King Von performs at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, March 2020

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King Von Was a Shooter

The line between life and art isn’t always clear, especially in hip-hop. What responsibility does that impose on fans?

Jayson Buford
August 16, 2023
King Von performs at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, March 2020

Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Despite carefully insisting that his lyrics weren’t a veracious account of gang violence, it is becoming increasingly clear that Chicago rapper King Von was, in fact, a shooter. Von, born Dayvon Bennett, was murdered in Atlanta in November 2020, but his legend remains widely talked about—both for its proximity to violence and for his wondrous lyrical gifts. It’s a curious bundle of conflicts for a rapper to actually be a notorious criminal rather than an artist who may happen to specialize in lyrical depictions of, or fantasies about, crime. Rappers aren’t congressmen; then again, and this can’t be said enough times, they aren’t supposed to be Frank Sheeran either.

I’ve been thinking about Von lately, especially after swallowing my pride and antagonism toward internet detectives by finally watching the YouTube documentary “King Von: Rap’s First Serial Killer.” Filmmaker Trap Lore Ross speaks on Von’s life on the streets with a detective’s eye—both figuratively and in the way that he seems eager to discuss Von’s moral failings. The details in the documentary are convincingly harrowing, even though the practice of YouTubers playing detective can be dubious. Here, Ross has the goods.

With a disarming patience, the three-hour film goes back as early as 2012 to show Von to have been an eager and gleeful gang member, as well as a cold murderer, an abuser of women, and someone who tweeted out his crimes with an irreverence normally reserved for Phil Leotardo. We usually think of gang members as a product of their environments—an actualization of the vicious violence and discrimination that plagues Black neighborhoods throughout America. While all that that is true in Von’s case, the documentary also alleges that Von played his role without a conscience, and in a particularly vicious way.

Absurdly, Von often tweeted—in slang—about violent events that he was either responsible for or directly knew about. At one point, after the murder of a gang member named Lil James, he counted out the names of the rival gang members that he or his gang had killed. He murdered a woman like an SVU character; he escaped the charges like Gotti. (In fairness to Von, and I say that lightly, during one of the murders, he provided Chicago detectives with an alibi. For whatever reasons, the detectives let him go. Whether that alibi was legit is unclear.)

All of this is a lot to watch in one sitting. Many names are mentioned, and many tweets are shown on screen. This is a comprehensive, widescreen documentary for a person who lived life like a villain on the widescreen. To see Von in this documentary is to see a man consumed with a lifestyle that left his neighborhood ravaged; a pitiful lifestyle that left mothers without their sons, and kids without their fathers.

The scale of King Von’s life is both niche and immensely large. The South Side of Chicago—particularly Englewood—is one of the most famous neighborhoods in an iconic American city. It’s famous for its rap, and for its violence. Kanye West had been talking about the murder rate in Chicago long before Trump started using it as a proxy for his relentless racism. Its violence is both local and notorious, widely discussed and weirdly kept under wraps, gleefully committed by its hardened residents, and fiercely protested against by its most committed and concerned citizens.

In 2017, after Lil Durk helped Von, his childhood friend, get settled for civilian life after a short jail sentence, Von became a shockingly spectacular rapper. Durk correctly saw the raw potential in Von; Von was able to answer Durk’s evaluation with a foundational lyricism and studious work ethic. Songs like “War With Us” and “GTA” spoke unsettling truths about a mentality he was fed, and one that he incarnated. After Von’s murder, he was immediately canonized by LeBron James, an athlete widely known as an American hero. But Von was also a gangster who spewed a heritage of violence. Those two facts are intertwined, and together are tantalizing—you genuinely can’t love Von’s music without knowing who he was.

Von’s death was a sad event. He was murdered after an altercation outside a hookah lounge at only 26 years old. He was thriving, personally and creatively. Jail had been good for him. “Welcome to the O Block” was a nuanced affair; his production was more modern and soulful. The hooks were crisper. If the storytelling on his previous records was more complete, he was now becoming a mainstream star. His family was enjoying the fruits of his generational voice. The deafening gangsterism on “Levon James,” his prior album, was a jolt in the rap world; other drill stars were more melodic, but he was perhaps the best pure rapper—both in his autobiographical purity and his lyrical proficiency.

Grandson, Von’s second posthumous album, came out two weeks ago, with a picture of his son—a startlingly beautiful Black boy—on the cover. It shows Von as the intense rapper that he was—a ball of fire, and a voice that whistles through your speakers with a feverish pacing. The album is bogged down by the typical problems with posthumous work: These are obviously demos, and they could use some more intensity. But weed out some of the unfinished songs, and Von’s people have done a decent job with the production. Sometimes, the album feels like Von calling in from heaven—or possibly hell—to discuss his dreams, which are both profound and upsetting. “My past keep hauntin’ me,” he says, on “When I Die,” and you want to believe that is true. If Von was a murderer, and it sure looks like he was, then you hope that he begged for forgiveness, or that he would have ended up preaching to kids that another way of life was possible.

Violence is a miserable cycle of mere despair and fright. (It has been alleged that Von transitioned to murder after watching his friend get shot in front of him.) Hearing his bouncy flow on “Real Oppy” with G-Herbo felt like the infamous Chris Farley skit from Saturday Night Live: I smiled and then felt the smile slowly wither away.

It’s not that I am afraid of, or allergic to listening to, the violence of Von’s music. But I don’t want to start celebrating aspects of Black American life that feel nihilistically grim. This kind of listening is like rubbernecking at a car crash. It promotes a deadly product and cycle being perpetuated and deified by everyone, including Trap Lore Ross.

Yet to me, Von wasn’t only a killer. He was also a very handsome young man—with full Black lips to match his charm. I selfishly don’t want to be reminded that he thought of himself as a savage. It reminds me of the quote from No Country for Old Men, on why the aging sheriff fears confronting the evil of the modern world: “A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say: ‘OK, I’ll be a part of this world.’”

Jayson Buford is a New York-based writer and a lifelong Knicks fan who loves Wu-Tang and his English bulldog, Joan. He still watches Woody Allen movies.