What Must Be Done with the Worthwhile Work of Villains?

Undoubtedly, no one will cancel Michael Jackson’s songs or Harvey Weinstein’s films despite their bitter aftertaste.

A Bulgarian proverb states that “the one who sings can do no evil.” It shows that sometimes the wisdom of elders isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. R. Kelly sings with the voice of an angel, but many mortals, especially women and young girls — perhaps even boys — have seen him as the devil he is. Just a few days ago, the famous contemporary R&B singer and composer, who has collaborated with Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Céline Dion, Quincy Jones, Toni Braxton and Janet Jackson, acquired even greater fame (or infamy) when he was convicted of multiple criminal charges, including sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, racketeering and sex trafficking. Kelly is in custody; although he is yet to be sentenced, it is unlikely that he will be a free man ever again. It is even less likely that he will find a recording studio willing to work with him in the future. So, what are we to do with his catalogue of music?

Throughout history there have been many master works created by morally questionable people.

Yet it is only now, through cancel culture, that the question of separating art from its creator is being considered so thoroughly. To remind you, cancel culture is a modern form of ostracism through which someone is forcibly pushed out of their social and professional circle, both on social media and in the real world, because of something they’ve done or said, or allegedly done or said. The term has negative connotations, and so people have tried to replace the phrase with the more neutral “culture of consequences.” The fact is that cancel culture’s efforts are usually aimed at those who are unlikely to face criminal consequences.

These efforts have produced a variety of results. Roman Polanski, convicted of having unlawful sex with a minor, has been hiding from U.S. justice in Europe for more than four decades. Woody Allen, who was never convicted of a crime but “canceled” as a result of accusations of similar conduct from his adopted daughter, directs his films mostly from Europe, while comedian Louis C.K. is not as wealthy as he once was. Kevin Spacey, charged but cleared of many criminal cases, has been cast in one film in the last three years, an Italian film, instead of appearing in a usual list of three films each year.

Sometimes the criminal justice system substantiates accusations and celebrities get what they deserve. The most striking example is Harvey Weinstein, whose films have won 81 Oscars. The latest celebrity to be convicted, the predator Kelly, has been the subject of rumors since the beginning of his career. Details of the singer’s 1994 marriage to a 15-year-old Aaliyah after supplying her with a fake I.D. are widely known. After writing and producing his young bride’s debut album, he confidently called it “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.” Such cases are not new. Sixty-four years ago, a pioneer of rock and roll married a 13-year-old girl, who also happened to be his cousin. Scandal broke out a year later when Jerry Lee Lewis took his wife (who still believed in Santa Claus) on tour in England and the local media broke the story of the marriage, causing the tour to be canceled.

Some say that Kelly’s case may be the catalyst for change in the music industry that the Weinstein case was for the film industry. Both men possessed remarkable talent, an insatiable sexual appetite and a great deal of money, but lack any scruples, moral or otherwise.

Both have clashed several times with the police over the years and emerged unscathed (until they didn’t). The behavior of both stars was not a secret in professional circles. To a large extent both men faced consequences, first a fall from grace and eventually criminal conviction, due to two social media movements: #MuteRKelly and #MeToo. Both movements began in 2017 and grew out of frustration with decades of inaction holding the rich and powerful accountable.

#MuteRKelly was aimed at removing the singer’s work from radio stations and streaming services. The objective eluded the movement, but the campaign was successful in other ways. “I started #MuteRKelly in July 2017 out of a feeling of outrage. After decades of blatantly abusing Black women and girls, R. Kelly was going on with his life with our community-sanctioned support,” Oronike Odeleye told HuffPost. Her campaign did have an impact, as Kelly’s music was played less frequently and became less popular at graduation ceremonies, weddings, funerals and block parties.

The documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” also played a role in shaping public opinion. After the three-episode series aired, streaming platforms boycotted the singer’s music. RCA Records dropped him, and Lady Gaga and Kiiara distanced themselves from the performer, removing any work they did with him from circulation. One month later, Kelly was charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse.

