Welcome to It’s Over, It’s Done, It’s Canceled part 2! If you read part 1 skip this section, if you missed it I talked about the history of canceling and how it has the potential to create a more inclusive society and elevate the voices of marginalized identities, but it also has the power to be incredibly punitive and dangerous if used frivolously. We looked at the 7 tropes of toxic canceling and I hypothesized that through intention and awareness of our actions, it might be possible to maximize canceling’s societal benefits and minimize the negative effects.
Because I’m unimpressed with hypothetical musings that can’t be clearly disseminated to real life and actionable items, this post is dedicated to wrestling with the real life canceling cases of R Kelly, Kanye West, and Wagner. What does intentional and responsible canceling look like? Are there times when it IS morally right to condemn a person? Is there a line that an artist can cross that justifies demonization of the person, and not just the act? And what about artists who live somewhere in the nebulous gray area of morality? Artists who allegedly did truly atrocious things, but are 6 feet under– is it simply virtue-signaling to boycott their art today (Wagner, Michael Jackson…)? What about artists who haven’t directly harmed anyone but say things that conflict with my moral and ethical code? How does mental health factor into the equation? Is it possible to separate the artist from the art?
I have questions and I need answers because if it turns out that I have to stop listening to the Jackson 5, then I’m going to need to schedule some extra therapy sessions yesterday. So let’s begin (cause therapy is expensive y’all and I’m trying to save my coins)!
R Kelly- Are there times when it IS morally right to condemn a person?
Spoiler alert. YES!!! The #MuteRKelly Campaign was founded by Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye to expose and halt R Kelly’s abuse and exploitation of young black girls.1 It was quickly folded into the #metoo movement and became a public reference for cancel culture, as a social media campaign focused on deplatforming, defunding, and ending a famous artist’s career.2 The intent of the #MuteRKelly movement and his subsequent canceling was definitely not about rehabilitation. It sought to condemn a man – not just his actions or his art – something that was heavily criticized by ContraPoints in my last post. And yet it seems morally sound? Why is that? Let’s explore– where is the line that demarcates when it is morally right to condemn a person?
The 3 reasons why I believe that the #MuteRKelly movement was morally sound.
1.Clear and Transparent Organizers
It was fleshed out, organized, the leaders were known, they had a website, and were established organizers.3 This way people could check out who the organizers were and see if they had any ulterior motives.
2. They had a clear goal/ desired outcome and mission statement.
They called for a financial boycott of R Kelly’s music because they wanted him to have a fair trial and his fortune was circumventing that. R Kelly was repeatedly using his fortune to bribe, silence, and intimidate potential witnesses and their families in an effort to keep them from testifying against him.4
“R Kelly dragged out one case for 6 years, until the victim ran out of resources and dropped the case. He is able, time and time again, to use his money to get him out of a conviction. It’s not for lack of court cases against him. When families discover what’s happened, they do what they’re supposed to do. They call the police. It is the court system that is failing them and we the people that are failing them.”5
They wanted to spread awareness to how people were unknowingly supporting R Kelly’s ability to flout justice for crimes against the black community, by continuing to listen to his music.
“by financially supporting the career of a known sexual predator, they help maintain and perpetuate a system of sexual abuse against young black women. Every radio spin of his record helps him to continue to book shows, to make new music, and to amass a wealth that has insulated him from the consequences of his crimes. It’s time to take a stand on the side of justice and end any and all associations that the radio station has with him, his music and his brand.”6
Clear and specific ask from participants with rationale as to how that contributes to the cause!
3. Their ultimate goal was a fair trial in the legal sphere– not just condemning him in the court of public opinion.
They weren’t seeking judgement and execution in the public sector, but rather sought sharing the concerning pile of evidence and allegations against R Kelly with the public.7 If people were similarly concerned, they were welcome to join this movement calling for a fair trial.
They consistently provided a terrifying amount of EVIDENCE (not screenshots from people’s twitter feed), videos, witness testimonies, marriage documents, indictments, NDA’s that show that R Kelly was systematically preying on minors! This is completely different then an argument about intention from a phrase pulled out of context from a twitter thread.
