R Kelly photo by Randee St Nicholas via RCA; Morrissey via Wikimedia; Kanye West by Peter Hutchins via Flickr

What It Really Means to Separate the Art from the Artist

Fergal Kinney

We spoke to Kanye, Brand New, R Kelly and Morrissey fans about that feeling when your fave becomes problematic.

R Kelly photo by Randee St Nicholas via RCA; Morrissey via Wikimedia; Kanye West by Peter Hutchins via Flickr

What do you do when a musician you love becomes problematic; when major transgressions – both alleged and proven – leave you trying to separate the art from the artist? Between Morrissey bigging up Tommy Robinson, Kanye’s pre-ye tweets in support of Trump and the #MeToo movement empowering survivors to come forward with historic abuse allegations against other artists, fans have had to face up to uncomfortable truths about the heroes they once placed on a pedestal and plastered across their walls.

Take the US pop-punk act Brand New. In 2017, several women came forward alleging that frontman Jesse Lacey had sexually harassed them, in some cases allegedly grooming young teen fans for sexual activity. Speaking to people for this piece, I found a Brand New fan base still split on whether it was possible to listen to the band whose music they loved. Something similar has played out more publicly over the last month, with Spotify electing to take music by R Kelly and late rapper XXXTentacion off their official playlists. I spoke to an R Kelly fan who had to make the same call about holding onto the music made by someone with so many accusations levelled against them.

Across all my conversations, a sliding scale of the tipping point emerged. But no “correct” response ever arose. When a musician turns out to be reportedly reprehensible, fans are faced with tackling the notion that they’re not the victims, instead it’s the survivors of verbal or actual violence acted out by those artists who are. The fan response, though, speaks to an increasingly timely debate – and here’s what some had to say.

Iain Hamilton, 48, Glasgow – Morrissey fan

Growing up in a tough West of Scotland town, Morrissey gave me some strength in not being the clichéd macho type. I saw him live 115 times. A number of things built towards me moving away from him, but the main factor has been the politics. I remember being at a Morrissey gig in Middlesbrough in 2011, where the EDL held a march the next day. I said to a friend that I dreaded a journalist ever asking Morrissey what he thought of the EDL, because of what the response might be. It is a matter of shame to me that I clearly knew deep down then and still didn’t move away.

The Nigel Farage stuff was a body blow, but the final straw was the pro-Le Pen comments; at that point I knew I was done. I predicted the Tommy Robinson comments months ago and take no pleasure in being proven right – I’m not sure how much lower he can go, but I know he will.

So now I’m at a point where I can’t listen to Morrissey or even the Smiths; it’s all been tainted. Thankfully, the people I’m closest to feel the same way. As for the others, I haven’t actually fallen out with anyone, just a number of the friendships have withered. It doesn’t cause me anguish… I saw some amazing gigs, met some amazing people. A couple of years ago I was sorting out my will and funeral arrangements and had named “Now My Heart is Full” as the song I wanted to go out to. I’m changing my plans now.

Leonita Mason, 23, Ohio – R Kelly fan

I was a fan of R Kelly’s music – I grew up on some of it. When I was younger I would hear things about him and the young, allegedly 14-year-old girl in a sex tape. I was too young to really care and because he was acquitted and never imprisoned for that I let it go. The allegations that came out last year are what really brought me to realising that something really wrong is going on – I went onto YouTube and was watching more videos and interviews. I decided to remove him from my Spotify. For decades, story after story has come out, yet he’s still not been penalised.

I do think that the alleged victims being black women plays a part, but I don’t think race is the main reason. If that man did not have as much money as he did, and was an average person, he would have been charged with something – especially since he's a black man. Until R Kelly owns up to what women allege he's been doing for decades, and shows some kind of remorse, I will not support his music. Even then, I might think twice about it because there has been so much damage done.

Jo Turner, 27, London – Brand New fan

I was an awkward, bullied child who grew into a teenager with an eating disorder. I wasn’t in a great place. And Brand New’s kind of music didn’t pretend life wasn’t a bit terrible sometimes.

