In this era of #MeToo, it seems as if many of our favorite artists are being outed as sexual predators. The allegations range from isolated cases to years of rampant abuse of power and, inevitably, the abuse of bodies which are in lesser positions of power. Yet, once your favorite artist is outed as an abuser, can you still appreciate their art?
The short answer is no. I do not believe that the content of an artist can be altogether separated from the artist themselves. The creation of art is an extension of the imagination and the experience of the creator. Whether the medium involves the literal body of the artist, such as in dance, or some kind of lyrics which tell a story, the artist is embedded in the art at every turn by involving their experiences and their beliefs in their creation.
The most obvious example currently is that of R. Kelly, who was famously outed as a pedophile and a sexual predator in the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly.” From the very beginning of his career, he was literally recruiting fourteen year old girls to do his backup vocals, and according to the documentary, he asked them to recruit their friends, consistently telling them to, “go get [him] some girls.” When producing then fifteen-year-old Aaliyah’s first album, he titled the album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” He then married Aaliyah, fabricating documents claiming she was eighteen. At every turn of his career, he was flaunting his preference for young girls. His music is inseparable from who he is as a person, and as a predator.
Yet, R. Kelly is a large part of popular culture, and it is likely that many will still listen to his music even after these allegations. It is similar to how Chris Brown is still a chart-topping artist years after physically abusing his once-girlfriend Rihanna, back in 2009. Not only did his fans forgive his behavior, but they kept on buying his records, keeping him in a place of power. Elvis Presley began dating Priscilla Presley when she was fourteen years old, yet he is still considered to be the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Not only do we look the other way when our favorite artists are outed as problematic, but by continuing to support these artists, we are encouraging that bad behavior in the future. This is how we end up with a movement like #MeToo, in that we are constantly allowing abusers to stay in places of power, even when they are revealed to be abusers.
So, why have we continued to allow people to get away with patterns of abuse even after they are revealed to be abusers? It’s because it is easy. It is much more difficult to stop consuming media that feels meaningful even after these patterns are revealed. Oftentimes, these creators become so embedded in pop culture that separating the art from the artist would involve omitting massive chunks of music, art, dance or literary history for the sake of doing so. It feels as if removing these abusers from the public consciousness would do a disservice to the history of that medium, which in turn allows more abusers to get away with similar behavior.
Even more, we often do not believe that our favorite artists are capable of taking advantage of people in such a way, since we feel like we know that artist in some capacity. It is important to recognize that we only know that person’s persona. We may think we know R. Kelly, but Robert Kelly is a completely different person. We see a version of our heroes through the lens of publicists and media outlets, rather than knowing the actual person creating that art. In truth, we do not know our favorite artists at all, and believing we do has helped us to create this toxic and abusive culture, where harmful behavior is rewarded by fans turning the other cheek.
The reason we should not separate the artist from their art is that we are in turn rewarding that artist for their behavior. While it may feel harmless to stream Chris Brown’s latest album on Spotify, it in fact contributes in some way to his wealth, fame and power with every listen. To really stop the abuse that we have seen at every level of the entertainment industry, we need to take the power away from these abusers and instead support artists who do not use their fame to take advantage of other people.