By many accounts, Takeoff was an innocent bystander who lost his life in a random instance of violence after a quarrel at a party in Houston early Tuesday morning. The shock of discovering that the beloved member of the Atlanta rap group Migos lost his life so senselessly at just 28-year-old becomes all the more tragic in light of the explicit footage of his last moments spread across the internet. In one clip, you can hear his groupmate and uncle, Quavo, cry out in distress over his nephew’s death. Shortly after, his wails became a trending topic.
The beauty of the internet is that it puts new information at our fingertips; the downside is the sadism that people choose to display. Fans and morbidly curious onlookers are currently scouring Zapruder-like recordings of Takeoff’s death in an attempt to expose the shooter, all with a distressing level of detachment from the human beings involved.
Takeoff’s death is part of a growing pattern of violence essentially going viral. In May this year, Payton Gendren allegedly live-streamed himself shooting at Black people in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. In 2017, an Ohio man named Steve Stephens live-streamed himself fatally shooting Robert Godwin. The dynamic is especially pernicious whenever violence occurs in the rap world. That same year, a video of the deceased XXXTentacion spread on social media in the immediate aftermath of his death following an apparent robbery. Since then, rappers Nipsey Hussle, FBG Duck, King Von, and PNB Rock have all been killed and subsequently had images of the scene circulated online.
TMZ’s clip of the post-shooting fracas has roughly 750K views on Twitter. Six videos on YouTube show the aftermath of the murder, each with at least 100K views. The sheer volume of footage is undoubtedly a product of our increasingly phone-obsessed lives. The moments before the still-unknown shooter fired gunshots at 810 Billiards & Bowling in Houston were captured from at least three vantage points, as videos online depict multiple angles of the scene.
Some critics have called out TMZ for irresponsibly posting multiple videos of Takeoff, and rightfully so. But few have ever called the outlet a symbol of journalistic ethics. Instead, shocking content is their business model. The same goes for the podcaster and media personality Akademiks, who carried on an entire live stream breaking down footage from the shooting and implicating who he thought fired the fatal shot.
In some ways, it’s a version of the same issue the media faced as they grappled with whether or not to broadcast the gory consequences of the Vietnam War on television. The types of violent footage deemed newsworthy, and thus in the public interest, were once a philosophical debate litigated through FCC guidelines. But increasingly, video platforms like TikTok and live streaming services like Twitch and YouTube allow indie personalities to feed into the public’s thirst for information while remaining relatively hands-off regarding moderating potentially incendiary content. A recent report, for example, suggests YouTube actively profits from videos that engage in targeted harassment.
Some argue that culling through these morbid details is a public service, providing evidence that could apprehend the guilty party. However, more often than not, online mobs implicate innocent bystanders and add to the confusion surrounding an incident. And studies have also documented the impact that continued exposure to violent imagery can have on Black people’s mental health and even pre-term birth rates. Especially in hip-hop, the long history of Black trauma as a commodity adds a layer of complexity to the issue.
Things may get worse before they get better. Twitter, now owned by Elon Musk, is reportedly cutting the size of its staff by nearly half, making any improvements in moderation seem unlikely. And the problem of gun violence continues to run rampant. Takeoff’s tragic death, and the subsequent videos that followed, illustrate the worst of our culture’s obsession with celebrities and violence. In many ways, we make it apparent that most of a star’s worth comes from their work, stripping their humanity. And now, even in death, fans still clamor for one last piece.