I was just disgusted about the allegations against Jesse Lacey – I’d had no idea. I felt betrayed and let down by his response, which was little better than the anguished ‘I’m an addict, I need therapies’ of Weinstein and his ilk. I felt for the young women who experienced this predatory behaviour.

I’ve not listened to Brand New since – I’m not boycotting them per se, I just haven’t wanted to. I’m sure I’ll stick an album on at some point down the line; I’d be missing out on a link to my youth, a bit of nostalgia and music I love otherwise. And one man is not the whole band. But this will always be the first thing I think of when I do listen to their music in future, and it leaves a very sour taste.

Tom Fisher, 18, Gloucestershire – Morrissey fan

I first discovered Morrissey four or five years ago. Over time his music has become an integral part of my life, largely because he spoke of depression, liberation from sexual labels and literature in a unique way.

Personally I don’t consider myself political. If Morrissey is of a nationalist persuasion, it would be far from unique. Most of us have friends or family members with similar (or more extreme) beliefs. A person has a right to support whichever party they like, whether that’s Labour, For Britain or none at all. I understand those who are offended by Morrissey’s opinions; they resemble right-wing friends of mine who are offended by Jeremy Corbyn.

My feeling is that certain topics tends to be painted in a very black-and-white way. Criticising Islam and endorsing Brexit, for example, seem to be taken by some as indicators of racism. I’m sure that there are cases in which both are motivated by prejudice, but it’s possible to hold either opinion without caring about skin colour or country of origin.

I must admit that many of my friends are in the growing ‘The Smiths were good, Morrissey’s an idiot’ camp. I will continue as normal until I feel like I’m supporting or funding an extremist movement.

Ajay Chauhan, 26, Birmingham – Kanye West fan

I love and adolise Ye’s outspokenness. But what does a die-hard Kanye fan who hates Trump have to say about Kanye defending Trump? I can’t say I agree with him but I respect his opinion, and personally I feel like there’s a deeper meaning to this. Maybe because Obama has let him down several times about helping Chicago, he’s trying his luck here? Maybe he’s like me and believes that there’s some good in everyone, and as a black man that’s on the inside with Trump that he can possibly get through to him and change his ways? Yes I know it’s a long shot.

People always disagree about Kanye with me. It comes with being a Kanye Stan. As Kanye said – “Go listen to all my music. It's the code to self-esteem. If you're a Kanye West fan, you're not a fan of me. You're a fan of yourself.”

Drew Guarini, 29, Brooklyn – Creator of the Brand New Archive

I was as surprised as anyone else by the sexual misconduct allegations. The timing felt disorienting and surreal: first number 1 album, lots of successful festival dates, a farewell coronation on the horizon and then… whoosh. I really had little to no time to grapple with how I personally felt about everything when it happened.

I've spent a lot of time meditating on the question about continuing to listen to Brand New. I am sympathetic and supportive to any potential survivors, but it's undeniable that this band and their music have been an integral part of my life on a deeply personal level for over 16 years. Most, if not all, would say that supporting potential survivors while also supporting the band is an untenable compromise.

If someone wants to continue following the band and spending their money on them, that's their right. If they want to cut ties, that's their right. I know this isn't an easy or simple thing for people, so I'm not going to hold what they decide to do against them.

Katie Bain, 35, Los Angeles – Journalist who covered the R Kelly allegations

I wouldn't call myself a hardcore fan, but R Kelly was so big that he was essentially unavoidable. My editor asked me to look into the allegations and, like I said in the story, what struck me is that there has been no time that R Kelly has been a public figure when these allegations have not been part of his narrative. That really blew my mind, particularly in the sense that the industry and mainstream culture has been so tolerant of a person whose narrative has been so plagued by these allegations.

Given that Kelly's alleged victims are from historically marginalised communities, these allegations have been ignored or tolerated/ It's a similar phenomenon to missing white woman syndrome, which posits that the media covers the disappearance of upper class white women more than it does women of colour or of lower social classes. I think it's important to go back to the quote from Kenyette Tisha Barnes, who started the #MuteRKelly campaign last year. She said “the bottom line is that R Kelly and his victims are the perfect storm of people we don’t care about. We protect problematic black men in the black community, and we discard black girls in all communities.”

You can find Fergal on Twitter.