’s life. Cleo struggled to take care of Jahseh in his elementary and middle school years. While some accounts have Cleo working at a club during Jahseh’s childhood, others remember her working in the medical profession and coming to pick up Jahseh from the barbershop in her scrubs. Others claim that Jahseh would be left at different friends’ houses for days at a time.
Jahseh would later tell a friend his mom worked late hours when he lived with her, often not getting off work until around six a.m. Without anyone to push him, Jahseh wouldn’t wake up in time to go to school, causing regular clashes with his mom. He confided that this was the reason he was originally sent to stay with a friend of his mother’s before finally relocating to his grandmother’s house.
Keylani Canton says her aunt used to work at the same club as Jahseh’s mom and that her aunt and grandmother would babysit them together. She remembers being three years old and still unable to talk. She says that once she knocked over a small Christmas tree, smashing the glass ornaments on the ground, and Jahseh jumped at the chance to tattle on her.
According to public records, Cleopatra lived in an apartment complex on the border of Fort Lauderdale and Lauderhill before moving to Pompano Beach around the time Jahseh was born. Jahseh’s grandmother lived in Fort Lauderdale for most of his childhood. Most accounts have Jahseh moving between his mother’s and grandmother’s houses as a young child and then moving in with his grandmother more permanently when he was around thirteen years old.
Cleo did pass young Jahseh to different babysitters, sometimes for extended periods, but that’s in no way unusual for a single working mom in a low-income neighborhood. Jahseh wasn’t actually kicked out of the house to go live with his grandmother until he was a young teen. According to a source who grew up not far from Jahseh, “Around here, you might end up living at your grandmother’s, not because your mom can’t take care of you but because you’re a badass kid.”
Jahseh showed signs of creative acuity and curiosity early on. He spent a lot of time obsessively reading articles online. Adolescent Jahseh is described as having a fiery yearning for knowledge. This was often less important to teachers and caregivers than his bad behavior.
According to another source who grew up in the area, “Caribbean families have a way of talking about kids who misbehave, they say, ‘He’s baaaaad, he has no maaanuuuhsss.’” However, it seems that this perceived badness didn’t translate to other people getting hurt until those later childhood years when something fairly dramatic and life-changing occurred in the Onfroy family.
It’s not clear how Dwayne Onfroy met the man who would derail his life, but thanks to court records, we know the exact day it happened. On January 18, 2008, Dwayne met a man who claimed to be interested in buying eight hundred pounds of marijuana. They negotiated a price back and forth for about a month. Dwayne introduced the man to a woman named Joy Watson, who was connected with two separate sellers who would provide the weight. Unbeknownst to the players involved, the man was a confidential DEA source who’d gathered enough intel for the DEA to start tapping phones.
In March 2008, Dwayne and Watson picked up the confidential source and drove him to a residence on Maldonado Street in Laveen, Arizona, which purportedly belonged to Watson. The source was introduced to Joel Eras Machado (aka Shortman) and Juan Lomas, who were both suppliers who’d made their way up from Mexico. After some haggling, the source was instructed to check out the back bedroom of the house. There he was greeted with a twenty-pound bale of marijuana. He was told to grab a sample for the road. The source obliged. What began as an investigation into one drug dealer became a RICO investigation into four drug traffickers.
A full-on DEA surveillance team set up around the home.
Soon after the source departed, a Chevy Impala left the house and drove for a few minutes before swapping vehicles with a group of three others. Feliciano Lopez, Elias Sauceda, and a man referred to as simply “the German” drove back to the house in a Dodge Durango, with the product in tow. They waited for the source to come back to the house to make the deal. A sting on four became a sting on six.
