After R. Kelly’s Conviction, Can the Music Industry Change?

When a federal jury in Brooklyn on Monday convicted R. Kelly on racketeering and sex trafficking charges, it was immediately seen as a watershed.

After decades of accusations of abuse, backed by dogged reporting that gave voice to dozens of young women, Kelly, the R&B superstar behind hits like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Ignition (Remix)” — who had been acquitted of child pornography charges in a trial in 2008 — was finally being held accountable. Kelly, 54, now faces the possibility of life in prison.

But Kelly’s conviction met a muted response in the music industry, with scant public commentary by top artists and crickets among the companies that have released his music and continue to host it online.

For the music world, the implicit question posed by Kelly’s trial — widely seen as the most high-profile sex-abuse case in the industry’s history — is whether the business itself can change. Can record companies, managers, streaming services and radio stations cut abusers off from the spigot of fame and money rather than enable bad behavior by looking the other way?

Some activists were cheered by the conviction, and the trial’s focus on Black women’s testimony, seeing it as a tipping point that could encourage more victims to come forward and lead to financial or criminal consequences for abusers.

“This is the beginning of women being believed and taken seriously,” said Dorothy Carvello, a former record executive and the 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 were worried that the relative silence among major artists and entertainment companies was a signal that little would change without firm commitments to cast out and punish abusers.

“R. Kelly is not enough; he is the tip of the iceberg that goes to the bottom of the music industry ocean,” said Drew Dixon, another former music executive, who in 2017 said Russell Simmons, the mogul behind the hip-hop label Def Jam, raped her while she worked for him. (He “vehemently” denied the accusation.) “We need heavyweights — major executives, major stars and major activists — to be vocal, vocal, vocal when these predators raise their heads.”

“People in power, power with a platform that is so much bigger than mine, have to say that they have zero tolerance,” Dixon added.

Some activists were cheered by the conviction, and the trial’s focus on Black women’s testimony, seeing it as a tipping point that could encourage more victims to come forward.Credit…Richard Drew/Associated Press

Kelly’s conviction underscores the music industry’s relative lack of impact from the #MeToo movement, which swept Hollywood, politics and the business world starting in 2017. While entertainment power brokers like Weinstein and Leslie Moonves, and government figures like Eric T. Schneiderman, the former attorney general of New York, tumbled from lofty heights, the tidal wave of justice largely seemed to bypass pop music.

In addition to Simmons, the shock rocker Marilyn Manson was accused of sexual and physical abuse by multiple women including Evan Rachel Wood, and the 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 accusations.) If you blinked during the 2018 Grammy Awards, you might have missed the symbolic presence of white roses to support survivors.

And yet sexual relationships between male stars and young women are so common in pop music as to be mythologized. Kelly’s case is extreme, and by charging him with running a criminal enterprise, prosecutors put a harsh focus on this side of the industry — the entourage and business infrastructure that surrounded Kelly, with assorted managers, handlers and employees helping him procure young women and avoid consequences.

To insiders and jaundiced observers, all of this seemed disturbingly familiar, the kind of thing that happens every day around innumerable male stars — a system that the industry shows little interest in dismantling.

“The music industry is soulless and immoral,” Jim DeRogatis, the music journalist who has been chronicling the accusations against Kelly for more than 20 years, said in an interview. “Nothing comes before ‘do not derail the gravy train.’ That’s what it’s all about.”

For years, Kelly — who has released 12 platinum albums, won three Grammys and collaborated with stars like Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Chance the Rapper — stayed on a steady trajectory of fame and success before public opinion began to turn around 2017. That year, DeRogatis published a series of investigative pieces in BuzzFeed News saying that Kelly had been holding young women in an abusive “cult.”

And in 2019, the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” by the filmmaker and activist Dream Hampton, featured stomach-turning firsthand accounts from numerous women. Around that time, Kelly was dropped by RCA, his record label, and the Universal Music Publishing Group, which controls his songwriting catalog.

An online campaign, #MuteRKelly, has pressured streaming services and record companies to punish Kelly and remove his music from circulation. But Kelly’s music remains widely available, and even after his conviction there are no signs it will be taken down online.

Although most digital outlets, like Spotify and Apple Music, have policies barring hate speech, they tend to take a hands-off approach when it comes to removing material, seeing themselves as neutral platforms and not censors; music by Gary Glitter, for example, remains online, even though the 1970s glam-rocker has been convicted of sexual abuse, including having sex with a girl under the age of 13.

Digital services also tend to pass the buck to the record companies that supply the music they host, and, so far at least, Sony, which owns RCA, has taken no steps to dispose of Kelly’s catalog or take it offline.

Sony declined to comment. Representatives of Universal, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, YouTube and the radio giant iHeartMedia either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

Critics of the industry 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 back once the heat is off. Chris Brown, for example, pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna, his former girlfriend, in 2009, but since then he has scored eight top 10 albums, including three that went to No. 1.

To an extent, 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 fuzzy. On his most recent album, Kanye West included Manson on a song that asked, “Guess who’s going to jail tonight?”

But to survivors and activists, the Kelly conviction itself may be a small victory, one that will be worth celebrating only if it leads to further change.

“This is not over,” Dixon said. “This is not a bookend, this is a long, overdue slow start to what must continue.”

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