By Sam Smith

Early in January 2019, the US television channel Lifetime premiered the documentary Surviving R Kelly. The six-part series explored the R&B singer’s history of alleged sexual abuse and featured survivors speaking out against the singer, accusing him of, among other charges, predatory behaviour and paedophilia.

The general public has been aware of the allegations against R Kelly for years, while in the age of #MeToo – a slogan used by women to share painful stories of abuse and harassment – the microscope has been turned on several other people within the music industry. These include singer Chris Brown, rapper XXXTentacion, and producer Dr. Luke, the latter who was sued by pop star Kesha. The New Zealand music industry has also been impacted with several women speaking out against former radio host and music blogger Andrew Tidball in 2016, while recently, The Eversons were dropped from their label due to “unresolved” allegations against one of their members.

Despite this, it is no secret that the music industry has been plagued by issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and abuse against women for decades. In the UK, a study of discrimination in the music sector showed that 60% of professional musicians had experienced some form of sexual abuse within the industry of which 82% were female. A similar study was done in the US where 72% of musicians said they had experienced sexual discrimination.

Where is #MeToo?

Faced with these numbers and the pattern of gendered abuse, discrimination, and harassment, the question must be asked: why there has not been the same level of scrutiny in the music industry as there has been in Hollywood, where the #MeToo movement began.

Kirsten Zemke, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Auckland, argues that attempts at a #MeToo movement in music has been subdued. Zemke says bringing the issue of abuse and harassment to light has gone in the “too-hard basket” because of the scale of the problem.

“There are so many problematic artists going right back to Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, even John Lennon. It is just so big and so scary that it means you have to write off everyone. It just becomes too big.”

Jeffrey Crabtree is an Australian musician who is now undertaking doctoral research into harassment in the music industry. He believes that a #MeToo movement has not happened on the same scale in music because of the fragmented and competitive nature of the industry.

“The music industry is a free for all,” Crabtree says. “It is like a gold rush. There is an enormous amount of money to be made and everyone is scrambling to get a piece. So where there is great money to be made, there is great opportunity for there to be corrupt activity. I feel as if the landscape has a lot to contribute to the situation and wherever there are large amounts of money to be made, people are willing to turn a blind eye.”

Both Zemke and Crabtree say the culture of the industry is culpable and the fact that men outnumber women in the music industry has been a major factor. Zemke insists that there is a power element at play, especially with more women entering the industry. “In the last forty years when we get more women in these workplaces that had traditionally been male environments, all these stories have come out. R Kelly’s case is more like the film industry case in that he promised women he would do something for their career and that is when it becomes sexual harassment as far as workplaces go. It is because of the workplace harassment that people don’t want to speak out and the fear of not being believed.”

Crabtree agrees and says the music industry has cultural issues that relate to the dominance of men. “Just the raw numbers tell you there is a problem. In Australia, 57% of the industry are male while 43% are female.” Crabtree also acknowledges the point of the pressure being on people to not speak out when they are harassed or abused. “I have had participants in my research who have withdrawn because they feared their job was at risk. This goes back to the idea that the industry is quite small, the number of influencers is quite small, and reputation is incredibly important so people very rarely speak ill of anybody. I think it is because everybody realises that ultimately no one can afford to have a bad reputation in the music industry because if you do, it kills you. So I think there is a tendency for people to be careful about how they speak about others and to speak with generosity towards others.”

Can real change occur?

So what is being done to address the issues of abuse and harassment towards women in the music industry? And will the R Kelly story lead to widespread attempts at internal reform, such as after the film producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of widespread abuse? Already it has been reported that R Kelly’s record label has severed ties with the singer in light of the allegations in the documentary, while some artists have pulled collaborations with him from streaming platforms.

Zemke says the idea of taking music off streaming platforms is troubling from the perspective of race. “Spotify tried to take a stand against R Kelly and XXXTentacion and there was a backlash against that because they were picking two black artists to take off the list. What about everyone else? Do we take off Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis? It is a case of picking on a black man when we are not going to look at white artists as well.”

Where Zemke thinks real change can happen is at the grassroots level rather than from the top.  “Educating women and men about consent, sexual harassment, sexuality differences, increasing gender diversity in the industry, all that stuff can help rather than certain artists being banned…[That’s] possibly the better way that change can happen. I think it is more about working on long term strategies about understanding sexual harassment and power relationships and listening to young people when they say something bad is happening to them.”

Crabtree is at the forefront of trying to ensure change does take place with his doctoral research. “I am intending to contribute to the policy discussion and am hoping that my research will inform policymaking around harassment. The difficulty in the music industry is that there is a dearth of accountability. Who keeps who accountable? It is incredibly difficult if something has happened to you…Who do you report to? So essentially the scope of my research is asking the question of what is going on in terms of workplace harassment? And then what can we find out from those moments?”

As for R Kelly, Crabtree hopes this could be a watershed moment but he says it is too early to tell. “There have been other highly prominent people who have spoken out. Keisha for example, her story was widely circulated, widely known, and yet I would suggest there was no widespread cultural change as a consequence of her willingness to come forward. I wonder whether this expose into R Kelly is going to be the moment that has the same equivalent impact in the music industry as the Weinstein thing.”

Zemke, on the other hand, remains unsure as to what could happen as a result of the R Kelly story. “I don’t know what music is going to do. Are we going to go and condemn everybody and start going through the list? I think R Kelly is an easier example and hopefully we can take him off and people can stop playing his music, but we do need to make sure we are not just picking on black and brown artists.”


Kirsten Zemke is a Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the University of Auckland. 

Jeff Crabtree is an Australian musician and doctoral candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. For more on his research into harassment in the music industry click here.

Photo credit: Sam Smith 

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