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In one of the most devastating scenes of six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, Andrea Kelly fights back tears as she recalls the night she was almost driven to suicide. After years of being silenced and consistently abused – both physically and mentally – by her ex-husband, she recalls feeling ready to hurl herself off of a Miami hotel balcony. But in a moment of clarity, she stopped herself. Instead, she went inside to find her laptop and promptly searched for a domestic violence hotline website. It was here that she saw a list of seventeen questions designed to identify an abusive relationship; it was a list that changed her life.
“There were only two things on that list that Robert hadn’t done to me,” she says, her voice cracking as she speaks. “That’s when it became real to me – Andrea, you’re being abused.”
Dream Hampton’s meticulously-researched series has made headlines not just because of scenes like this, but because most of the horrific allegations made against R. Kelly were already public knowledge. He was arrested in 2002 on child pornography charges, but his bail was immediately posted and his trial was delayed for six years, during which time he released one of his most successful albums, The Chocolate Factory. By the time his trial finally came around in 2008, the case against him had been weakened significantly – and outlets lauding him as a musical genius and dowplaying reports didn’t help matters. The docuseries also features a quote from a juror, who pointedly admits that he “didn’t like the look” of the women testifying against Kelly. Unsurprisingly, he was acquitted.
It’s taken decades for Surviving R. Kelly to come to fruition, but streaming services still haven’t removed his music entirely, only scrubbing it from playlists. The allegations following his 2008 court trial have been largely brushed off despite their severity, and artists including Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Hudson have continued to work with him. A handful of previous collaborators have publicly denounced him since the series aired, but none of this changes the fact that Kelly has enjoyed almost three decades of success despite overwhelming evidence that he’s a predator. Not even a sordid, lengthy Buzzfeed investigation detailing his “abusive cult” was enough to see him properly held accountable.
A quick glance through the Billboard 100 shows that he isn’t the only artist to thrive despite allegations made against him; the likes of Kodak Black, Chris Brown, and the late XXXTentacion still feature prominently on the charts, despite accusations and indictments. (Black was indicted for sexual assault in October 2017; Brown was recently released after being arrested for rape allegations, but he has a long history of allegedly beating and abusing women, most famously his ex-girlfriend Rihanna). Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp may have forced us to take sexual assault seriously, but it seems we’re still unwilling to do so when our favourite musicians are the abusers on trial. Will this ever change, or are we simply determined to separate the art from the artist? More importantly, should it really take Surviving R. Kelly-levels of horror to properly hold musicians accountable?
The answers to these questions aren’t straightforward, especially in 2019. The truth is that, for decades, we’ve been uncritically consuming music made by artists whose lives are far from unproblematic. We tend to forget that David Bowie allegedly had sex with a 14-year-old, or that Steven Tyler reportedly got a vulnerable 16-year-old girl pregnant and then pressured her into having an abortion. We gloss over the fact that Priscilla Presley was just 14 when she met future husband Elvis, and that she later talked about moulding her personality to suit his desires. One of the only musicians to have been held properly accountable is Jerry Lee Lewis, but that’s arguably only because his 13-year-old mistress was his cousin. His career was derailed by the scandal, but he remains the exception to the rule.
Why is this? Well, we place musicians on a pedestal because their artistry informs our lives. We laugh, dance, and fuck to their songs, and we have enough distance that we can craft our own imaginary portraits of our idols. When cracks begin to show in their façades, our automatic instinct is to defend their legacy – or at least that’s the theory that recurs throughout Surviving R. Kelly. In the days before the internet this was easier to do; we could put down the newspaper or turn off the television, but the way we digitally consume media today makes it much more difficult to switch off.
In the case of R. Kelly, there are also other factors at play, arguably the most important of which is race. “We all noticed [what was going on],” says one interviewee when she describes high school employees turning a blind eye to Kelly’s frequent visits and the controversy surrounding his relationship with underage girlfriend Aaliyah. “No-one cared because we were black girls,” she states bluntly.
