9 Feb 2019

Streaming R Kelly and Michael Jackson: can we still listen?

From RNZ Music, 1:15 pm on 9 February 2019

After two new shocking documentary series about R Kelly and Michael Jackson's alleged sexual misconduct, can we still listen to their music with a clear conscience? Yadana Saw speaks with ethnomusicologist Kirsten Zemke.

R Kelly performs at MSG Theater in New York City in 2012.

R Kelly performs at MSG Theater in New York City in 2012. Photo: AFP

American rapper R Kelly has been the subject of sexual abuse allegations for a number of years, for Michael Jackson it's been decades. Both have remained popular and celebrated artists.


Two new documentaries, Surviving R Kelly and Leaving Neverland feature survivors of alleged misconduct. The films are bringing new scrutiny to the way Kelly and Jackson are viewed, and how we the audience should approach their music.


Auckland University ethnomusicologist Kirsten Zemke believes that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have given survivors new confidence that their stories will be heard.


“We’re in this era of social media that if the mainstream media is saying, ‘We don't think anyone will be interested in a story like that,’ social media can get thousands and millions of people showing, ‘Nope, we actually are really interested in hearing about this thing.’”


Although social media can make these voices heard, it doesn't necessarily lead to the entertainment industry taking action against the artists.


“The record companies aren't dropping these people," Zemke says. The labels don't feel the negative publicity will affect sales.


This position is backed up by numbers. According to Nielsen Music, R Kelly received a boost in streaming numbers after the release of Surviving R Kelly, averaging more than 1.5 million streams between 3-6 January this year.


Zemke believes there are several reasons for this, “Some of it will be stubborn fans saying ‘I love him and I don’t believe what these people are saying’....I’m also wondering if some of it is just curiosity.”


She also points out that it is important to challenge the behaviour of a wide variety of artists, especially if you are not a fan of R Kelly or Michael Jackson. “Are you going to not play Elvis and David Bowie who both dated way underage girls?”


Kendrick Lamar made a similar point by threatening to remove his music from Spotify when they announced they were going to remove R Kelly and XXXTentacion from their service, claiming that the service was unfairly targeting artists of colour.


So what can fans who feel conflicted about an artists behaviour do with their enjoyment of that person’s music?


Zemke says there are hard choices to be made.


“We’re going to have to go through all our artists and say ‘what do we consider so terrible that we don’t want to listen to them?’”


“We have to go through which crimes, in particular, are we now going to ban from our list? And is it crimes that have been fully prosecuted or is it just accusations and that’s where it gets really weird and complicated because some people haven’t been prosecuted, it’s just known.”


“People need to make their own choices….Because we do know, yeah people do care about clicks and likes and downloads….You can start to think about where your lines are and then I think radio stations and record companies will follow that lead.”

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