The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
“R. Kelly’s a piece of f*****g shit.” At Coachella earlier this year, Vince Staples declared this provocative statement to the world, lamenting how the renowned singer had avoided jail time, despite the fact that “he’s a f*****g child molester.” Various allegations of this nature have plagued R. Kelly’s career in recent years, most notably in 2017 when Buzzfeed revealed that the star had been accused of emotionally and physically abusing women in a sex cult of his own devising.
In response, R. Kelly always denied these claims, yet rarely addressed them directly, usually speaking through his representatives instead. That all changed last week though when the star released a 19-minute long track curiously titled “I Admit It”, where he specifically discusses that “absurd shit” and argues that detractors are “tryna play me,” even though he does “f*** with all the ladies that’s both older and young.”
R. Kelly isn’t the only hip-hop artist to recently attract such controversy. Just this year alone, Kanye West described slavery as a “choice” and younger stars like 6ix9ine and the late XXXTentacion have been accused of physically abusing both men and women alike. However, their music continues to find success within the industry and each have inspired a fandom that will defend them regardless of what accusations are fired their way.
The ethical concerns that such issues raise have divided fans who argue over the innocence of each artist in question, despite their lack of firsthand knowledge regarding each case. In these situations, it’s easy to blame devoted fans who support problematic artists without question, but the truth is that key members of the hip-hop industry perpetuate this ignorance further and even go so far as to actively encourage it. Is it any wonder then that a large proportion of hip-hop fans separate the art from the artist so readily when the industry itself often does the same?
Time’s Not Up In The Music Industry
Music and controversial behavior has always gone hand in hand, much like Kanye West and “dragon energy.” After all, it’s been almost a decade since Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna and even legendary musicians like Elvis Presley and John Lennon have been accused of statutory rape and violence against women. However, none of these artists were ‘cancelled’ by the industry as a whole, something which is particularly surprising given that Brown’s offences took place in the modern era against someone who’s particularly beloved by music fans the world over.
So why is it that such behavior is often overlooked still when we take stock of an artist’s achievements? At the 2018 Grammys, Janelle Monáe told the audience that “Time’s Up” on sexism in the music industry, yet misogynistic SoundCloud rappers like Lil Xan are more successful than ever, and even Kanye’s alignment with a racist president didn’t stop the G.O.O.D. Music rollout from becoming a chart success.
Although such controversy isn’t unique to the music industry, Hollywood has taken a far more proactive stance dealing with such issues over the past twelve months. In the wake of the #MeToo and ‘Time’s Up’ movements, industry stalwarts like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have been publicly disgraced for their actions and lost their standing within the film community as a result. Outside of this, there’s also been a reckoning in recent days for comedians and filmmakers who have previously joked about contentious subject matter like rape and pedophilia. Whether you believe that people like James Gunn and Dan Harmon deserve to pay for what they’ve said or not, at least there’s a willingness within Hollywood to tackle such issues head on, albeit one that’s long overdue.
In contrast, the music industry remains surprisingly passive about the problematic actions of popular artists and is even complicit in helping certain people advance their careers further, despite the troubling message that this might send out. Actors like Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey now struggle to find work thanks to the accusations made against them, yet hip-hop artists who allegedly engage in similar behavior are yet to be reckoned with. Of course, it’s not the music industry’s job to hold these people accountable if they haven’t been found guilty by a court of law. However, the fact that people like 6ix9ine continue to thrive even after admitting that they used a 13-year-old girl in a sexual performance is troubling to say the least.
Is It Ethical To Censor Unethical Content?
The one notable exception to this was the ‘Hate Content & Hateful Conduct’ policy that Spotify put in place earlier this year, which led to the removal of music from stars like R. Kelly and XXXTentacion on their playlists. While it’s commendable that such a prominent company within the industry would take such steps, the policy was poorly implemented and this ultimately led to its redaction just one month later.
As a representative for XXXTentacion pointed out, at least a dozen other mainstream artists had been accused of similar crimes to him and R. Kelly, yet their music continued to be promoted by the company as usual. Such hypocrisy was later acknowledged by Spotify CEO Daniel Ek when he admitted that the policy had been “too vague” and that they weren’t the ones to “play judge and jury.”
During an interview with Billboard, Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, also pointed out that the policy initially ignored other genres of music to focus exclusively on hip-hop and that censorship in this form “is a slippery slope.” As he rightly points out, "If they censor us now, ain't no telling what's going to happen in the future.” Music in all its forms is a fundamental form of expression and it’s true that censoring artists could have a dark impact further on down the road.