A lack of studies and figures makes this statement difficult to statistically prove, but sometimes numbers aren’t needed – the lived experience of countless women indicates that black women are more often dismissed and ignored than white women. Statistics do show that they’re also disproportionately likely to face sexual violence at a younger age, and that women of color more likely be sexually assaulted than their white female counterparts, but comprehensive studies are still hard to come by. Conviction rates are still infuriatingly low – in the UK they’re the lowest in a decade – and most rape cases don’t even get reported. Thee National Sexual Violence Resource Center describes it as the “most under-reported crime,” with 63% of all sexual assaults never being reported to police.
Even the narratives around sexual violence which do trickle out are all too often whitewashed. Nobody knows this better than Tarana Burke, who founded the MeToo movement way back in 2006 and spent the subsequent years advocating tirelessly for victims. It wasn’t until more than a decade later that she woke up to find the hashtag had gone viral, but its circulation was due to a series of tweets by rich, white women in Hollywood.
Of course, their stories are still vital – the horrifying tales that trickled out revealed decades of abuse perpetrated by powerful men and covered up by complicit aides and fast cash payouts – but the hashtag went uncredited, and Burke was temporarily erased as a result. Actress Alyssa Milano quickly realized that Burke had founded the movement and apologized, reaching out to work with Burke in the future, but Burke admits being worried that her contributions would be permanently erased. “I didn’t see any of the work I laid out over the previous decade attached to [the hashtag],” she later tweeted. “I thought for sure I would be erased from a thing I worked so hard to build.”
This combination of discrimination, erasure, and power arguably kept R. Kelly’s career afloat as he fielded horror story after horror story, but even after Surviving R. Kelly, it seems people are reluctant to condemn him. His music is still available on streaming services, but Spotify introduced a feature to allow us all to do what activists have been urging us to do – #MuteRKelly.
But why has it taken so long for us to take these accusations seriously? And why aren’t we applying this level of scrutiny as a universal standard? Kelly’s crimes are particularly heinous, but Chris Brown has been beating women for more than a decade and issuing sub-par apologies in the immediate aftermath. Calls to boycott his music have evidently been ignored, and the Huffington Post recently summarized reactions to his arrest on rape allegations. Spoiler alert: they’re depressing. Just days later he released a new song, “Who Dis?,” about a character that cheats on his partner; he also re-released a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘This Bitch Lyin’’ in obvious reference to his accuser, as he has also filed a lawsuit against her for defamation.
Like Kelly, there’s overwhelming evidence to suggest that Brown has beaten multiple women over the years. His track record speaks for itself, yet it seems we’re still unlikely to believe victims. This pattern becomes even more common when they are victims of sexual assault – as mentioned, conviction rates prove just how difficult it is to secure prosecution.
On top of that, the legal process requires victims to relive their own trauma in front of a jury who could easily discredit them because – as with Kelly’s juror – they simply “don’t like the look” of them. Statements often accuse victims of “provocative behavior;” in extreme scenarios, their underwear is presented as supposed evidence of promiscuity, still deemed synonymous with consent. The general rule of thumb is that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, but the opposite seems to be true in cases of sexual assault. A culture of disbelief coercively silences survivors, and those who do prosecute are generally presumed not to be innocent by default. Is there any wonder conviction rates are so low?
We feed into this when we continue to defend artists accused of misconduct, but not even famous victims are exempt from the misogyny that so often comes with opening up about abuse. Nobody knows this better than Kesha, who sued long-time collaborator Dr. Luke in 2014. In her claim she accused him of “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abusing” her to “the point where [she] nearly lost her life” in order to “maintain complete control over her life and career.” Luke vehemently denied the allegations but, as is so often the case, an enormous power imbalance was present – to the extent that Kesha said she believed he had the money and power to carry out the threats he made against her. As a result, she stayed silent.
The case may be complicated, but a recently-unsealed deposition made by Lady Gaga revealed the kind of questioning that witnesses are subjected to in court. Gaga herself is a sexual assault survivor, and she also recently released a public apology for the work she made with R. Kelly and swiftly removed it from streaming services, citing poor mental health at the time. In a frustrating exchange at Kesha’s trial, Gaga defended her friend against Dr. Luke’s lawyer, who frequently implied that she was lying. “I believe her,” Gaga said repeatedly, recalling the text message conversations filled with allegations. But Luke’s lawyer refused to budge on the ling of questioning, escalating the situation until Gaga eventually snapped, saying: “Why on earth would this girl tell the entire world this happened? Do you know what it’s like for survivors? Do you know what it’s like to tell people? Don’t you roll your eyes at me. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Kesha’s allegations haven’t stopped artists like Kim Petras and Iggy Azalea from working with Dr. Luke, but it has highlighted just how difficult it is to ‘mute’ people in the music industry. Luke has been behind some of the biggest songs in pop music history by artists including – but not limited to – Britney, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, and Katy Perry, so to remove any trace of his work from streaming services would prove almost impossible.
