Edit Desk: How we handle problematic artists


Will Newbegin

In 1994, R&B sensations R. Kelly and Aaliyah united in marriage. Kelly, who produced Aaliyah’s debut album six months prior, was 27; Aaliyah was only 15 years old.

After 25 years, and 21 counts of child pornography, 10 counts of sexual abuse and innumerable other alleged transgressions later, Kelly is preparing to enter a not-guilty plea on his most recent bundle of charges. The charges span from 1998-2010, and involve four female victims, all under the age of 17 at the times of their alleged occurrences.

Survivors of Kelly’s tirade spoke of his atrocities in the six-part Lifetime documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired from Jan. 3-5 this year.

“He’s the devil,” an unnamed narrator says in the documentary’s trailer.

Only now, has RCA Records removed R. Kelly from its label.

Sadly, the news regarding Robert Sylvester Kelly feels symptomatic of something grander; something as pervasive as it is abhorrent. For me, it seems yet another iteration of an inconvenient truth: the music industry is a hateful space toward women.

R. Kelly has skirted all legal consequences for his sexual violence, which should come as no surprise. Nor should his 30 million album sales over that time. The artist’s sensational, sexual mojo present in both his music and his stage act propelled the already-talented hitmaker to stardom in two separate decades.

Unfortunately, this is no unique or recent dichotomy. The history of American popular music favors artists and artistic movements rife with misogynistic attitudes and actions.

James Brown. Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crue. John Lennon of the Beatles.

That last one — John Lennon — is a tough pill for me to swallow, personally. My earliest musical memories involve repeat plays of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” in my mother’s black Volkswagen Passat. Songs like “Imagine” and “All You Need is Love” seem painfully hypocritical in light of a narrative of abusive histories a la Lennon’s verse in the Beatles’ 1967 track “Getting Better.” Lennon wrote, “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved, Man, I was mean.”

A greater spotlight and a more progressive stance on women’s rights might have held Lennon accountable in his day. Yet the issue persists.

In November 2018, Pitchfork released a transcript of a  2016 conversation between late rapper XXXTentaction and three unnamed individuals in which XXXTentacion admits to abusing his then-pregnant ex-girlfriend.

“I started f*****g her up because she made one mistake…Now she’s scared. That girl is scared for her life.”

A sentiment exists, with some merit, that encourages ‘separating the art from the artist.’ I get the idea, and it’s a convenient crutch. However, I believe it represents a firm misunderstanding in what artists can inspire from their platforms, and the symbiosis between artist and their work.

Songs like XXXTenaction’s “SAD!” contain lyrics that read like a diary entry. Depressive episodes culminate in unbridled rage and suicidal thoughts if a woman decides to seek autonomy. This is nothing short of objectification.

There’s underlying questions of untreated mental health issues here, and it’s no secret that X struggled with depression. This does not equate license for inexcusable behavior. But like with Lennon and the Beatles, this poses an interesting question for listeners: how should we handle problematic artists and their music that we begrudgingly enjoy?

I don’t think there’s one single answer. Both Lennon’s and XXXTentacion’s cases are made simpler, sadly, by their passing. Only their estates profit from record sales and digital streams. Additionally, it seems futile to scrap the music of every single artist who raises a public concern. Doing so might scrub the public clean of much-loved David Bowie, Miles Davis and Michael Jackson.

Fan is short for fanatic, after-all, and I think you’d be hard pressed to tell any aficionado of jazz that they should no longer listen to “Kind of Blue.”

My thought is that in looking to hold artists accountable, we set our sights too low.

Let’s circle back to R. Kelly. It took until 2019 to apply corporate pressure against the singer in the form of his expulsion from RCA records. It’s no coincidence that this action followed a public campaign — called #MuteRKelly — that demanded legal and commercial repercussions for Kelly.

The executives at RCA were perfectly complacent in profiting off of Kelly’s music without thought of the precedent that they set. Public pressure forced their hand to finally sever the umbilical cord that nursed Kelly’s platform. In RCA’s tolerance, they prolonged public exposure to misogynistic attitudes that belong nowhere — not at any time, especially not in 2019.

It falls on everyone to others accountable for sexist attitudes. Those who make the most money off of the artists that present these attitude should have no exception.

William Newbegin, ’21, is an associate news editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at [email protected]

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1 Comment

  1. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    Enjoy the music, avoid the musician, do not support the musician. How do you accomplish #1 and #3 at the same time? Get a copy of the music and avoid concerts. Get the Weird Al (WA) version where the lyrics are meant to be humorous not disgusting. Having no WA version, ignore those in the music or write lyrics of your own.

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