Music industry’s silence in wake of R Kelly’s outburst is damning
Lack of condemnation of rapper’s ‘I Admit’ reveals culture untouched by #MeToo movement
R Kelly at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles, California, in 2013. The rapper has released a 19-minute sorta mea culpa in response to allegations about his treatment of women. File photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images
R Kelly is sorry. Sorry he’s been accused of mistreating women, sorry parents have, by his telling, pushed their teenage daughters on him, sorry that the Women of Colour wing of the Times Up movement is campaigning for record labels to boycott his music.
These protestations – and a whole lot more – are contained in I Admit, a 19-minute sorta mea culpa (but not really). Kelly denies abusing and imprisoning women and, on the song, argues he’s the real victim (he repeats his assertion that, as a child, he was sexually victimised by a family member).
“I’m so falsely accused,” he sings “even though it’s bulls**t”. He does allow that he has slept with fans across a generous spectrum of ages – but insists that’s quite different from the rumours about his behaviour. “I admit I f**k with all the ladies/That’s both older and young ladies/But tell me how they call it paedophile because that s**t is crazy.”
What’s most striking about Kelly’s outburst – which, once you get past the glaze of self-pity, is really what the song amounts to – is the silence within the industry with which its release has been greeted.
Few in the music industry have either condemned Kelly or rushed to his defence. Rather, a howling hush pervades – the same one that has hung over music since the #MeToo movement coalesced last year in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
“When people started talking about the #MeToo stuff, what I saw was a lot of men going, ‘not me, I don’t behave like that’, when a lot of men that I do know do behave like that,” Lily Allen said recently.
The singer, who has previously alleged she was abused by someone in the industry, went on: “It just doesn’t seem to be [taken] that serious. Nobody’s changing. Everybody’s going, ‘this has happened to me, this is really awful’, [but] what’s happening as a result? Like, oh there’s some public shaming going on, ‘Oh no, oh my God, you’ve been outed on Twitter’. That doesn’t change any of what’s happened.”
There are a lot of girls out there who get very starstruck and you see this horrible, cold manipulation going on
That bad behaviour is not only glossed over in music but, after a fashion, rewarded can be seen in the fortunes of violent rapper Xxxtancion, whose brief and notorious life and career came to a bloody conclusion when he was shot dead in June.
Earlier this year, the 20-year-old Floridian had notched up his first Billboard number one single – despite having been formally charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering. Try to imagine anyone from the worlds of cinema, theatre or literature carrying on regardless with those sort of allegations levelled at them.
A little off the pace at the best of times, the Irish music scene likewise is apparently unaffected by #MeToo. There is of course no suggestion anyone in the industry, whether off stage or on, has acted inappropriately, let alone broken any laws.
But it nonetheless feels significant that the kind of protests about underrepresentation of women that have swept Irish theatre have not manifested here. That’s despite the grievous lack of female participation in Ireland in the one part of the music business that is thriving: pop.
Ireland has always punched above its division in chart music, whether with Boyzone and Westlife or hopefuls creating a splash on the X Factor (Jedward parlayed an entire career out of getting on Simon Cowell’s nerves). Yet where is the homegrown Taylor Swift or Lorde.
Even stretching the definition of women pop stars to absolutely snapping point, it’s a short list: Imelda May, Enya, B*witched . . .
Róisín Murphy probably best fits the description, though having moved to Manchester as a teenager is really a product of the UK music scene. It doesn’t seem absurd to claim that, had she remained in Ireland, she would not have achieved anything like her present prominence.
One potential reason #MeToo has yet to catch fire in music is that, compared with cinema and theatre, the industry is barely an industry at all. Rather, it’s a patchwork of dreamers, hucksters, scenesters and blaggers. When I recently asked singer-turned-actor Kate Nash about the differences between the music business and Hollywood she identified the lack of structure in the former.
“In music there is no organised body to help people out. In acting you have . . . [the Screen Actor’s Guild]. There is a lot of discipline and professionalism. The music industry is appalling in that sense.”
Moreover, music has always been intertwined with predatory behaviour. It feels significant that only a handful of bands have spoken out about the groupie culture that has pervaded rock’n’roll since the beginning.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys in bands around young girls and I think all that stuff can get a bit ugly,” Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos said early in the group’s career. “There are a lot of girls out there who get very starstruck and you see this horrible, cold manipulation going on. A lot of guys in bands completely take the p**s out of young girls who are completely starstruck. I see it as a form of abuse that I find absolutely repellent.
“Some people started a band because they want to make music,” an American indie musician once told me. “Others just do it because it’s an easy way to get laid.” So long as this truth remains immutable, it’s likely that music and #MeToo are going to inhabit mutually exclusively planes of existence.