The legal system failed to protect black girls (not exactly shocking), 2 black women organized to find solutions to circumvent R Kelly’s privilege and get him a fair trial, with indicting information a marginalized community who had exhausted every other option for legal recourse, made an intentional decision to boycott R Kelly’s music so that they weren’t actively aiding R Kelly evade justice by funding his career. This is restorative justice, this is seeking accountability, this is canceling at its best. I can’t say the same about the cancel Kanye movement.
Why are we canceling Kanye?
Now before I begin, I would like to note that I think it is negligent to discuss canceling Kanye without giving proper due to how Bipolar Disorder plays into this equation, but that being said it’s 2020 and we have the collective attention span of a gnat so unfortunately I don’t have the space to go into that as much as I would like. But I encourage anyone who’s interested to look at some of the resources linked at the end about Bipolar Disorder.
While R Kelly strikes me as an example of seeking restorative justice and accountability, I genuinely have so many questions about the purpose of canceling Kanye. Now part of my confusion can easily be attributed to the fact that Kanye is a known Provocateur and as such there have been numerous overlapping cancel Kanye campaigns. The most recent and arguably visible8 canceling of Kanye happened after the infamous TMZ interview where he said “when you hear about slavery for 400 years, 400 years? That sounds like a choice.”
Let’s be clear Kanye isn’t the only person to say egregious things about slavery, and he isn’t even the worst offender. Remember when McGraw-Hill Education, one of the biggest publishing companies, printed in Texas Textbooks that the Atlantic slave trade was a “pattern of immigration” that “brought millions of [immigrant] workers to work on agricultural plantations”9?!?! Unlike Kanye, McGraw is actually charged with educating the masses, and we didn’t cancel that whole company. We simply asked them to fix their mistake.10 So why wasn’t an apology enough for Kanye?
What’s the focus of the movement? Why are we actually canceling Kanye? Is it for the slavery comment? He apologized for that. And while his comment was wild, completely unfounded, and hurtful to many– that’s been Kanye’s brand since day one. People cheered when he blurted out that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” People cackled and made memes when he told Taylor Swift she could never rival Beyonce (WHERE IS THE LIE??? And don’t @ me T Swift fans, I said what I said). It’s hard for me to believe that the movement to cancel Kanye is because he’s a loose cannon– that’s old news.
So is it because he recently started wearing MAGA hats and championing conservative politicians?11 Unpopular opinion: He is actually allowed to like Trump if he wants. I’m not comfortable saying I only want to listen to artists whose politics I agree with. Are you? Am I canceling him simply because I don’t agree with him and pretending it’s about something else? In Part 1 I called that Pseudo-Moralism and discussed the dangers of “disguising unflattering motivations between the guise of righteous indignation.”12
That being said, Kanye is not an example of the under resourced, marginalized identity who ContraPoints was concerned with, who will become vulnerable if they lose their internet community from cancelation. Yes the cancel Kanye twitter storm and the media’s continual mocking and denouncement of him must weigh on his mental and emotional health (to what degree I can only imagine)… but… Kanye is A BILLIONAIRE. As such, he’s insulated from losing the physical, financial, and community safety nets that might occur if he wasn’t a celebrity. If the goal is to defund, deplatform, or end Kanye’s career, his career can weather this cancelation and the fiftyleven times he says something foolish in the future. If the goal is to rehabilitate him, to ask him to repent– he already apologized.13 So what do we want? What’s the point? What has to happen for us to feel appeased?
What am I trying to say about Kanye?
Mental health aside, which again I do think should be a part of the conversation here, I think there’s something fundamentally disturbing in the canceling Kanye movement. If I don’t know what canceling Kanye even means, or why I’m doing it, how can I possibly know if I agree with it? What does it mean if we’re comfortable with canceling Kanye for the wrong reasons? What does it mean if we normalize publicly throwing our support behind ideals we can’t explain, nebulous concepts we don’t fully understand, and organizers we can’t name? What type of societal norms are we creating?
