Rapper R. Kelly's abusive past was revisited in a recent Lifetime documentary that focused on the voices of the victims (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Ballasy)
San Marino High School

Opinion: Can we separate the art from the artist?

Lifetime’s six-part series “Surviving R. Kelly” revisits rapper R. Kelly’s alleged predatory behavior through accounts of his abuse and pedophilia. The documentary, which aired on Jan. 3, shines light on the traumatic episodes that many of his black female victims faced: child abuse, rape and other forms of abuse. Every second of the documentary is heart-rending and revolting.

And yet, the public audience still supports the rapper. A Spotify representative reported that, since the documentary aired on Jan. 3, R. Kelly’s streams have increased by 16 percent. What that means is that listeners of the rapper are not holding R. Kelly accountable for his actions.

When an artist does something problematic, it is our responsibility as the audience to stop supporting that artist. When we support a problematic artist, we enable their actions and set an undesirable precedent for other artists.

Some say that we should separate the art from the artist. But in such a diverse and politically charged world, is it that simple?

Such is the case of the late XXXTentacion. The rapper, born Jahseh Onfroy, almost beat a male cellmate to death while in prison because he suspected the cellmate was gay, and also terrorized and abused his pregnant then-girlfriend. Yet, his music is still enjoyed by a wide audience — his songs are streamed millions of times every day.

The problem with supporting Onfroy’s music is that it shows other artists that his behavior is OK. That even if they are homophobic, racist, sexist, or abusive, they still have a chance to succeed. And when problematic people succeed, their problematic behavior is enabled and normalized. And when it is normalized, a culture that is so innately toxic becomes widespread.

Ultimately, bigoted artists like R. Kelly and XXXTentacion do not deserve our approval. Endorsing their work enables their bigotry, and allows listeners to become complicit in abuse culture. Even if it means not streaming a favorite song, it is critical for us to take steps to become a healthier, well-minded society.

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