Another documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” which accused an even bigger star of wrongdoing, came out in 2019. There was an investigation into conduct by Michael Jackson, but the allegations of pedophilia were never proven. However, “Leaving Neverland” was so convincing that it rekindled the public debate thought to have subsided after the King of Pop died. For a brief period, radio stations deliberated over whether to play his songs. The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures refused to accept valuable items once owned by the star. There may be radio stations that refuse to play his music, but not many. And it seems impossible to remove his content from streaming platforms. In the end, those who dislike him because of his reputation may forever choose to avoid his music.

The music of Kelly, Jackson, convicted pedophile Gary Glitter and convicted murderer Phil Spector (who produced the “Let It Be” album and hundreds of hits in the 1960s and 1970s) is easily accessible online. Spotify even carries the music of Charles Manson, the man who orchestrated the gruesome murder Sharon Tate, Polanski’s pregnant wife. And this is normal, because why should we remove the work of musicians and film directors, even if they are murderers or rapists, when one can walk to a bookstore and buy Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”?

The music of any villain who has ever recorded a song is available on the sites of Spotify’s competitors: Apple Music, Amazon Music and YouTube Music, owned by Google. Ironically, when Russia asked Google and Apple to remove a smart voting app, the tech giants complied. Of course, these are completely different cases in different markets. In totalitarian countries, such as Bulgaria until 1989, there would never have been an issue with Kelly’s music. It would have disappeared, as if it never existed. This is what happened to Sasho Sladura, although he did not commit any crime. The songs of artists who were not approved by authorities did not air on the radio; their likenesses were erased from group photos and their names did not appear in movie credits.

Democratic societies include people who support opposing positions. George Howard, an associate professor of music business management at Berklee College of Music believes that after Kelly was charged, it was urgent that his music be removed from streaming platforms. “I think, from an ethical framework, we as a society have to decide at what point we divorce artistic output from a creator … I think we can all agree that at no point in modern history has it ever been acceptable to sexually abuse children. It’s a no-brainer to me, and that behavior far outweighs any sort of artistic merit,” Howard said.

Yes, ethical concerns should not be overlooked, but how ethical would it be for humanity to be deprived of Charlie Chaplin’s films? Chaplin’s contemporaries claim he was a sadistic tyrant, an abuser of teenage girls. The English actor and director is loved by millions due to his comedic genius yet many describe him as a selfish megalomaniac who treated his own children and very young wives with ruthless cruelty. Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the man, titled simply “Charlie Chaplin,” chronicles Chaplin’s relationships with hundreds of women, many of them underage. In his heyday, Chaplin was not just the most famous film star of his time; he was an international icon. The Tramp’s bowler hat, mustache, baggy pants and flexible cane transformed Chaplin into a secular deity, a Holy Spirit of laughter, comedy and humanity. At the same time, he was an early and thinner tabloid version of what we know Weinstein to have been, except when some of Chaplin’s 16-year-old conquests, having been cast in a small role in one of his films, became pregnant. Chaplin would marry the girl briefly because times were different, but only the first two.

“[Kelly] is not an outlier here,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African American studies at Duke University, pointing out that legendary musicians such as Miles Davis were accused of similar transgressions, but continued to be valued for their artistry and retained their faithful audiences.

The campaign against the good work of bad artists, the devil with the talent of an angel, raises many questions, but the media and streaming platforms will continue to adhere to the status quo until someone accused but not convicted is made a scapegoat — see Johnny Depp and Spacey. Both men’s films remain available. No one is canceling the first five “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and it remains to be seen whether Depp beats his wife.

In some ways, #MuteRKelly demands that we reflect on our digital future and technology’s effect on film and TV productions. Today, our technological giants have limitless power. In the days of more tangible media, consumers bought vinyl records or compact discs, and unless they were lost or broken, this kind of content was ours to keep forever, no matter what the artists did wrong. Today, in our technologically advanced era, streaming subscribers pay for access to content located in an invisible cloud, content that may suddenly disappear without warning. If that happens, then perhaps records, discs, cassettes and other such archeological oddities may become popular again.

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