When a federal jury in Brooklyn convicted R. Kelly of racketeering and sex trafficking on Monday, it was immediately seen as a turning point.
After decades of accusations of abuse, backed up by cutthroat 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 indicted during a trial in 2008 – was ultimately found responsible. Kelly, 54, now faces life imprisonment.
But Kelly’s conviction has met with a quiet response in the music industry, with little public comment from top performers and crickets among the companies that have released her music and continue to host it online.
For the music world, the implicit question posed by Kelly’s lawsuit – widely regarded as the most high-profile sexual abuse case in industry history – is whether the company itself can switch. Can record companies, managers, streaming services and radio stations cut abusers out of fame and money rather than allow bad behavior by looking the other way?
Some activists were applauded by the condemnation and the trial’s emphasis 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 perpetrators.
“It’s the beginning of believing and taking women seriously,” said Dorothy Carvello, former record director and author of “Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry” (2018) .
âPredatory behavior, just like Harvey Weinstein, will land you in a jail cell,â Carvello added.
Others feared that the relative silence of leading artists and entertainment companies was a signal that little would change without firm commitments to hunt down and punish abusers.
âR. Kelly is not enough; he’s the tip of the iceberg that goes to the bottom of the music industry’s ocean, âsaid Drew Dixon, another former music director, who in 2017 said that music mogul Russell Simmons hip-hop label Def Jam, had raped her while working for him. (He âvehementlyâ denied the accusation.) âWe need heavyweights – major leaders, major stars and major activists – to speak up, vocally, vocally when these predators raise their heads. “
âPeople in power, in power with a platform so much bigger than mine, have to say they have zero tolerance,â Dixon added.
Kelly’s conviction highlights the music industry’s relative lack of impact from the #MeToo movement, which swept Hollywood, politics, and business from 2017. While entertainment brokers like Weinstein and Leslie Moonves, and government figures like Eric T. Schneiderman, the former New York attorney general, fallen from great heights, the tidal wave of justice has largely seemed to 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 charged with misconduct, including abuse emotional and verbal, 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 to support survivors.
And yet, sex between male stars and young women is so common in pop music that it is mythologized. Kelly’s case is extreme, and by accusing her of running a criminal enterprise, prosecutors put a severe emphasis on this side of the industry – the entourage and the business infrastructure that surrounded Kelly, with various managers, managers and employees helping him attract young women and avoid consequences.
To insiders and observers with jaundice, it all sounded eerily familiar, the sort of thing that happens around countless male stars every day – a system the industry shows little interest in dismantling.
âThe music industry is soulless and immoral,â Jim DeRogatis, the music journalist who has chronicled the charges against Kelly for over 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 course of fame and success before public opinion This year, DeRogatis ran a series of investigative articles in BuzzFeed News saying Kelly had detained young women in an abusive “cult”.
And in 2019, filmmaker and activist Dream Hampton’s âSurviving R. Kellyâ documentary series featured first-hand accounts from many women. Around this time, Kelly was abandoned by RCA, her record company, and Universal Music Publishing Group, which controls its catalog of compositions.
An online campaign, #MuteRKelly, lobbied streaming services and record labels to punish Kelly and remove her music from circulation. But Kelly’s music remains widely available, and even after her conviction, there is no indication that it will be removed online.
Although most digital media, like Spotify and Apple Music, have policies prohibiting hate speech, they tend to take a hands-off approach when it comes to removing material, seeing themselves as neutral platforms and not as censors; Gary Glitter’s music, 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 buck to the record companies 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.
Critics in the industry point to a long history in which abusers are tolerated and protected as long as they continue to produce tubes; even after being exposed for mischief, they can also be gradually welcomed after the heat is turned off. Chris Brown, for example, pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, but since then he has scored eight albums in the top 10, including three that went to number 1.
To some extent, pop music has always been an area of ââoutlaws and limit pushers, but the line between provocation and approval from an accused abuser can be blurred. On his most recent album, Kanye West included Manson in a song that asked, “Guess who’s going to jail tonight?”
But for survivors and activists, Kelly’s conviction itself may be a small victory, one that will only be worth celebrating if it leads to further change.
âIt’s not over yet,â Dixon said. “This is not a bookend, this is a long, slow start to what must go on.”