When a federal jury in Brooklyn convicted R. Kelly on Monday of racketeering and sex trafficking charges, it was immediately seen as a turning point.
After decades of accusations of abuse, backed by dogged reporting that has given voice to dozens of young women, Kelly, the R&B superstar behind hits like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Ignition (Remix)” – who was acquitted of child pornography charges in a 2008 trial – was ultimately held accountable. Kelly, 54, now faces life in prison.
But Kelly’s condemnation has been met with a muted response in the music industry, with little public comment from top artists and cricketers among the companies that released his music and continue to host it online.
For the music world, the implicit question posed by Kelly’s lawsuit — widely considered the most high-profile sexual abuse case in industry history — is whether the business itself can change. . Can record labels, managers, streaming services and radio stations cut abusers off the tap of fame and money rather than allowing bad behavior by looking the other way?
Some activists have been applauded by the sentencing and the trial’s focus on the testimony of black women, seeing it as a tipping point that could encourage more victims to come forward and lead to financial or criminal consequences for the abusers.
“It’s the beginning where women are believed and taken seriously,” said Dorothy Carvello, former record executive and author of “Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry” (2018).
“Predatory behavior, just like Harvey Weinstein, will land you in a jail cell,” Carvello added.
Others feared that the relative silence of major artists and major entertainment companies was a sign that little would change without firm commitments to hunt and punish abusers.
“R. Kelly is not enough; he is the tip of the iceberg that goes to the bottom of the ocean of the music industry,” said Drew Dixon, another former music executive, who in 2017 said that Russell Simmons , hip-hop label mogul Def Jam, had raped her while she worked for him. (He “vehemently” denied the accusation.) leading stars and leading activists – speak out, speak out, speak out when these predators raise their heads.”
“People in power, in power with a platform so much bigger than mine, have to say they have zero tolerance,” Dixon added.
Kelly’s conviction underscores the music industry’s relative lack of impact from the #MeToo movement, which swept Hollywood, politics and the business world beginning in 2017. While entertainment brokers like Weinstein and Leslie Moonves, and government figures like Eric T. Schneiderman, the former New York Attorney General, tumbling from lofty heights, the tidal wave of justice seemed to largely bypass pop music.
In addition to Simmons, shock rocker Marilyn Manson has been accused of sexual and physical abuse by several women, including Evan Rachel Wood, and singer-songwriter Ryan Adams has been accused of misconduct, including emotional and verbal abuse, and harassment in texts and on social media. (Both have denied the charges.) If you blinked at the 2018 Grammy Awards, you might have missed the symbolic presence of white roses in support of survivors.
And yet, sexual relations between male stars and young women are so common in pop music that they are mythologized. Kelly’s case is extreme, and in accusing him of running a criminal enterprise, prosecutors have focused on that side of the industry – the entourage and business infrastructure that surrounded Kelly, with various managers, managers and employees helping him procure young women and avoid consequences.
To insiders and jaundiced observers, it all seemed eerily familiar, the kind of thing that happens around countless male stars every day – a system the industry shows little interest in dismantling.
“The music industry is soulless and immoral,” Jim DeRogatis, the music journalist who has chronicled the accusations against Kelly for more than 20 years, said in an interview. “Nothing comes before ‘don’t derail the gravy train.’ That’s the whole story.”
For years, Kelly – who released 12 platinum albums, won three Grammys and collaborated with stars like Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Chance the Rapper – remained on a steady trajectory of fame and success before public opinion The public only begins to look back around 2017. The year DeRogatis published a series of investigative articles in BuzzFeed News saying that Kelly had detained young women in an abusive “cult.”
And in 2019, the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly”, by filmmaker and activist Dream Hampton, presented heartbreaking testimonies from many women. Around this time, Kelly was dropped by RCA, his record label, and Universal Music Publishing Group, which controls his songwriting catalog.
An online campaign, #MuteRKelly, pressured streaming services and record labels to punish Kelly and pull her music from circulation. But Kelly’s music remains widely available, and even after his sentencing there are no signs that it will be taken down online.
Although most digital outlets, like Spotify and Apple Music, have policies prohibiting hate speech, they tend to take a hands-off approach when it comes to removing material, viewing themselves as platforms neutral and not as censors; the music of Gary Glitter, for example, remains online, even though the 1970s glam-rocker was convicted of sexual abuse, including having sex with a girl under 13.
Digital services also tend to pass the blame onto the record labels that provide the music they host and, so far at least, RCA owner Sony has taken no action to get rid of Kelly’s catalog. or take it offline.
Sony declined to comment. Representatives for Universal, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, YouTube and radio giant iHeartMedia declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Industry critics point to a long history in which abusers are tolerated and protected as long as they continue to produce hits; even after being exposed for misdeeds, they can also be gradually welcomed after the heat goes out. Chris Brown, for example, pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna, his former girlfriend, in 2009, but since then has scored eight top 10 albums, including three that went to No. 1.
To some degree, pop music has always been a zone of outlaws and boundary pushers, but the line between provocation and endorsement of an accused abuser can be blurred. On his most recent album, Kanye West included Manson on a song that asked, “Guess who’s going to jail tonight?
But for survivors and activists, Kelly’s sentencing itself may be a small victory, a victory only worth celebrating if it leads to further change.
“It’s not over,” Dixon said. “It’s not a bookend, it’s a long, slow start to what must go on.”