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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 January 2019

Why it’s time for the pop world to face the #MeToo music

With singer R Kelly’s alleged abuses the basis of a new documentary, we look at what needs to be done
to clean up the music business

R Kelly isn’t the only male music star who has been the subject of allegations or controversy. Getty
R Kelly isn’t the only male music star who has been the subject of allegations or controversy. Getty

Ever since its emergence in October 2017, the #MeToo movement has swiftly moved through disparate industries, from film and television to banking and academia, taking down a range of high-profile industry leaders for discriminatory behaviour against women.

Yet despite its profile – the movement’s “silence breakers” were named 2017’s Time Person of the Year – and potent force to affect change, the #MeToo juggernaut has yet to make effectual inroads into the music industry.

But the murmurs of a full reckoning are gaining voice once again with the Surviving R Kelly documentary presently riveting audiences in the United States.

Beginning last week, the six-part series is an in-depth look into the numerous sexual allegations made against the R‘n’B singer, from paedophilia to assault, against a host of women – the highest profile of whom was the singer Aaliyah before her death in 2001.

He has yet to be found guilty of any charges in a court of law, but such is the force of the accusations against Kelly, coupled by dozens of interviews with alleged victims and former Kelly collaborators, that the movement is once again focusing its sights on the music business. The public is beginning to take action, too.

After the first episode was screened on Thursday, a disturbing video dropped on Twitter, taken at a Drake concert years ago, during his clean-shaven days, that shows him welcoming a fan on stage, before proceeding to grope her and kiss her on the neck.

When the woman states she is 17 years old, Drake replies: “I can’t go to jail yet, man,” to roars from the crowd.

The release of that video capped a bad week for the current chart king. Earlier that same day, Drake received online backlash for posting a picture – now deleted – standing alongside controversial R‘n’B singer Chris Brown, with a cryptic post suggesting they are collaborating on new music.

The post took fans by surprise. Here was Drake, the supposedly super-sensitive rapper who broke genre barriers by lyrically confessing his respect for women, now about to hit the studio with someone with a well-­documented history of violence against women – the list includes pop star and former girlfriend Rihanna.

Then again, the chances of Drake’s reign being affected by these developments feel highly unlikely. Not only is Drake backed by a mega fan base seemingly content to continually forgive their hero’s misdemeanours, he is protected by the music industry, the culture and profit margins of which is built on exploitation of women.

A history of protection

For decades, the music business has been able to withstand various allegations and investigations made regarding the ill-treatment and abuse of women by key players.

Despite the ousting of a small number of influential figures (such as former Epic Records chief executive L A Reid after sexual-harassment claims in 2017), the male-centric culture of the music industry continues to thrive. There is a legacy celebrating bad behaviour and a competitive ethos powered by the view perhaps best described as “skin is win”.

“There is no doubt that appeal is key to an artist,” an anonymous music talent scout based in Beirut tells The National.

“When we are working with [a female] artist, we also work with image consultants in trying to give her the best look. It’s a process in the industry we call ‘tandheef’ [cleaning].”

When asked whether that process is all about gaining male attention, he replies: “Of course. We are thinking about sex appeal, there is no doubt about it.”

That process is as old as pop music itself. Over the years, young stars from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna all went through their own bouts of “tandheef” to achieve their current lofty standings.

But their touch-ups were tame in comparison to the hyper-­sexualised pop market of today – an era in which former child-stars such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus have all appeared nude for magazine cover shots to herald their transition from Disney music innocence to adult pop.

It was a trend that moved singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor to pen an open letter to Cyrus in 2013, claiming she was being “prostituted” by the music industry. Cyrus didn’t take it kindly and fired back on Twitter.

Speaking to The National two years later, O’Connor doubled down on her thoughts regarding the letter. “What I see now is that all of these artists are only writing about sex – and singing with no clothes on. That is really weird to me and it’s something I don’t like because these artists’ audience consists of minors,” she said.

“I think there is something very sinister going on when you have an entire generation of people being groomed by such artists and their music. For a woman now entering the industry, there is a lot of pressure to take your clothes off – and that’s ­dangerous.”

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Excess is the legacy of popular music

Sex and vice are deeply ingrained within all forms of popular music in various forms.

Where artists such as Madonna skirted the fine line between sensuality and bad taste – rock ‘n’ roll and, most recently, hip-hop groups fully embrace its hedonistic spirit. Bad behaviour was almost always tolerated as long as the money was coming in thick and fast.

A recent investigation by The Washington Post found that record executives willfully turned a blind eye to R Kelly’s exploits, particularly the damning home videos he recorded, because of his large album sales. This is not an insolated case: music legend Marvin Gaye and country singer Glen Campbell were known to abuse their partners at the time, yet were not sanctioned because of their sales successes.

This creates a toxic environment for aspiring female artists to wade through. With a warped and sexualised concept of stardom, and a history of their idols undergoing a similar career trajectory, not to mention an industry that allows male artists to behave with impunity, it is no wonder their career paths are mired with minefields of potential exploitation.

Which leads to the question: what responsibility do we have to bear as the music-buying public? The answer is not simple. Prior to Surviving R Kelly, the singer endured an online campaign urging listeners to boycott his music on digital-streaming platforms.

The results were mixed: promoters cancelled a slew of Kelly’s US concerts, while streaming giant Spotify removed him from its official playlists (although not entirely from the service) as part of a new anti-hate policy.

The decision was quickly reversed, however, following an outcry from fans and fellow musicians who claimed the move was more to do with social-media pressure than any real moral obligation.

Separating the art and artist

It underscores the unique relationship people have with their favourite artists.

Adam Behr, a lecturer in popular and contemporary music at Newcastle University in the UK, describes the bond as one that is deeply emotional and that can often withstand shocking behaviour.

“People identify with music in a strong way and perhaps stronger than film and other forms of art,” he says. “People use it as a badge of identity. And if you say that certain behaviours are unacceptable and the people doing it are those you have been venerating for all these years, it is difficult to take yourselves out of that.”

Conversations regarding the problematic singers, Behr says, should be couched in a way that separates artists from their music.

“It is a case where that if a person did a bad thing that should not invalidate their art,” he says. “And at the same time, their art shouldn’t blind you to their bad behaviour.”

Behr’s advice to #MeToo advocates taking on the music industry is to play the long game. While the experience of watching Kelly being skinned on television can be deeply satisfying to some people, change in the music industry, he says, “won’t happen overnight”.

For one, Behr says more women need to be given more positions in the industry’s upper echelons.

“There are plenty of women in the music industry. There are plenty of women in music magazines, but not many behind the scenes in charge of record labels. We need more women at that executive level because research has shown that when that happens such behaviours will be curbed,” he says.

“This is really a grass-roots approach. We need to have more women in all levels, from executives to sound engineering and apprenticeships to A&R [talent scouts and artist development], to effect these changes, and that applies across most fields.”

In the meantime, women facing oppression within the industry are encouraged to speak out and ask for help – this is the advice of pop star Kesha. The American singer underwent one of the modern music’s industry’s most acrimonious court cases after alleging pop producer Dr Luke – who was behind her hits Tik Tok and Timber – subjected her to wide-­ranging abuse. He denied the allegations and subsequently counter-sued.

Despite the ongoing legal rumble, Kesha described how reaching out for help within and outside the industry was responsible for her getting through the darkest periods.

“If you are dealing with something, the best thing you can do is talk about it and ask for help. If I hadn’t decided to work on myself, I may not be here right now,” she told The National last year.

“Asking for help is the bravest and strongest thing you can do, and there are lots of ­people and places that can help you.”

Updated: January 7, 2019 06:03 PM

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