It’s been nearly four years since rapper XXXTentacion (born Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy) was shot. and killed in his home state of Florida after leaving a local motorcycle shop. He was 20 years old. And despite his brief yet prominent career, with much of his success occurring within the final two years of his life, his impact of promoting mental health awareness and raw truth of younger people of regardless how ugly it looks lives on. A new Hulu documentary, Look at Me: XXXTentacion, takes a deep look inside his life and career and mind. Sabaah Folayan, the award-winning documentary filmmaker, is the director behind the project.
It begins by examining his upbringing and the change that occurred in his youth upon receiving a mental health diagnosis when he was just 10 years old. From there with the help and support of his mother, he used music as a creative outlet to try and house some of his anger.
Within just a few years, he became one of the most popular rappers on SoundCloud under the moniker XXXTentacion, where he eventually grew to become one of the most streamed artists in the world, with his debut album premiering at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 Chart and headlining his own sold-out tours and national festivals. Unfortunately, his legal troubles – including being accused of domestic abuse – and social media antics would sometimes outweigh his messaging.
Through frank commentary from family, friends, business partners, romantic partners, and unseen archival footage, in a project spearheaded by the late rapper’s mother, Folayan offers a sensitive portrayal of an artist whose acts of violence, raw musical talent, and open struggles with mental health left an indelible mark on his generation before his death. Shadow and Act spoke with Folayan ahead of the documentary’s premiere on May 26.
The documentary was a rollercoaster ride for me as someone who wasn't really familiar with XXXTentacion prior to this documentary. For many who only know him for in legal troubles, this is also a great and rounded picture of an introduction. What made you want to explore him and specifically how his life could be used as a significant example of analyzing mental health?
I was invited. I wasn’t expecting to explore him. I didn’t go and pursue this story. I was invited to interview for the position. And I knew that this was a story about mental health just by virtue of what the allegations were and his age and my kind of qualitative knowledge of him as someone who was very emotive. And I felt like, if done right, it could be an incredible opportunity to have a very direct and honest conversation with young people. That’s also one of the things that I’m really passionate about. I was a young person who felt like no one was really speaking to me or taking me seriously when I was young. I wasn’t given credit for how much I was truly aware of. And I think a lot of young people feel that way. So I felt like it was a great opportunity to have a conversation with the younger generation and get them thinking and feeling through some of these issues on a more nuanced level.
In the same way that he's memorialized, he's also villainized. But like you mentioned, he was also very, very young. And I feel like we did not really get the chance to see a full progression of change because his life was cut short. Was it difficult for you to try and humanize him after knowing some of the things that had happened? And do you think that it'll change the narrative a bit once people watch this documentary?
It was challenging for me. One of the things that I was really struck by was the relationship with Geneva. I went into it really determined to give her as much control as I humanly could, because I know one of the things that can be most traumatic on top of experiencing a traumatic event is how your community responds and the lack of control that can happen to people. So I felt like I wanted her to have agency over the way that her story was depicted. And what I learned was that she was a lot less – she had forgiven him. She had come to some type of grips with what had happened to her. And she still had a lot of love for him. And she had a lot of admiration for his mission in terms of supporting and affirming people who are going through emotional struggles. And so her compassion and just how big her heart was and her level of deep wisdom. And that really caught me off guard. And that was something that where I had to get out of the way. I had to get my own judgments out of the way. I have to get my concern for our people, get to understand me, or think about whether or not people are going to know that I’m a feminist and people are going to see my values. I have to take myself out and try to tell this story in a way that was going to be the truest to the people who experienced it and the most beneficial to the public.
Speaking of Geneva, by the end of the documentary, we see a transition in X's personal and public persona, and it was done in a very short amount of time. And much of the transition is seemingly in relation to how the public perceived him after Pitchfork posted Geneva's deposition testimony. And though he never publicly admitted to the attack, there is an audio recording of him admitting to abusing her that is in the documentary earlier on. But his family and his close friends, obviously feel loyalty to him. But by the end, his mother did try to make amends with Geneva and apologize on her son's behalf. How did his mother feel about incorporating that deposition testimony and even that audio into this documentary?
From my understanding, she was grieving the entire time and really had a deep desire to do right by her son and to show people the light that she saw in her son. And then she was also extremely brilliant and understanding of knowing that you have to tell people the truth, that audiences can see through things, and that you have to be completely honest if you actually want to access that sense of redemption, that sense of forgiveness. So I can only imagine how complex and triggering and difficult this process must have been for her emotionally as a grieving mother and an executive producer and a person who is responsible for defining and shaping her son’s legacy. I just have the utmost respect for her position. And I think she did a really incredible job of navigating this.
How do you feel about the transition of X that is brilliantly showcased in the documentary from the persona that he had to what he ultimately was trying to achieve toward the end? How do you feel that contributes to his legacy?
The thing about filmmaking is it’s a whole life boiled down to 2 hours. So in a certain sense, it is a simplification of something that’s a lot more complicated. But I think that it’s probably going to vary by audience members. I think that there are people who probably would have never listened to his music or probably wrote him off that may find their way to it because of understanding the depth of it and understanding the potential that he had. And I think and I hope that people understand that violence is inexcusable. And at the same time, human beings sometimes do violence. And we can condemn the behavior and not necessarily have to throw out an entire young person.
