Tekashi 69, the 24-year-old rapper from Brooklyn, is perhaps the most famous MC whose songs no one can name. He’s appeared on a few tracks with Nicki Minaj, and maybe you’ve heard some of his 2018 album, Dummy Boy. But it's his legal trouble — including a charge for using a child in a sexual performance, domestic violence, and his testimony against the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, which led to several of his former associates going to prison for years — that has made him a subject of enduring public fascination. Two new documentaries try to unravel the mystery of who Tekashi is and what motivates him, but neither are able to give a satisfying answer. Maybe the problem is that it’s not really a mystery to begin with.
Supervillain, Showtime’s three-part documentary about Tekashi — whose legal name is Daniel Hernandez — premieres this Sunday. It comes four months after Hulu’s version of essentially the same story, 69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez, which came out in late November, six months after he was released from prison. He served only a few months and was released early due to COVID-19; his asthma was considered a preexisting condition.
It’s embarrassing to admit, maybe, that we’ve been waiting for an explanation or a moral to emerge from Tekashi’s story.
Showtime’s version is longer, more detailed, and, frankly, weirder (the documentary is spliced with scenes of a lab building a doll version of Tekashi, mixing in the “elements” of a supervillain, including “ego” and “weaponry”) but they both essentially say the same thing: Tekashi 69 is a bad person, a weak rapper, and well beyond any kind of personal rehabilitation. There is no possible reform for Tekashi, and he also seems to lack the will to repent. So how many documentaries do we need to watch to get the picture?
Supervillain neither reveals any new information nor does it really feature many voices that differentiate it from The Saga of Danny Hernandez. Both documentaries start with Tekashi’s troubled childhood, his absent father, and his exposure to drugs at an early age. They both cover his relationship with the mother of his 5-year-old daughter, Sara Molina, whom he met as a teenager and whom he has admitted in interviews and in court to physically abusing multiple times. In Supervillain, Molina says Tekashi once punched her in the head so hard that he drove a hair extension into her scalp and left her bleeding and that he gave her a black eye. The documentary shows footage of Molina’s injuries as she waits for care at a hospital.
Both documentaries portray Tekashi as a young man who realized trolling could get him a career and then took it too far. But that narrative is a wild oversimplification of who Hernandez is. He might be young and know how to piss Meek Mill off long enough to get a boost of attention online, but he’s also someone who admitted to years of domestic violence and confessed to ordering a hit on Chief Keef. It’s embarrassing to admit, maybe, that we’ve been waiting for an explanation or a moral to emerge from Tekashi’s story, as if it’ll justify all the hours we’ve spent staring at him and trying to understand why he’s like this. But there isn’t anything coming. This is all there is.
His work as a rapper isn’t even that interesting; in the final part of Supervillain, the filmmakers ask Billy Ado, a member of the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, “Do you think he’s done anything for the culture?” Ado just shakes his head. “None. I can’t name one.”
It’s clear that Tekashi isn’t a great rapper, and there isn’t a cultural argument for his relative longevity despite his personal troubles. Instead, Supervillain spends more time talking about Tekashi’s rainbow-colored hair and shitty tattoos than it does addressing his music or lyrics. And while the documentary somewhat chides its audience for being more interested in the aesthetics of rap than the art itself — near the end, there’s a bit of moralizing about how his audience was willing to brush off his snitching and domestic abuse — it makes the exact same mistakes.
Neither documentary seems to know exactly what it wants from Tekashi. Restitution? An apology? A disavowal of gang life? Therapy? For him to leave the rap scene entirely? Most of it is completely impossible at this point (what is Hernandez going to do for a living now that he has “69” inked on his body a few hundred times?) and the rest is merely unlikely. So why make multiple documentaries about a man whose entire raison d’être is winning the attention economy? Never has a rapper had so many lives while releasing so little music of value.
I’m not immune to being interested in Tekashi’s motivations; even as a casual rap fan, I want an explanation for his thirst for self-destruction. It seems too absurd that there’s nothing big behind his motivations to become the most hated man in music, but the answers have been there the whole time. Every bit of coverage about him paints him as a young man who was raised in hunger — both literal (living in poverty in Brooklyn) and figurative (his yearning for a big rap career).
Supervillain and The Saga of Danny Hernandez fail to appropriately address the victims of his behavior.
That Tekashi is an opportunist who used the internet to his advantage, and then turned on the people who helped build his career, doesn’t seem like the kind of story that needs a repeated explanation. It’s a simple tale — and had Tekashi not been so arrogant, had he not been arrested, had he not turned on the people who once built his persona through his seemingly tenuous affiliation with the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, he might have had a very different career. But he was reckless; the quality that once made him interesting to gawk at has been his downfall, time and time again.
Worse, Supervillain and The Saga of Danny Hernandez fail to appropriately address the victims of his behavior: Molina, his two young daughters, and the 13-year-old girl he was accused of having filmed participating in sexual acts. Molina gets some screentime in each documentary, but it’s mostly to contextualize his youth and showcase how quickly he could sway from sweet, charming boyfriend to admitted abuser. The 13-year-old girl is now suing Tekashi for not just taping her but also for distributing child sexual abuse material online. That suit landed months ago, but Supervillain makes no real mention of it.
Instead, both documentaries are preoccupied with trying to figure out what makes Tekashi so compelling in the first place. But this pursuit ultimately feels hollow because Tekashi isn’t that complex. Some people just want to watch the world burn; you’d be hard-pressed to come up with three hours of explanations for someone who doesn’t even fully understand their own motivations. In that way, he doesn’t even make for a very good New York (and now Los Angeles) rap supervillain. A good supervillain has an origin story that actually matters. There’s some good in them, buried away, if only they’d had the chance. Neither documentary suggests that Tekashi is more complicated than an angry, abusive man who wants attention at the cost of anyone and everyone. Mythologizing someone only works if you believe there’s more under the surface.
A clip of Tekashi and Molina filming themselves in the back of a car, cheerfully ribbing each other, plays in the second episode of Supervillain. “If y’all want to know the truth about him, y’all would never, ever be friends,” Molina says, her hand on his head. “Look at him.”
In a different world, one where we don’t know anything about Tekashi, that scene acts as elegant foreshadowing for everyone finally learning the truth about who he is. It’s a line that should indeed lead to an examination of his origin story as the bad guy. But if you’re watching Supervillain — or anything else about Tekashi — you already know the truth. You’ve likely known for years. There’s no big mystery to unravel, no complicated backstory, no potential for remorse or search for redemption. At this point, a story about Tekashi won’t have any new insights. There’s just nothing left to learn. ●