What I learned about XXXTentacion from making a documentary of his life

In ‘Look At Me: XXXTentacion’, producer Rob Stone doesn’t shy away from the real and raw story of the controversial SoundCloud rapper’s short life

‘Look At Me: XXXTentacion’ explores the life, career and death of Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, the Florida teenager who became SoundCloud rapper XXXTentacion, one of the most-streamed artists on the planet. Executive-produced by FADER Films’ Rob Stone alongside Onfroy’s mother Cleopatra Bernard and his manager Solomon Sobande, the Sabaah Folayan-directed ‘Look At Me’ tells the real story of Onfroy’s 20-year life: one of raw talent, business savvy, mental health struggles and acts of physical violence against his ex-girlfriend, Geneva Ayala.

Here, Stone talks about making an honest film about the talented and controversial rapper’s tragic and short life.

Rob Stone: “Jahseh kind of led the vision of the film, because in his life he didn’t hide much. He turned his phone on and he talked to people. People could DM him, people could call him – he was an open book in that sense. You think about somebody losing their life at 20, and who they would have become as they got older and actually developed and had time to process. The more he lived, you could see this light coming out of him that was there from the beginning. I believe there can be two things happening at the same time. He had his bad times, inexcusable horrific bad times, but there was this greatness in him.

“I commend his family for allowing us to tell the real story. I commend Geneva for being so vulnerable and strong to tell her story. It was really important to me to find the right director, and Sabaah did an exceptional job of telling the story. What was always imperative to all of us was showing the good, the bad and the ugly, and these three women have shown incredible strength and fortitude in telling this story. I had the benefit 25 years ago when I was working closely with Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G., and seeing how Ms. Wallace handled the senseless loss of her son: another exceptionally strong woman put into an unimaginable situation. In the conversations with Cleo and Solomon, we always discussed honesty in telling his story. There was an understanding that it was going to be really hard at times, but that it was going to be done right.

“Social media was a character in the film. [XXXTentacion] says it at one point in this overwhelming scene where he threw a party together in three days: ‘My voice counts now, everything I say is recorded’. Then there’s a thousand kids watching, and it felt like 10,000 cameras on him. He was giving the commentary, but the internet had its own commentary. It also had its own good, bad and indifferent personality and judgment of him, and judgment of Geneva. Social media played a huge part in his story.

“Sabaah did a masterful job bringing the social media aspect into the film, because this wasn’t just about two kids. Jahseh and Geneva weren’t afforded the opportunity to be two kids working out issues without the public being involved, and it’s toxic. It’s toxic enough when you’re not a celebrity and you’re on social media. I think the chaos he was dealing with, the mental health issues, bipolarism and unresolved extreme childhood traumas, all played a part. Then there’s what Geneva was dealing with – the heavy problems of being homeless, sleeping on couches, sleeping in a car – that was all magnified under the microscope of social media. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions on many levels.

“Everyone involved did an incredible job, and I don’t think anyone at any point wants to tell anyone how to feel coming out of this film. It’s just, ‘Here’s what it was like’. Now, seeing the film in numerous places, there are certain scenes that jump out, that you can feel the crowd react to. On the business side when Ghazi Shami [Empire Records founder] says, ‘I asked him why he did my deal and he said, “If I do your deal I’m a partner, and if I do their deal, I’m a slave”‘, you could feel a chill through the audience because 17-year-old kids don’t talk like that.

Rob Stone
Rob Stone (Picture: Sergi Alexander)

“There’s also the part when Cleo talks about X telling her, ‘Mom, this is how we get the bag’ when he’s discussing owning his masters. That gave me chills because I’m a business owner: if you have that kind of confidence on the business side already at that age, where would he have been at 25 or at 30?

“There’s a scene where [his close friend and rapper] Ski Mask is talking about how Jahseh hated himself and hated how he felt in his own skin. I think we all have had degrees of that, but to admit that and to deal with that publicly, and to say I’m going to be a better person and commit to it, especially at that age? Everyone has their own development, growth and issues, but to be able to recognise that and deal with it speaks volumes about his potential.

“It was obviously a chaotic life, filled with reprehensible behaviour, but it was just starting. Great things were potentially ahead. I believe redemption had started, but it tragically just all got cut short. I don’t think there was a limit to him. I didn’t know that about Jahseh going into this film. I never met him, but as you get to know him among all the heinous behaviours, you see the talent, the acumen, his ability to move people and the beginnings of him making amends to those he hurt. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

‘Look At Me: XXXTentacion’ is streaming now on Hulu in the US. A UK release date has yet to be confirmed

As told to Erica Campbell

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