The source arrived back at the house. About 260 pounds of the agreed-upon weight was waiting for him. The source claimed not to have the cash on him, so Dwayne agreed to accompany him to a nearby bank in a strip mall to withdraw the cash. They drove to the strip mall and parked. They were heading toward the bank when agents swarmed Dwayne and put him in handcuffs. Nearby, at the house on Maldonado, DEA agents stormed the house. Three coconspirators were arrested and over two hundred pounds of marijuana was recovered. The moment the Feds burst in, the German escaped into the backyard and disappeared, never to be apprehended. At a nearby house, another 240 pounds of marijuana was recovered and seven others were arrested. Several of the individuals arrested were found carrying .38 semiautomatic Colt Specials, fully loaded with the hammers cocked. The sting took down ten people in total.
All parties were taken in. Somehow only Dwayne refused to be questioned without the presence of an attorney. Most of them began spilling the beans about the operation or claiming to have little to no knowledge of it.
On March 20, the indictment came down in Maricopa County, Arizona. In total, ten coconspirators were charged with the intent to distribute over one hundred kilograms of marijuana, including Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy. Three of them were charged with possession of a firearm. Dwayne was not charged with this count, but a count of money laundering was eventually lumped on top of his conviction. Only a decade later, the legal marijuana industry would be valued at an estimated $10 billion nationally, according to NBC News.
Though Jahseh lived with his mother and grandmother at the time of Dwayne’s arrest, his father was very much a part of his life, regularly picking up both kids to go to the movies or to Boomers!, an arcade/go-kart franchise in southern Florida. The children were accustomed to Dwayne being a loving disciplinarian in their lives. However, just like that, he became a ghost.
According to a source close to the family, Ariana was shielded from the reality of her father’s incarceration, whereas Jahseh found out what had happened to his father almost immediately with no words parsed. It was simply, “Your dad’s in jail because he’s a drug dealer.”
Dwayne went to court on March 28, two months after his son’s tenth birthday. He was deemed a flight risk and remanded to prison with no bail. This was no small-time drug bust. This was a DEA sting brought forth by a RICO investigation that would permanently alter the lives of ten individuals. Barack Obama was the president of the United States and had vocally criticized harsh terms for drug offenders, particularly first-time offenders. Dwayne’s lawyers would eventually cite one of these statements in an attempt to get Dwayne’s sentence reduced. It didn’t matter.
Home to Sherriff Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County in Arizona would become known for aggressive drug busts like these as well as overzealous racial profiling and prisons Arpaio himself developed to be among the most inhumane in the country. Dwayne eventually pleaded guilty to two of the four charges: conspiracy and money laundering. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. Meanwhile, accounts differ as to what was going on with ten-year-old Jahseh, the young man who was coming to resemble his father more and more.
In his last on-camera interview, with DJ Akademiks, X insisted he had made peace with his father’s path and how it had affected him. “My father did what he deemed fit for his life. That was deemed selfish to me because he could have taken the hard route… and he would have gotten a much more rewarding future, but in that, I wouldn’t be me.” X even acknowledged the tendency for people who grow up with parents in jail to eventually get locked up themselves. “It affected me spiritually because my dad had got locked up and was going to jail and shit. I ended up going through the same process.”
X seemed acutely aware of the huge impact his father’s incarceration had on his life. “It was almost like being thrown into a void. There’s a lot about my family that people do not know. There’s a lot of things that my mom had been through. My family was just kind of spaced apart you know. I am the gatekeeper so I’m the one who has to fix everything.” In the end, he added, “I don’t resent any of them.” But what adolescent has a complete understanding of the way they are feeling and how they are processing trauma?
“Fuck Father’s Day,” X tweeted on Father’s Day 2014. “My father’s not here.” Two years later his father would be released from jail. By then, his son had achieved worldwide fame.
TAKE A STEP BACK
On June 18, 2018, rapper XXXTENTACION was brutally murdered during an armed robbery. He was just twenty years old. Less than four months later, he was posthumously honored and hailed as an icon, winning awards for both Best New Hip Hop Artist at the BET Hip Hop Awards and Favorite Soul/R&B Album at the American Music Awards.
