BY JULIA CARMEL
The term “domestic abuse” didn’t mean anything to me until the 2009 Grammy Awards. But on that night, Rihanna was assaulted by her boyfriend, Chris Brown. The photos went viral, and Rihanna, who was 20 years old at the time, was left to face the gossip-hungry masses who were prying into her personal life and attempting to refute her accusations.
The most remarkable thing about this situation was how quickly both the fans and the media were willing to sweep Brown’s accountability out of the spotlight. Brown, who was 19 at the time, received probation and had to do community service, but his career emerged virtually unscathed.
It’s easy to say that these incidents, where toxic men were let off the hook, only happened in the past — before movements like #MeToo, and before we knew how to address these situations — but that’s just not true.
When Ke$ha sued her producer Dr. Luke she accused him of sexual, physical, emotional, and verbal abuse, yet Sony refused to void their contract. Rapper 6ix9ine, who pleaded guilty for using a child in a sexual performance back in 2015, released a successful debut album and is now opening for Nicki Minaj and Future’s NICKIHNDRXX tour. Music by XXXTentacion, a domestic abuser who was accused of horrific crimes, actually popularized while he was in jail.
So where do we draw the line when dealing with abusers who produce widely popular art?
This is a question that should have a simple answer. But when the fruits of someone’s labor are interesting and culturally valuable, people don’t want to give that up.
I would say that all of my friends are authentic, caring people, yet a handful of them endorse art that was made by abusers. It makes me wonder how people perform such blatant paradoxes; how can you openly speak out against abuse whilst appreciating and sharing art that was made by an abuser?
I suppose the biggest issue is that talent and productivity often manage to overshadow an artist being abusive. People choose to overlook these moral and ethical gaps, and some fans even make excuses.
Fans will claim that accusations are false, or they’ll blame the victims in one way or another. They’ll defend the abuser by twisting the narrative, ultimately portraying the abuser as a victim in their own right, as if there’s ever a valid reason to assault another person. And by shifting the abuser into a “victim,” these fans attempt to excuse artists from being held accountable for their actions.
This societal debate of whether we should separate art from artist began long before Dr. Luke, or 6ix9ine, or XXXTentacion, or Chris Brown. There’s a long list of men who have been simultaneously abusive and successful (See: Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly, John Lennon) leading many of us to look back in horror at the incredible careers that have been led by horrific people.
Spotify attempted to address this issue with their “hateful conduct” policy, which was supposed to remove alleged abusers from the platform’s own promoted playlists. The first three artists to be affected by this policy were R. Kelly, XXXTentacion, and Tay-K, who were each removed from Spotify’s playlists for a variety of accusations. Yet Spotify rolled back the policy shortly after implementing it, citing that the parameters were too vague to be effective.
It’s hard to place blame on a company that’s navigating such a tricky ethical problem. When the language that’s supposed to hold people accountable is intentionally vague, that can both help and harm the effectiveness of the policy. And the actual implementation raised many questions; Did it create glaring, hypocritical gaps when they removed R. Kelly, yet left The Beatles?
Because it’s easier for accountability to fall through corporate cracks, much of the initiative falls on average listeners. It’s up to us to carefully choose the art and the artists that we support.
It can be happier and more optimistic to hide behind claims of change and progress, casting these problems into the past. And when we learn about abusers, it can be less painful to claim that no one knew what they were doing at the time, and that we would stop those actions if we saw them now.
But it’s necessary to unlearn our dismissive habits. As artists that we once respected are outed as abusers, we have to address our actions carefully.
It can hurt on an alarmingly personal level when an artist whom we have already loved and respected for years is being accused of abuse, but it’s not fair to dismiss claims of abuse just for our own peace of mind.
It hasn’t been this difficult before, but that’s because we’ve been silent and complicit in the support of abusers for a very long time. These successful abusers have been around for centuries — we just didn’t want to expend the emotional labor that it takes to evaluate artists’ actions, in tandem with their art, until people forced us to.
It isn’t ethical, or responsible, to draw a veil between an artist’s personal life and their art. Every person’s craft is closely tethered to their being, and in supporting what they produce, you’re also supporting them — full stop.
As minuscule as streaming as song or a movie may seem, these actions can normalize abusers. By consuming their art, we’re being more than complicit — we’re affirming that it’s okay to harm other people as long as you’re producing work that can be widely enjoyed.
This also reaffirms the idea that we have to cling to talented artists, and treat them as irreplaceable. It encourages and perpetuates an unhealthy practice of keeping toxic people in our lives just because they haven’t personally attacked us, which is unfair to both the people who they have attacked, and to ourselves.
And though each artist is (hopefully) creating unique and beautiful art, it’s important to remember that we’re have no shortage of artists on this planet. For every artist who is an abuser, there are thousands of genuinely good people who are producing art that is objectively more well suited for public consumption. As unsettling as it is that a growing list of famous artists have been accused of abuse, we can take this as an opportunity to amplify marginalized voices. It’s the perfect time to explore new artists, and to hear stories from people who aren’t usually in control of their own narrative.
Now is as good a time as any to hold yourself accountable. Give some serious thought to the artists you support and the perspectives you pay attention to. Fans steer the narrative when it comes to pop culture, and when you actively choose to boycott artists who are being abusive, it makes a tangible difference. I promise.