“I’m so sorry, but this is a Famous Dex fan account now,” I tweeted, an hour before r&b artist Tish Hyman posted a surveillance video of the Chicago rapper chasing a woman down a hallway and beating her (video is disturbing; please exercise caution before viewing).
Before the footage was released, Dex was one of the South Side’s fastest rising stars, aided by an alignment with Atlanta’s Rich the Kid and an ability to release new material at a lightning pace. In a city captivated by angelic backpackers, scrawny Dex stood out as deeply weird with facial tattoos, bright red hair, and an off-kilter delivery that fit right in with the rest of the new crop of emerging “mumble rappers.”
I became a vocal fan after listening to Kanye off May’s OhhMannGoddDamm mixtape. I couldn’t stop replaying or talking about the compact and catchy track that captures everything I love about being young, successful, and killing it in Chicago. “All this money on me, all this designer on me, baby, call me Kanye,” Dex urges in a radio-ready hook as samples of ohhmanngodddamm echo behind him.
Dexter’s third mixtape of 2016, Dexter the Robot, was available for download for less than 24 hours when Hyman’s footage became public. The Puma x Pink Dolphin collection he recently modeled hasn’t even hit stores yet. Though it’s hard to say for certain in a world where a Chris Brown hook on your song isn’t enough to keep it off the Hot 100, common sentiment seems to be that his extremely short and fertile career has been cut off at the bud.
I’ve written before on how to evaluate the careers of artists who were abusive to those around them during their lifetimes. All of the examples I used had the luxury of a degree of academic distance for me. The perpetrators were dead, or so deeply sus I never engaged with their work on a deep level; rumors about Woody Allen and R. Kelly have been around forever.
I’ve recently had to wrestle with quandries much more unexpected and closer to home, however. Freddie Gibbs’ track Harold’s, a Madlib-composed ode to Chicago’s iconic fried chicken, fries, and mild sauce, was already a part of my heart when I heard he was battling charges of drugging and sexually assaulting a victim while on tour in Austria.
Kodak Black created one of my all time favorite love songs, a uncharacteristically sweet track called Honeybun off the mixtape Heart of the Projects. The Florida rapper probably has as many mug shots as he does press photos; I wasn’t any stranger to seeing him booked for drug and weapons charges, or hearing colorist or otherwise problematic statements in his lyrics. When he caught felony charges for allegedly sexually assaulting a victim in a South Carolina hotel room after a show, I was given pause. Should I have seen this coming? Should I already have disowned his music? Where do you draw the line?
Some people draw the line uncomfortably far; it’s not difficult to find rambling Snapchat diatribes and earnest tweets from Team Breezy pleading for folks to, yet again, disregard Chris Brown’s abusive behavior. If you draw the line all the way at the other end – throwing any music with sexist, racist, or otherwise oppressive content in the dustbin – you’re ruling out the vast majority of rap, which I’m not willing to do.
The question of when it’s appropriate to stop supporting an abuser is hardly limited to the sphere of hip-hop, however. I spent this last weekend at Riot Fest, a three day exercise in punk rock nostalgia. I was surprised to see a woman wearing a Swans shirt and tried to put myself in her shoes. How would I feel if I had that in my closet when Larkin Grimm came forward to accuse her collaborator and abuser, Michael Gira of Swans, of a long campaign of sexual harassment that culminated in raping her and dropping her from his label? I personally couldn’t see myself wearing the t-shirt anymore. Not to a music festival.
Part of the danger of supporting the new and the novel is that you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting yourself into. Hell, it’s part of the danger of supporting anyone at all. It’s impossible to know someone’s entire history, or predict their future actions. I refuse to stop vocally supporting artists, both emerging and established, because it may turn out that they’re mortal, with all the attendant messiness and pain that goes along with being part of the human race. At the same time, how we respond when allegations come to light says so much about how we feel about justice for victims, acceptance of a societal status quo, and whether we feel fame and adulation are unconditionally granted or earned.
Do we treat a case like Kodak Black’s assault, where our only information about an incident is filtered through a racist police state, differently than when unmistakable evidence is put into our hands through social media? Why do I feel ok listening to Gucci Mane, who almost certainly killed at least one person? Is Famous Dex’s career really over?
I’m not sure there are any absolute answers in situations like these. All I know is that Kanye, Harold’s, and Honeybun are incredible works of art, ones that I won’t ever be able to divorce of association with their authors. When I think of the playlist that I want to soundtrack my life, they’re not on it.