Two weeks after these victories, an audio recording was released in which he ostensibly confessed to acts of domestic abuse for which he’d been charged, as well as a series of stabbings. How could a person with such remarkable creative instincts have committed such abhorrent acts? How can someone capable of making art that touches nearly an entire generation lack such empathy that they could cause other human beings such profound pain?
XXXTENTACION might be the most divisive music icon in modern history. He rose to the apex of hip-hop stardom despite a near constant flow of negative media attention. Every successive step of his career was marked with yet another horrific incident, another crisis. For this reason, X may have been made to compete with the trauma of the modern era. XXXTENTACION was a crisis star.
Today, the power of being able to cut through the noise and make it onto a person’s phone every day cannot be overstated. X was a musician for the Trump era. He was in no way an advocate of Trump’s politics or personality, but in almost every way, he was a reflection of the culture that augmented Trump’s rise to power. X’s story and career trajectory is proof of the idea that for some people there is no such thing as bad publicity.
For many, the pushback against X and his work was a matter of justice. As was argued in the Miami New Times article “The Real Story of South Florida Rapper XXXTentacion” by Tarpley Hitt, X’s fame was actually bolstered by his bad and sometimes sociopathic behavior. Many people concerned about the direction of the age considered any support for X an attempt at normalizing that behavior.
On the other hand, there’s evidence that X may have faced different standards than past musicians, particularly when it came to his treatment in the media.
For instance, at the time of this writing, Pitchfork has published seven features about X. Each of these features, including a short announcement about his upcoming posthumous album, mentions the domestic violence charges that were pending against him at the time of his death. Five of the stories are solely about the charges. A search for “John Lennon,” on the other hand, yields thirty-eight news stories, fourteen features, and four reviews, not one of which even contains the word “abuse.”
John Lennon himself admitted to being guilty of many of the same acts of violence that X allegedly committed, specifically acts of violence against his female partners. X was also responsible for nondomestic acts of violence, such as a stabbing for which he was arrested (although the charges were dropped). Yet, Lennon once nearly beat a disc jockey to death. The difference is that we know these things about Lennon by his own deliberate admission. One can’t help but wonder what more we might know if Lennon had lived during the social media age, where one has far less control over what aspects of their personal life come to light. Some may see the comparison between Lennon and X as faulty due to Lennon’s vast and perennial fame, but the lack of coverage of his violent side is confounding for precisely that reason.
Lennon is by no means the only example of a musician known to have behaved inappropriately toward women. David Bowie had sex with a thirteen-year-old. Jerry Lee Lewis married a thirteen-year-old, who was also his cousin. Ozzy Osbourne, who has been rebranded as a goth teddy bear and quirky father figure, wrote in his autobiography I Am Ozzy that he tried to kill his wife, Sharon. Iggy Pop also had sex with a thirteen-year-old girl. Ryan Adams is alleged to have exposed himself to a fourteen-year-old girl on Skype (Adams denies these claims). That’s only a sampling of exceptionally famous rock and pop stars who have committed bad acts without a full reckoning. In contrast, similar acts by artists of color often seem more widely acknowledged. Perhaps this is because they appear to face justice more often than their nonwhite counterparts. From Tupac to Chris Brown on back to Rick James and James Brown, the improprieties of artists of color tend to be so well known, it’s as if they’re inextricable from their biographies. What separates one artist from another when it comes to these kinds of transgressions?
At times, the issue is a matter of race. Consider R. Kelly, who was the other major target of Spotify’s hateful-conduct policy, wherein XXXTENTACION, R. Kelly, and Tay-K were all removed from Spotify-curated editorial playlists because of their controversial behavior. The three artists, who all happened to be men of color, were the only artists that appeared to be targeted by the policy.
- "[Look at Me!] goes into unprecedented detail about X's murder"—The Miami New Times
- "Filled with emotion, compassion, understanding, and accountability, Jonathan Reiss takes an honest look into what made XXXTENTACION beloved by so many yet hated by others."—SOHH
- On Sale
- Jun 9, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Hachette Books