So where do we draw the line? Is it possible to separate the art from the artist and should we even do so or does our support of ethically dubious stars somehow make us complicit in their actions? Unfortunately, fans who might look to their favorite artists for answers will only encounter an even more complicated mess of questionable practice.
Aside from the aforementioned interview with Vince Staples, few artists have openly condemned R. Kelly, despite the fact that his alleged sexual misconduct has been public knowledge from as far back as the year 2000. Since then, a huge host of stars have worked alongside him, including Mary J. Blige, Pharrell Williams, and even Lady Gaga, who speaks out regularly against sexual predators in her work.
As recently as 2015, the likes of Ty Dolla $ign, Jhené Aiko, and Tinashe also appeared on R. Kelly’s latest album, The Buffet, and the 2017 allegations didn’t stop Charlie Wilson from touring with him earlier this year. In fact, few people have denounced him since, despite the fact that these collaborations all help fund an artist who has allegedly hurt a huge number of women.
Although supporters might be quick to argue that R. Kelly has never been officially found guilty by a court of law, (a questionable defense given how many times he’s settled with accusers out of court), the same isn’t true of 6ix9ine. Since the young rapper legally admitted that he included a minor in a sexual performance, he’s also been accused of choking a 16-year-old fan too. However, that didn’t stop Nicki Minaj from working alongside 6ix9ine on a new single called “FeFe”, which has since become the star’s most high profile release to date.
The reaction online veered wildly between fans who celebrated the collaboration and those who condemned Minaj for enabling someone like him to continue working in the industry. Despite this outrage, 6ix9ine has since joined the joint world tour that Minaj and Future are collaborating on together later this year and if that wasn’t questionable enough, Minaj also filmed a promo for “Fefe” alongside 6ix9ine that uses excessively colorful and arguably inappropriate childlike imagery. For some, it’s hard to reconcile the images in the video with the version of Nicki Minaj who openly condemned people who abuse children back in 2012, declaring that they “should be stoned to death in public.”
Queens Should Be Role Models
Unlike the media storm that surrounded James Gunn’s tweets about pedophilia, very few people from within the industry have openly criticized Minaj for showing solidarity with 6ix9ine in the same weekend. The one key exception to this is Azealia Banks, another female rapper who’s hardly a stranger to controversy either.
In a post that’s since been redacted, Banks labelled Minaj a “pedo apologist” online, describing hip-hop as “the only genre in modern times that normalizes sexual assault and physical abuse against women.” The star points out that people like Minaj are role models and “as such, thou shall not associate with or lend your voice to known pedophiles as you send the message that it’s okay for 18 year old boys to fondle 13 year old girls and get away with it.”
Although it’s easy for some to unfairly dismiss Banks here given her provocative past, other supporters of Minaj have taken a different route, arguing that such attacks on Nicki are unfair as she isn’t being held to the same standard as male artists who have also worked with 6ix9ine, including the likes of Offset and Fetty Wrap.
Although that’s another issue worth unpacking too, the fact remains that anyone who collaborates with 6ix9ine has still consciously separated the art from the artist in a way that diminishes the experience that his victims endured. To deflect this by pointing to the misdeeds of others is symptomatic of ‘whataboutism’ at its most dangerous and whether these deflections are also worthy of condemnation or not, it doesn’t change the fact that artists like 6ix9ine are still problematic.
For a long time, there’s been an assumption within the entertainment industry that the private behavior of an artist wouldn’t affect the financial success of their work, but now that Hollywood is finally beginning to hold people to account for their actions, it’s time for the music industry to do the same and that includes other artists within the system too. Sure, it’s easy to see why some stars wouldn’t want to dive into the controversy created by their peers, but it’s another thing to actively defend Kanye’s comments about slavery or choose to collaborate with 6ix9ine following his disturbing admission of guilt.
Readers might cry outrage at such condemnation, arguing that people deserve a second chance, that some allegations might be false or even that people like 6ix9ine were unaware of their crimes in the moment. Although there are cases where this might be true, it’s down to each each person to ask themselves why they’re so desperate to always put the art first in these debates. Why should our personal enjoyment take priority over the victims of these alleged crimes? There’s more than enough music out there to enjoy that’s been created by artists of presumably sound character.
Social media may help mobilize opinions on a global scale, but the decision to ‘cancel’ a celebrity or continue separating the art from the artist is ultimately down to the individual. For too long, we’ve taken our cues from the music industry on what to enjoy. Now that the world is more interconnected than ever, perhaps we can finally take these decisions into our own hands, or at least until the hip-hop industry stops enabling problematic behavior without question and finally starts to reckon with the inexcusable behavior of our most beloved icons.
For more of our op-eds, read about the significance of Tyler, the Creator's 'Flower Boy' album one year later right here.