When Kesha performed at the Grammy Awards in January, Janelle Monáe introduced her by talking about the Time’s Up movement: “It’s not just going on in Hollywood, it’s not just going on in Washington [D.C.], it’s right here in our industry as well.” Kesha — backed by Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Andra Day and others, all wearing white — sang “Praying,” her anthem that centered on her yearslong legal battle with former producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. “Praying” was a triumphant reclamation of the singer’s power and narrative, and among fans and on social media, it felt as if a wave of change might finally be coming to the music biz.
The #MeToo movement has profoundly affected the film and TV industries, and accused men who try to restart their careers are often met with disdain (e.g., Louis C.K.). In music, such men seem to have an easier time of it. In 2017, three years after Kesha leveled her accusations against him, Gottwald co-produced pop sensation Kim Petras’ debut single. In May 2017, Antonio “L.A.” Reid left Sony music following a sexual harassment claim by an assistant. Within months, he raised $75 million for a revival of his Hitco Entertainment company. The label has signed artists including Big Boi and Dinah Jane of Fifth Harmony.
Others are less public, but possibly biding their time for a comeback: Charlie Walk, former president of Universal Music Group’s Republic Group, parted ways with the label in March after adamantly denying several allegations of sexual misconduct. After 11 women made allegations including rape and sexual assault against music mogul Russell Simmons, he stepped down from all of his companies last fall, but on Nov. 7 tweeted a sketch of women on a pink background with the caption, “Women Win.”
Discussions about misogyny in music are often about lyrics, or the artists who fans love despite their misdeeds. Still, the industry tends to overlook how some musicians flaunt their love for women close to them, but disrespect women more generally. Take Lil Wayne, who opened Tha Carter V with a touching tribute from his mother, and on the next track, featured a posthumous verse from XXXTentacion, who faced domestic abuse allegations, including aggravated battery of his pregnant ex-girlfriend. The new X album, SKINS, includes “One Minute,” featuring Kanye West, on which West raps: “Now your name is tainted by the claims they paintin’/The defendant is guilty, no one blames the plaintiff.”
XXXTentacion was popular in part due to his controversial nature. So, too, is 6ix9ine, who in October 2015 pleaded guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance and, this November, was indicted on six counts including racketeering, firearm offenses, assault with a dangerous weapon and conspiracy to commit murder charges.
The executives who back these artists profit from them. Accountability and growth cannot be sustained in this cycle. Music is not made in a traditional workspace, not even one as structured as those of TV and film. There’s a greater potential to abuse power dynamics in the private, small group settings in studios and backstage areas. As long as those spaces are overseen by entrenched executives, there will be little trickle-down change.
Few artists, meanwhile, have been outright rejected by fans or the industry for their behavior. R. Kelly only became toxic after years of rigorous reporting by Chicago-based journalist Jim DeRogatis, including a 2017 BuzzFeed report on Kelly’s abusive “sex cult.” Still, Kelly recently wrapped a U.S. tour and remains signed to RCA — which also still releases music by Chris Brown, who in 2009 pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna. Brown was welcomed to the stage by Drake on a tour stop in November.
On May 10, Spotify removed music by Kelly and XXXTentacion from playlists and recommendations as part of a new “hate content and hateful conduct” policy. But after backlash for removing artists that have not been convicted and appearing to target black artists in hip-hop/R&B genres, Spotify revised its policy on June 1.
Kesha’s emotive Grammy performance was the culmination — but not resolution — of years of personal and professional turmoil going back to October 2014, when she alleged that Gottwald sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused her. In February 2016, a New York judge denied an injunction that would have allowed Kesha to record music outside of the producer’s Sony imprint, Kemosabe, and in doing so allowed his estimated $40 million countersuit for defamation to move forward. By April 2017, Gottwald was no longer CEO of Kemosabe. Still, Kesha was forced to record under the imprint he started, according to her contract, and released Rainbow with his approval in 2017. And on Nov. 29, his team denied the accusations once again: “It is horrendous to falsely accuse someone of a heinous act. That is what has happened here.”
Bad behavior in the music industry is too often and too easily overlooked. There’s no clear solution to accelerate the kind of reckoning that came to other industries. But change does not necessarily need to be forced from outside. It can come from within if, for example, record labels sign artists to contracts that require them to treat women and others appropriately, in professional and personal settings. Supporters of music must commit to making it safe for everyone involved.