Culpability in Music

Over the past year the allegations of sexual abuse against several high profile men working in the American film industry has received enough attention that it’s allowed space for a lot of important discussions in the media. Consequently I’ve been thinking a lot about the responsibility and culpability we have in music over our own industry.

Besides working as a journalist a fair amount of my income comes from being a DJ, and whether in a club setting or playing a private function, when the mood hits a certain level and punters are suitably intoxicated, there are certain songs that I know always work. One of them is R. Kelly’s classic ‘Ignition (Remix)’. I get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing the crowd react when they recognise the opening line, ‘Well, usually I don’t do this, but…’ and the groove kicks in. It’s an easy move on my part, and as obvious and cheesy as it is, I also wouldn’t do it if I didn’t genuinely like the song.

Kelly’s career has been mired with allegations of sexual abuse and the coercion of minors almost as long as he’s been famous. In 1994, the same year that he wrote and produced her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,

Kelly, then 27, illegally married 15-year-old pop singer Aaliyah, with the union being annulled shortly afterwards. Two years later another 15 year old, Tiffany Hawkins, sued the singer for engaging in intercourse with herself and other minors, with the case being settled confidentially. In the intervening years Kelly has faced several such public accusations including being arrested on multiple counts of owning and creating child pornography. Last year Buzzfeed reported that he was running an abusive ‘cult’, in which it’s alleged he kept six women against their will across three of his properties. He has continued throughout this time to tour and release music, as well as to write and produce or collaborate with others, such as Kanye West, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, Bruno Mars, Pharell, Chance the Rapper, Nas, Mary J. Blige and others.

Aaliyah and R. Kelly

My question is this — to what degree do DJs, cover bands, broadcasters and the media have a social responsibility to actively boycott the work of known abusers? Since having this thought I have become uncomfortable with playing ‘Ignition (Remix)’ in my sets, as in doing so am I not actively publicising R. Kelly’s music and propagating his legacy in a positive way? Besides finding an easy way to make a room full of drunk people do their worst sexy dance, am I not directly benefitting someone whose alleged actions I find abhorrent?

I suppose my dilemma with the song is similar to the conversation that has been happening in the media about why people continue to work with and celebrate the films of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski. When you’re already attached to an artist’s work it is so easy to simply separate the art from the person, which allows them to keep working and, outside of whatever actual legal ramifications may occur, continue with their careers unharmed.

This is where it gets tricky though — Allen, like Harvey Weinstein, has not been charged for his alleged crimes, while Kelly has never been found guilty. Perhaps then, besides the ruling of a court, people that work in music have to make their own judgement when it comes to boycotting a person’s work.

You may ask ‘What right do you have to draw moral conclusions on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime?’ Personally I just have to think about what the possible ramifications of helping to keep an artist’s music and image in the public eye may be. For example if I were to play songs by Chris Brown I feel that not only am I giving the artist free publicity, but worse, I am by default sending a message to the public that this is a pop star worth their time and a man to look up to. The point being that if we don’t hold musicians accountable by ignoring their work then we are actively culpable in propagating their myth and paving the way for the next generation of people — and most worryingly young women — to idolise abusers and thereby normalising abuse from powerful men.

Do we then apply this only to those individuals currently working who would benefit from such publicity, or should we apply it also to the deceased?

John Lennon was widely reported both by his biographers and first wife as a domestically violent man. Michael Jackson faced multiple accusations of child abuse, and though he was acquitted of the famous 2005 court case, he had previously settled out of court for what is said to be over $20 million in 1994. Should we also boycott such artists, whose estates would benefit from publicity and broadcast of their work, and consequently helping to keep their legend alive?

The original artwork for Crystal Castles’ debut album, later used on merchandise

The age of internet reckoning and shareable social media campaigns with sloganistic hashtags has helped spread the word of the Hollywood scandals and of artists such as Kesha or former Crystal Castles singer Alice Glass, whose careers were being held hostage by their accused abusers. Perhaps this will lead to greater accountability from the celebrities of the day and people such as R. Kelly will not be able to go on to have monster hits such as ‘Ignition (Remix)’ once the public is better informed about any allegations against them.

For my part, I still play Michael Jackson in my DJ sets but you won’t be hearing any R. Kelly, nor will I be writing any profile pieces when his next album comes out. It’s time we thought about our responsibility both to the victims of abuse and what we want to teach the next generation about acceptable behaviour.

Originally published on

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