The reason matters. Publicly canceling someone because you’re trying to fit in with everyone else is irresponsible. Posting a black square on your instagram story without reading a single article from a news source outside of your social media feed about BLM protests is irresponsible. Becoming a mindless cog in the machine is irresponsible! Make the decision for yourself! Make sure your decisions align with your moral code, hold yourself accountable. Do it because you have thought it through and decided to, not because it’s easy to click share and get some more likes.In an example like Kanye’s, canceling’s negative effects may be limited but maybe what’s more concerning is the way in which we contribute to it without taking responsibility for our actions.
Point of Clarification
I’m not saying you have to like Kanye and I’m not saying you have to listen to his music. I don’t even know how I feel about Kanye at the moment. If you enjoyed listening to Kanye’s music because it made you feel relaxed and understood, and now his recent actions make it a negative experience for you, then by all means stop listening to that music. BUT There’s something different in choosing to stop listening to Kanye because it personally distresses you, and publicly adding to this canceling movement because it’s the in thing to do, particularly if you’re not clear on if you agree that he deserves to be canceled.
Which brings me to my last example -Wagner.
Should we be canceling Wagner and what could it look like?
Ok so for those who don’t know– Wagner in a nutshell. Wickedly talented composer in Germany in the 1800’s.14 Was really inspired by mythology15, popularized the term Gesamtkunstwerk, “a total art experience,” in opera, and innovated many of the elements that are foundational to current performance practice.16 He wanted to create a transportational, immersive, theater experience. Really cool right?
He was also an anti-semite and published the article Judaism in Music in 1850 where he explained how Jews only option for redemption was what some argue translates as “assimilate” and others translate as “destruction”17 (Yikes). Wagner was anti-semitic, AND his music (which may or may not have had racist undertones) was co-opted by the Nazi movement,18 AND he made incredible innovations to theater and performance practice,19 AND he wrote some of the best operas of the classical canon. So what do we do with that?
Do we cancel Wagner and his art? Do we cancel him but save the art? Do we forgive him for being a product of his time and try to salvage the man alongside his art?
While I do think it is possible to condemn the artist and salvage the art, I think there is a responsible and intentional approach that can be taken and an irresponsible one. It seems negligent to close our eyes to the historical and modern impact of his music on our society at large. How can we actively address the change we want to see? What might intentional canceling look like?
He’s dead and I’m not worried that listening to his music now will encourage a swell in Aryan German Nazi propaganda and a new Hitler rising to power (no that might happen from xenophobia much closer to home…) but regardless, unlike with R Kelly, boycotting Wagner’s music isn’t helping fight anti-semitism in any tangible way. But what if we sought to recontextualize or reclaim his music?
What if the Met decided to donate a percentage of all proceeds from Wagner performances to the Holocaust Museum or Anti-Xenophobic non-profits? That way we’re acknowledging the impact of these works and also making positive societal change!
Final Thoughts and Musings
I’m personally past cancelling artists who are dead. I’m not actively contributing to immoral behaviors, but I don’t think that means I shouldn’t think about their impact or legacy. I’m interested in exploring how we can reallocate proceeds to address issues of restorative justice. What if all the royalties for listening to Michael Jackson’s music go towards survivors of sexual assault non profits? Then I could feel ok listening to ABC and knowing I was subverting the negative aspects of Michael Jackson’s legacy. Let’s pressure arts organizations and artists’ estates to adopt these types of policies!
It’s hard to be an artist. There’s a demand for artists to always be authentic but then to also be ideal role models, and responsible wielders of their platforms. Inherently we should realize that means artists are going to fall short, they’re going to make mistakes, because all humans do, just maybe less publicly. We as a society could afford to lend more grace and understanding. If we’re seeking rehabilitation, and growth I think it’s important to allow for the time it would take all of us to lower our defenses, listen, learn, grow, and seriously reflect on what we may have done. That can take days, or weeks, months, or even generations (I’m still waiting for my 40 acres and a mule)…
So now for the final question…
…is it possible to separate the artist from the art?
I don’t know.
- (4) Bellis, Nigel, and Astral Finnie. “Surviving R Kelly.” Surviving R Kelly, Lifetime, 3 Jan. 2019.
Definitions and Terminology and Random asides made