There’s also the fact that plenty of us don’t want to mute our favorite artists, no matter how horrific the allegations made against them. The reality is that Chris Brown’s old hits still bang, and that R Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” is undeniably one of the catchiest songs ever made – to remove them permanently from streaming services would mean taking away a part of musical history, no matter how problematic. This is why we repeatedly tell ourselves to separate art from the artist; to stop listening to our favorite songs requires a sort of sacrifice, and it’s one that plenty of us aren’t willing to make – either because we just don’t want to, or because we don’t think it’s worth it.
Realistically, we all know that streaming doesn’t generate much income in 2019. High-profile complaints by the likes of Taylor Swift have shown just how little there is to be gained in terms of royalties (although Swift later inked a landmark deal which could change that slightly), so the argument that we’re financially supporting abusive artists by continuing to stream them doesn’t check out. The most effective way to stop their bag – to paraphrase Cardi B – is to push for their shows to be canceled; or obviously, as is the case post-Surviving R. Kelly, to speak out against them until their crimes are taken seriously. We can do these things but still listen to their music, right?
But the problem is that artists are held to different standards when they’re abusive because they have power. And this power isn’t just financial, it’s cultural. An influential musician can survive just about anything with the right friends and supporters. It’s why Ian Connor continues to sit front row at every fashion week despite more than 20 accusations of rape; it’s why rapper 6ix9ine, currently in prison due to numerous charges, saw his album Dummy Boy go straight to #1 – a success no doubt propelled by guest verses from Kanye West and Nicki Minaj.
What message does it send when artists accused of abuse see their streaming figures swell as a result? It tells them that their career can survive even the most horrific incidents, and it tells potential victims that there’s no point speaking up – the backlash from fans and media ultimately won’t be worth it.
After Surviving R. Kelly was screened, the number of calls made to anti-sexual violence organization RAINN shot up, indicating that viewers weren’t passively watching these survivors recount their trauma – they were seeing themselves in the stories. Kelly’s lawyers have dismissed the allegations made in the six-part docuseries, but it seems the sheer number of women interviewed and the commonalities their statements shared – that he would make them call him ‘daddy,’ that he would starve them if they disobeyed him – painted worrying tales of everyday abuse that viewers could relate to. The show sparked vital conversations around what constitutes an abusive relationship, and the staggering amount of calls made indicates that they’re relevant to all too many of us.
It’s easy to distance ourselves from artists; we put them on a pedestal and view their fame as a reason to disengage with them as people. We can separate their work from their character because we don’t truly know their character, not even through Twitter feeds and feature-length interviews. This theoretical distance makes it easy to justify streaming their work, or defending them online, or turning a blind eye to the allegations made against them, no matter how awful they are.
But what about the victims? In the conversations around sexual abuse in the industry, we tend to focus solely on the musicians, and this does victims a disservice. It dehumanizes them; it treats them as nothing more than a news hook to stir up old debates around art and accountability. But the truth is that whenever we support artists accused of sexual assault, or an equally horrific crime, we buy into a power dynamic that affects us all. We strengthen this idea that invincibility can be bought, and we automatically discredit the stories of victims already fighting the innumerable odds stacked against them.
Surviving R. Kelly was devastating precisely because the survivors shared one thing in common: people didn’t believe them. Instead, they sided with a musical legend they knew relatively little about, and even after his trial they blindly trusted a court decision without considering the numerous factors that made it far from a ‘fair trial.’ The docuseries should be seen as a warning, but more than anything it should be seen as a wake-up call. By giving our favorite artists a free pass, we could be actively contributing to the creation of a monster.
If you have been sexually assaulted, there are resources to help you.