I think a lot about Malcolm x. If we had Malcolm X before he made this transformation, he would have died as a criminal. So I think that there’s hope for everyone in that because I think that the world gets very, very bleak when we think about the possibility of having to ostracize all of the people who commit violence. I think that we have to find a way to think about the possibility of redemption. So even if it’s just a hypothetical, even if we still do whatever practices we feel are best in response to instances of abuse, I think the possibility of redemption has to always hang in our minds. Otherwise, for me, it just gets a little bit too bleak. What is where does that leave us? If not?
I think the documentary also does a good job at exploring the whole idea of it being about Jahseh versus the character that he created with his stage persona. From what you learned through the filmmaking process, how would you describe the two? And do you feel like they met anywhere in the middle at any point?
Jahseh was a lot more silly and goofy and just he was just very, very generous. That was one thing that everyone was unanimous about. He would give you the shirt off his back. And I think just he also had a lot of problems and just he also had outbursts and struggled with his anger. And I think XXXTentacion was the container that could hold the things that just they were struggling with and turn them into gold and turn them into music and turn them into all of this energy and turn them into a message for the public. So I think that all of it was within Jahseh, and I think that XXXTentacion was a tool that he had in order to communicate and make sense of. The things that didn’t make sense on a one-on-one scale.
There's so much discussion now about not wanting to throw away a full person, especially a child or a younger person when they don't really necessarily have the tools to do better. There's a saying that ‘When we know better, we do better.’ But with such controversial figures that have been analyzed in the last two years, like X, like R. Kelly, like Bill Cosby, is there a world in which you feel as though people can separate the art from the person, especially in times when it appears that art imitates life so closely?
I wouldn’t make a documentary about R. Kelly or Bill Cosby. First of all, I don’t think that there’s enough disgust in the world for pedophilia. I think that we need to really up our disgust levels. One thing that’s interesting is after that R. Kelly trial, his streams went up. It’s very, very odd. It’s very, very disturbing. This is it. Telling this story was a very, very unique situation for me. And I think that it’s hard for me to extrapolate out to folks like that. And I think that the disgust that we have, the desire to boycott, the anger that people feel, all of that is right. So I don’t want to get this confused with suggesting that we should go easy on disgusting people because that’s not what it’s about at all. This is a very specific situation.
I recently watched something where singer Syleena Johnson spoke about living in two worlds with PTSD when it comes to the violence within and that's dumped in our community. And she said something that I thought was interesting. She said that we live in both post-traumatic and present traumatic stress. We're in a world now where everything is viral. So you can, unfortunately, watch XXXXTentacion be murdered. You watch what happened to Nipsey Hussle, Mike Brown and George Floyd. How do you feel about that as far as how these things play into a part of the conversation of mental health and how we can balance discussing it and educating ourselves but also pushing for change?
That is a very, very, very good observation and question. I think that the appetite for salacious violence, the appetite for certain types of content on a daily basis, it’s a basic primitive kind of drive that we have as human beings. And it’s very unfortunate. And I think that is something that we should try to do our best to push against. I think the best of us, here and there, gets drawn into some type of clickbait that’s out there of something that we know but we have no business watching, but we’re going to watch it. And we’re living in a space where the digital space has been designed around principles of engaging our neurological brain to keep clicking, keep watching. It’s designed to keep our attention. So that’s the reason why all of these horrible things are always out there for us and they’re going viral because it’s our basic brain level.
When you were out hunting and gathering, there wouldn’t be this many crazy things happening. So when something crazy does happen, it draws your attention. That’s not true. That’s a human impulse. But the way that capitalism has shaped this world and the way that technology has been developed outside of any ethical oversight is very, very dangerous. And I really hope that this film can be part of spurring a deeper conversation into how we’re relating to technology and how capitalism and the drive to create to make money.
If it makes a dollar, it’s OK. That seems to be the unspoken principle of our entire society at this point. And where is that driving us? Where’s that leading? That’s what partially is leading us to a place where young people are struggling to find meaning and motivation to live. So this film and this story is a really huge, huge canary in the coal mine. What happened here is the culmination of so many systemic issues. And I hope that is some motivation for us to really look deeper. You can pick any factor, look deeper, and figure out how we can participate in it, in changing things.
There are some people who view this documentary as a body of work of yours, as a stark contrast to your previous documentary about Ferguson and Mike Brown and centering that on someone like XXXTentacion. What do you say to those who may be confused or even against it because of some of X's choices?
I hope they take the time to watch it because if they take the time to watch it, I think they’ll understand. The through-line is really the care that I have when I tell stories and the way that I’m trying to look underneath the surface and honor people’s real experiences. But I also hope that people understand that I really am here to be a storyteller, that I’m going to tell the stories, but I feel like I can serve and then I feel like I can use to serve people. And that’s not always going to look in any one particular way or any one particular subject matter.
One of the things that I had to realize over the course of making this film, is it’s just not about me as much. With my documentary on Mike Brown and Furgeson, it was based on a perspective and it was based on taking a stance that hadn’t been acknowledged in the public space because the public the official narrative, the narrative that it was just looting and rioting, that’s really all that had been given out.
This story was about the fact that I had certain experiences in my past, working with mental health, and working with people who’ve been incarcerated. That gave me a perspective on this. And I felt like I had information and I had a way of looking at it that could help people look at it differently. And so I don’t know what the next project will be yet, but I see myself as theGrio. theGrio is there to preserve the culture, to give warning, to help us remember our history, to help us use our history, and to make lessons for how we move forward. And so I’m just trying to do some type of service with the abilities and gifts that I have. And it’s not totally up to me, but I will say that I will continue to go wherever it is I feel that I can be of service.
Look at Me is streaming now on Hulu.