The Treble Cleft: An Opinion Piece

When Do We Separate the Music From the Musician?

Lifetime’s three-part docu-series “Surviving R. Kelly” has been an internet phenomenon, and it’s brought sexual abuse to the forefront of the media. R&B singer R. Kelly’s history of sexually manipulating teenage girls has existed for over a decade, but these were little more than mutterings until 2017.

Though it has been well-known for over a decade that R&B singer R. Kelly was manipulating, assaulting, and raping underage teenage girls, his stature was protected by a lack of evidence, as well as a high position of influence within the music community. However, now, in the height of the ‘Me Too’ movement, figures such as XXXTENTACION, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein have all been ripped from their own pedestals by the public because of their sexual assault scandals.

Though this is a developing issue, with R. Kelly under investigation and other high profile celebrities under the microscope, the question has been raised over and over again: do we separate the art from the artist?

R. Kelly was and still is immensely popular; he released countless iconic hits, such as “I believe I can fly” and “Ignition,” but his conduct over the past decade has birthed the ‘mute R. Kelly movement,’ in which listeners delete R. Kelly from their playlists and no longer stream/buy his merchandise.

The same conflict has arisen with Bill Cosby, whose iconic “Cosby Show” has been reduced to minimal airtime because of his sexual assault conviction.

So, if an artist does bad things in real life, but makes good art, do we continue to consume their art?

Well, though this is a matter of opinion, I have found that it all lies within what they make.

I firmly believe that R. Kelly’s music should not be listened to. Not because each stream profits R. Kelly financially, and certainly not because he is so talented that he transcends moral law.

No, R. Kelly’s music should leave playlists everywhere because it is a representation of the vile evil he spewed while preying upon girls for over two decades.

Songs such as “Bump N’ Grind,” “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number,” and “Ignition” are testaments to the very crimes he committed.

The titles of these songs alone show that he poured his experiences during his sexual exploits into his music, and there is no way I can listen to the lyrics of these songs, which are written on a basis of rape, and stomach their content, knowing what I know.

The art can’t be separated from the artist when they are one and the same.

R. Kelly used his immense influence to covertly boast about sexually assaulting women, which means that the evils he committed in real life are only immortalized by his music.

Nonetheless, bad men can also create beautiful art, and this is true in the instance of Bill Cosby.

Bill Cosby is a rapist and, presumably, a bad man. He deserves every second of jail time he has been given. Still, the Cosby Show was a piece of art focused on principles, family and truth, and though Bill Cosby was the star, he was not the main character.

Cosby’s show emphasized the importance of honesty and empathy, and this instilled principles of justness, creativity, and love in viewers throughout the world.

Art that makes people do the right thing is bigger than the artist, and that is why Bill Cosby’s evil deeds in real life should have no effect on the fate of Cliff Huxtable.

So, what happens when a good man does bad things? Should their music survive the barrage that their reputation doesn’t?

Well, XXXTENTACION’s career has shown that the Cosby Show approach should be taken here too.

X’s death occurred while he was on trial for domestically abusing his girlfriend, and though she said afterwards that these allegations were not actually true, she was under pressure by fans, so it is difficult to say whether or not X is guilty of these crimes.

Nonetheless, assuming that he is guilty, his music has still impacted many young people in a positive manner. I’ve spoken to countless teenagers who have said that X’s music gave them someone to relate to, and he attempted to do good and change his ways towards the end of his life.

I believe, therefore, that XXXTENTACION’s character should remain under scrutiny for what he did, but his music should live on, as it was made to positively influence young people around the globe.

An artist’s art can serve many purposes, from self-reflection to passionate yearning, and in the discussion as to whether or not the artist and the art can be separated, context, per usual, is key. A man who does bad things can create art that changes lives, but a man who uses art to prophecy malevolence is a painter of evil.

So, when you debate whether to consume the art of a questionable artist, check your values and ask yourself if the character of the artist and the good within the art were to fight, who would win?