“Surviving R Kelly” and Supporting “Problematic Faves”
Can art be separated from artists?
By: Marley Richmond
TW: This article contains the discussion of sexual abuse
In many ways, the American entertainment industry is currently making strides to support survivors of abuse and bring retribution for perpetrators. Think #MeToo, outrage against 6ix9ine and xxxtentacion (rappers accused of various criminal acts including domestic abuse and sexual misconduct), and, most recently, Surviving R Kelly, a docuseries detailing the rapper’s criminal past. While holding artists responsible for their actions is inarguably an important step towards justice, it leaves many fans confused about how to move forward. Should they stop listening to the music they’ve loved for years? Can they still support an artist’s content without supporting his actions? Hasn’t everyone done things they aren’t proud of? “Surviving R Kelly” provides a close analysis of how sexual assault has played a role in the music industry, and some of the heartwrenching consequences of ignoring such behavior.
Although campaigns like Time’s Up and #MeToo gained visibility in 2017 by highlighting the amount of sexual assault in the entertainment industry, allegations of R Kelly’s sexual abuse date back to 1994, when Kelly, 27, married a 15-year-old girl. In the early 2000s, Kelly was charged with 21 counts of creating child pornography, yet was found not guilty after the 14-year-old victim did not appear in court. Just months before #MeToo went viral online, a report alleged that Kelly was holding women against their will, beating them, withholding food, and otherwise abusively controlling their lives. Many of the women, now over 18, still live with the rapper. Unfortunately, survivors’ mental and physical health is jeopardized by a legal system relying on victims publicly reliving traumatic events to convict assailants. As many experts agree, an unwillingness or fear to testify in court is a normal reaction for survivors of abuse, unfairly resulting in a lack of consequences for perpetrators. Kelly faced a few protests and the hashtag #MuteRKelly was briefly trending on social media, yet his career was never significantly impacted. “Surviving R Kelly” has finally brought this hushed conversation out in the open, highlighting survivors’ stories and showing music industry icons like John Legend publicly denouncing Kelly. Although a new criminal investigation has reportedly been opened, and Kelly was dropped from his record label, there are still many in the industry who defend the artist.
R Kelly has by no means been the only musician arrested for sexual misconduct, but, like him, few see severe consequences. Chris Brown’s 2008 arrest for domestic violence led to his music being pulled from some radio stations, but his music career was minimally impacted in the long run. Nicki Minaj (who currently dates a convicted child rapist), 6ix9ine, xxxtentacion, and hundreds of other artists have also committed crimes their listeners supposedly do not support, yet they remain popular. Even if listeners don’t actually support an artist’s actions, their failure to denounce these artists’ content sends the wrong message. Each stream, album bought, or music video watched sends a message to the music industry that this is the type of musician listeners want. No, not just the kind of music people want to hear, but also the individuals society accepts as creators, including all of their negative actions. It is long past time to send the message that abusers are no longer accepted in society, and especially not worthy of praise from around the globe.
It may be impossible to understand how R Kelly’s reputation withstood his many horrible actions, and how artists continue to grow in popularity despite allegations of sexual assault and other crimes, but it is possible to ensure that artists are never again allowed to dodge the consequences of their actions. This starts with believing survivors. Make the conscious choice to abstain from listening to artists who have displayed inappropriate sexual behavior, and encourage others to do the same. Although their songs may be hits, supporting their work, in turn, supports their actions. By holding artists accountable, especially those who have large followings and influence, consumers have an important say in what is and is not acceptable behavior, thus encouraging a safer and healthier environment, not just in the entertainment industry, but also in society.