‘69:The Saga of Danny Hernandez’ is a new documentary about the life and crimes of rapper and convicted felon Tekashi 6ix9ine, born Daniel Hernandez. He has been convicted of child pornography and organised crime charges, but was released early after testifying against fellow gang members. Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi spoke to many key figures from Hernandez’s life while making the film, but his subject refused to be involved.
Vikram Gandhi: “Before I made this film I knew about the controversy around Tekashi 6ix9ine, but I felt compelled to try and understand the enigma he seems to be. He’s a walking contradiction: both an underdog and a hater. He looks like a clown, but he’s also a gangster. There has been so much written about him online, so part of my process at the start was to try and understand what was true, what was coming from people who really know him, and what I could weed out.
It took a lot of digging to understand who to look for. In Bushwick, where Danny grew up, a lot of people knew him but because he was on trial they didn’t want to talk. It’s a pretty private place. I kept digging and met musician Shadow The Great, who was a pivotal part of Danny’s introduction to hip-hop when he was a young teenager. At that time, he was known as Wallah Dan or Danny Loaf. We wanted to tell the story of Danny as an artist and that artist’s development. Things like the first clothing he made and his first attempts at music videos gave us insight into the birth of the artist who would become Tekashi 6ix9ine. That’s where we really wanted to focus our energy: how did this all start?
Danny has been self-effacing about his own music in the past, but you do see that there is a lot of creativity that goes into his early videos. They’re outlandish and have a lot of shock value, but there’s an audacity and creativity in them that other people around him have credited him with. He was a 16-year-old kid with aspirations of doing something big, and he literally engineered his own fame through a cell phone and a laptop.
The persona he created was an outrageous montage of tropes that allowed him to gain more online ‘clout’ than almost anyone else. He had rainbow hair. He had face tattoos taken to the nth degree. He created memes where he looked like a gremlin, or he’d photoshop his face onto a woman’s body. He crossed a lot of boundaries in terms of his image – and then he also decided to affiliate himself with a gang and broadcast that to the world as well. I think with all of that you’re seeing someone who understands the ‘attention economy’ and knows how to manipulate it.
Social media is still a new phenomenon for the human species. We’re watching how people who are good or bad can capture our attention and gain real estate in our minds. You have these extremely flamboyant people in the world who get the most press. As Dave Chappelle put it: ‘We elected an internet troll President.’ A fear that a lot of people had was: ‘Don’t give Trump the attention, because the more attention he gets the stronger he’ll be.’ We’ve found that to be completely true. I think you have the exact same thing happening with Tekashi 6ix9ine. We live in a time where love and hate reap almost the same rewards for an artist. Shock value, and giving people a hit that triggers some emotion in them has replaced fandom. Tekashi knows how to engineer that, and everything he does online is designed to trigger a response.
He still has enough followers that it feels difficult for him to completely disappear, but I do think there will be a taboo around people and companies working with him now. You’re talking about someone who was indicted for 47 years-to-life and also put hits out on people, as well as other violent acts. Frankly, I was a little surprised about how he came out of prison. I thought that would be a great moment for reinvention, but he picked up where he left off and became a bigger troll than ever before.”
‘69:The Saga of Danny Hernandez’ is streaming now on Hulu in the US – a UK release has yet to be confirmed
As told to Kevin EG Perry