In December 1996, a woman named Tiffany Hawkins sued R. Kelly, alleging that the R&B superstar had “engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct” with her when she was 15, “including but not limited to engaging in group sexual intercourse with (her) and other minors.” Reporter Jim DeRogatis investigated the suit for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, effectively launching almost two decades of public sexual misconduct allegations against Kelly. Seventeen years later, DeRogatis published his latest and perhaps most disturbing report, detailing a sex “cult” in which young black women are forced to dress, eat, and behave according to R. Kelly’s edicts.
In the era of Me Too, when famous and powerful men are finally facing consequences for their actions, it’s difficult to stomach the fact that DeRogatis’ painstaking reporting did not end R. Kelly’s career once and for all. The situation is disturbing, but not inexplicable. As DeRogatis told the Village Voice, the “saddest fact” he’s learned on the R. Kelly beat is that “Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.” He pointed out that, to his knowledge, the singer “never misbehaved with a single white girl,” concluding, “No, it was young black girls and all of them settled. They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn’t have a chance.”
Given the particulars of R. Kelly’s case—his years of alleged misconduct combined with a penchant to prey on the most vulnerable—it’s no wonder that he’s come under fire from Time’s Up, the entertainment industry collective that’s organizing around issues of safety in the workplace and gender equity. On Monday, Women of Color of Time’s Up published an open letter addressed to “our fellow women of color,” introducing the #MuteRKelly campaign. They wrote, “As women of color within Time’s Up, we recognize that we have a responsibility to help right this wrong. We intend to shine a bright light on our WOC sisters in need. It is our hope that we will never feel ignored or silenced ever again.”
The letter went on to call on corporations like RCA Records, Ticketmaster, Spotify and Apple Music to reexamine their relationships with R. Kelly. “The scars of history make certain that we are not interested in persecuting anyone without just cause,” they concluded. “With that said, we demand appropriate investigations and inquiries into the allegations of R. Kelly’s abuse made by women of color and their families for over two decades now. And we declare with great vigilance and a united voice to anyone who wants to silence us: Their time is up.”
In response to #MuteRKelly, the artist’s management issued a statement insisting that, “R. Kelly supports the pro-women goals of the Time’s Up movement.” However, it continued, “Since America was born, black men and women have been lynched for having sex or for being accused of it. We will vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”
It’s worth noting that hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women, also released a statement in support of Time’s Up this week. In an unsolicited Instagram post, Simmons wrote, “The reason I haven’t been too angry about my personal situation is because listening intently to the dialogue around the #metoo movement has inspired me to look beyond my personal scenario. In the end I’ll be fine.” Simmons, who has denied allegations of nonconsensual sex, added, “A little blood on my shoulders so that my daughters see a better world is worth it.”
The fact that Simmons, whose case was greeted as the would-be catalyst for an avalanche of music-industry accusations, appears to be so beyond his own allegations that he’s issuing statements praising #MeToo, suggests that certain men in certain industries might remain untouchable after all.
Simmons can say “in the end I’ll be fine” and know it to be true because there’s little precedent for any other outcome.
Historically, the music industry is inhospitable to allegations and sympathetic to accused abusers. Lily Allen is one of the few popular artists who has offered an in-depth analysis of why #MeToo has yet to take hold in her industry, tweeting that, “The reason people in music aren’t coming forward in droves is because we’re all in decade long deals, unlike film and TV where for the most part, contracts last as long as any one project. Say you’re on album 1 of a 5 album deal. Music industry is a boys club, especially at executive level, if you report something and it goes nowhere, as is the case mostly, there is a strong likelihood that your abuser will be connected to someone [with] direct control over yr future.”
Furthermore, there are layers of complicity that need to be called out before any meaningful change can occur. Alice Glass, the former Crystal Castles’ frontwoman who actually did call out her alleged abuser, ex-bandmate Ethan Kath, told The Daily Beast how the people around her ultimately looked the other way. “I just assumed that these professionals were looking out for me, but they weren’t,” Glass said. “It was just about getting an easy 10 or 15 percent. And people ruthlessly lie to young women’s faces and say that they’re going to do whatever they can to protect them… I was signed on Universal, we were working with decently big booking agents, so I would assume that there would be something in place to protect the safety of their clients, but there really isn’t. There isn’t anything at all in place to protect vulnerable young women. In a lot of ways I guess that’s kind of the point for predators in the entertainment industry: We’re easy targets.”
In other words, until outside censure or a newly awakened moral compass compels them, music-industry players will continue to ignore abuse and red flags in order to protect their business and the profitable celebrities that propel it. This culture of silence becomes stronger every time a fan base succumbs to convenient amnesia, forgetting about the alleged or proven crimes committed by their favorite artist right in time for a new hit single or album release.
After all, R. Kelly isn’t the only artist we’ve failed to mute. Even on the rare occasion of musician-on-musician crime, the fact that the victim is influential and beloved in her own right isn’t enough to sideline her abuser. The strongest, most recent examples of this phenomenon are Chris Brown and Dr. Luke.
Despite exhibiting a history of violence against women and physically abusing one of the most popular artists of our generation, Brown has managed to maneuver comeback after comeback. Most recently, he starred in a lighthearted video for his Lil Dicky collab “Freaky Friday,” alongside Ed Sheeran, Kendall Jenner, and DJ Khaled. If nothing else, Chris Brown’s brand should be toxic enough that A-listers don’t feel comfortable appearing alongside him in music videos. The fact that these stars don’t appear to be aware or afraid of any potential backlash reinforces the idea that Brown and all of the other abusers really will be fine in the end.
In the case of Kesha and Dr. Luke, it was the singer who ultimately faced the harshest consequences after accusing her producer of sexual assault and battery and sexual harassment, among a host of other allegations. Kesha’s claims escalated into a full-on, years-long legal battle, as she fought to be released from her recording contract. In one legal filing, she wrote, “You can get a divorce from an abusive spouse. You can dissolve a partnership if the relationship becomes irreconcilable. The same opportunity—to be liberated from the physical, emotional, and financial bondage of a destructive relationship—should be available to a recording artist.”
While Kesha’s recent comeback has been unconvincingly folded into the narrative of Me Too, with a moving performance of her song “Praying” at the 2018 Grammy Awards, it’s hard to spin the singer’s case as a step forward. If anything, Kesha’s battle was a window into the hell and apathy that any victim of a powerful music-industry player is likely to face if they come forward. In other cases, allegations of abuse elicit something even more distasteful than apathy. For the rapper XXXTentaction, who was arrested in 2016 on charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering, vile allegations seem to have actually piqued interest in the hip-hop newcomer.
Given the chart success of his latest album, it’s safe to say that XXXTentacion hasn’t been muted. And he’s not alone. There are artists like Ted Nugent, whose well-substantiated predilection for young girls has been more or less forgotten—Courtney Love claimed to have had oral sex with Nugent when she was 12, and Nugent once became a 17-year-old girl’s legal guardian when he realized that she was too young to marry.
Then there are the subjects of recent accusations, like Nick Carter, who allegedly sexually assaulted Dream singer Melissa Schuman when she was 18, and Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey. Lacey was accused by at least two women of “sexual harassment, manipulative behavior, and child grooming.” His case mirrors that of Crystal Castles’ Ethan Kath, who allegedly used his celebrity status to forge relationships with young female fans.
While both Brand New and Crystal Castles now face uncertain futures thanks to fan backlash and cancelled tour dates, it’s worth wondering what it would look like to have a system in which all abusers faced consequences for their crimes, and where muting a man for a pattern of sexual misconduct was the established norm, not a rare and hard-won victory.