He became a star witness for prosecutors, drawing death threats. Can a viral sensation now truly disappear? And would he want to?
For three short days in September, the rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine was back in his element: blowing up the internet. Abandoning his brand as a professional agitator, the Instagram celebrity became a star witness for the federal government, and testified at length about fellow rappers and his former crew, the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods.
But when 6ix9ine — whose real name is Daniel Hernandez — stepped off the witness stand on Thursday, he stepped into an uncertain future.
The debacle has all but eviscerated Mr. Hernandez’s credibility in rap, where fellow performers have branded him a “snitch.” His safety is similarly suspect; the Nine Trey gang has not historically taken kindly to being double-crossed, and has already threatened to kill him once.
“I knew I was going to become a target,” he said in court. “I knew they were going to try and hurt me.”
Mr. Hernandez was in court to testify against two of his former confidantes, Anthony Ellison, 31, and Aljermiah Mack, 33, in a sweeping racketeering and firearms case prosecutors brought against the gang last year. For hours last week, Mr. Hernandez walked the jury through the inner workings of Nine Trey, a prison gang with roots on Rikers Island in the 1990s.
In doing so, the rapper may have decimated any remaining good will he had left in the rap industry as he became both a punch line and a pariah — the subject of intense online vitriol from his onetime peers, who expressed astonishment at the amount of information Mr. Hernandez had provided.
Artists including Snoop Dogg, Future and Lil Durk shared memes or pointed words denouncing 6ix9ine as a snitch, with Meek Mill writing, “Message of the day don’t be a internet gangsta … be yourself!”
Minya Oh, best known as Miss Info, the founder of the hip-hop news website MissInfo.tv and a former host on the rap radio station Hot 97 in New York, called the 6ix9ine saga a “Greek telenovela tragicomedy,” and predicted that he would face a complex conundrum upon being released: curiosity would be at an all-time high, but within the hip-hop community, so would animus.
In the attention economy, just knowing that 6ix9ine might open his mouth somewhere is like shipping platinum,” she said. “But nobody with any of their own value will ever stand next to him. So he has to exist in a vacuum and can’t leave his house. All doable things for an artist in 2019 and beyond.”
Labels would be reticent to allow their artists to work with him, Ms. Oh added, “But they all think when he gets out of jail, he will be a big draw.”
Mr. Hernandez pleaded guilty in January to racketeering conspiracy and eight other charges. He faces a minimum of 47 years in prison. If his cooperation is successful, prosecutors agreed earlier this year to lobby for a lighter sentence.
His utility as an informant has an inevitable expiration date. Mr. Ellison’s and Mr. Mack’s trial is expected to conclude within days, and it is unclear whether Mr. Hernandez would testify in any other potential trials that could stem from the government’s case against Nine Trey.
Prosecutors have indicated he could enter the witness protection program.
Such a path would not be unprecedented. The government has successfully relocated and protected high-profile witnesses in the past; mobsters have started over as bakery owners, and reformed assassins have found new careers as doll salesmen, two former federal law enforcement officials said.
“Despite how connected we are, and the appetite for social media content in this country, there are places where, if this kid gets a haircut and wears normal clothes, no one would know or care who he is,” said Jay Kramer, a former F.B.I. official who worked on organized crime cases.
There is almost nothing in Mr. Hernandez’s background that suggests a capacity for discretion, and it is unlikely the United States Marshals Service, which runs the witness protection program, would pay for the removal of Mr. Hernandez’s signature face tattoos.
The rapper, whose rainbow-colored hair has faded to its natural black, transformed into a thoughtful, conscientious narrator in court. He paused frequently to translate street slang to the jury, and showed disarming flashes of naïveté — he asked lawyers to explain large words and requested clarification about questions.
That Mr. Hernandez landed in prison because of his affiliation with Nine Trey is less surprising than his reinvention as an informant.
The Bushwick native linked up with the gang in 2017, he said, after his first international tour, in Eastern Europe. At the time, Mr. Hernandez’s bizarre mash-up of heavy metal and hip-hop was confusing — and compelling — the rap world.
But his style shifted considerably that year, when he returned to Brooklyn and partnered with the Nine Trey gang. His multiplatinum breakout single, “GUMMO,” featured several purported members of Nine Trey in the track’s music video, which went viral.
That’s what people liked,” he said of the gang affiliation. “It was just a formula, a blueprint that I found that worked.”
Mr. Hernandez, who had amassed a gigantic internet following, became a sort of cash cow for the Nine Trey leadership, he said, including Mr. Ellison and Kifano (Shotti) Jordan. Both collected tens of thousands of dollars from Mr. Hernandez’s performances, he said.
Mr. Jordan pleaded guilty to federal firearms charges earlier this year in connection with the case, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Mr. Hernandez’s profitability made him a coveted token in the Nine Trey hierarchy, prosecutors said. Mr. Ellison and Mr. Jordan began warring over control of the rapper’s career, culminating in Mr. Ellison allegedly kidnapping and robbing Mr. Hernandez last summer.
I’m pleading with him,” Mr. Hernandez said of the incident. “I’m like, ‘Yo, I’m scared. I have a daughter. I have a 3-year-old daughter at home.’”
The alleged kidnapping, which was widely covered at the time, would be the catalyst for Mr. Hernandez’s unraveling. By November, he had publicly renounced Nine Trey.
“I was tired of being extorted,” he said.
His repudiation was significant enough that the gang began discussing how to punish Mr. Hernandez for his disloyalty, according to wiretaps. The threats were deemed credible, and officials with the F.B.I. visited Mr. Hernandez to offer him protection, which he declined.
Days later, Mr. Hernandez and 11 other reputed Nine Trey members were arrested and charged in the sweeping racketeering and firearms case.
Twenty-four hours later, Mr. Hernandez rescinded his previous declination to the F.B.I. He agreed to testify against his former crew.