Culture3 min read

This Got Us Thinking: can we still appreciate the work of flawed artists?

Once called the King of RnB, R. Kelly is now widely reviled following charges of sexual abuse and accusations that span two decades. His music is unlikely to air on the radio — but it is still widely available. Fans, or anyone for that matter, could still choose to listen to it if they wanted to. 

This got us thinking. 

Can we detach the art from the artist? Should we?

Several celebrities have spoken out against R. Kelly, even those who collaborated with him in the past, with some removing their songs made with R. Kelly from music streaming services

Putting cancel culture aside*, which calls for de-platforming at a public level, we all have a personal moral conundrum when a song comes on by an artist we know (or even just suspect) has committed a heinous act. 

💔 Dylan Farrow’s open letter: When it’s personal

Most of us are far removed from the events that throw our favorite artists into notoriety. 

But if you’re using a streaming service like Spotify or YouTube, playing music by a known abuser directly and financially supports the person as well as the art. 

To Dylan Farrow, who has accused her adoptive father, Woody Allen, of abusing her, the artist and the perpetrator are the same person. In her open letter for The New York Times, she opens with a question for the reader: “What’s your favourite Woody Allen film?”

It’s a jarring moment as the next sentence goes on to talk about the abuse, consolidating Woody Allen, the celebrated filmmaker, with Woody Allen, the abusive father. 

✅ Would you feel comfortable consuming things from an artist accused of rape or sexual assault for instance, if someone close to you had been a victim of similar abuse?

🔇 The story of the Mute R. Kelly button

In 2018, Spotify removed R. Kelly from their playlists and recommendations based on algorithms under their Hate Content and Hateful Conduct policy. They received backlash from the industry, including from the representatives of the late rapper XXXTentacion, who was also affected by the policy. 

Tweet showing XXXTentacion's team asking if other artists with allegations or convictions will be removed from Spotify playlists

Original tweet by @joecoscarelli.

While we believe that there should be consequences for awful actions, XXXTentacion’s team makes an interesting point — how far does a case-by-case basis policy go in partially censoring art by problematic artists? 

Spotify reversed the policy soon after, asserting that they “don’t aim to play judge and jury”. In 2019, they quietly introduced a Mute function (referred to by many as the Mute R. Kelly button), which allows users to block music from any artist they choose. That leaves it up to us to decide whether we want to distance ourselves from artists by denouncing their work.

Wherever you stand on this, it’s worth knowing that R. Kelly had an average of 5.5 million Spotify listeners a month after the release of the damning documentary, Surviving R. Kelly

GIF of person with hands over eyes

Can’t See Oh No GIF by @AliceDes.

✅ Challenge yourself to see ‘the whole’ of a problematic artist this week

If there’s someone you believe should be totally muted, read up on their life outside of the main event in question for a more comprehensive view of them as a whole. The aim isn’t to water down what they’ve done, but to guard yourself against treating issues — and people — one-sidedly. Struggle to understand why someone you care about insists on supporting them? Ask for their perspective on it.

Likewise, if you’re a diehard fan of an artist, it might be time to do some digging. Find out if there are any controversies you’re unaware of or have been willfully ignoring. Has your hero publicly supported another problematic figure or stayed silent on a matter that seems like a no-brainer to you?

*We’ve also covered cancel culture in This Got Us Thinking: what do you do about people that have it all wrong


This Got Us Thinking is a weekly blog that brings you easy-going nudges to think differently, do differently and experiment with how to be more inclusive. Each week, we dip into the unanswerable, nuanced and gray areas of inclusion and offer, not answers, but inklings. You can request a topic to be covered by the This Got Us Thinking series reaching out to us here.

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