My Cancel Culture & Chris Brown
Aug 31, 2019 • matt • ~ 15 minute read • 2778 words
I love listening to music. It’s by far my favourite medium of art, and I immerse myself in its consumption and its culture.
I am equally if not more passionate about social justice. I am very lucky to have what I have now, and I recognize that most people don’t have that kind of luck in their lives - to no fault of their own. Ideally, we should fix that. Probably.
Those two passions both complement and clash with each other. On one hand, I think music can drive social justice and give a voice to important movements. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is a great example of this in the current musical generation, both in the art itself and its impact on the surrounding culture. His performance of The Blacker the Berry/Alright at the Grammy’s sparked a very incendiary conversation in the media about race and hip-hop, including an interesting FOX News snippet that Kendrick then samples in DNA.
And of course, empowering music isn’t just modern hip-hop: American pop has championed feminism, sex positivity, gay rights, and numerous other social causes in the past 10 years; across the world, music has a profound impact in political and social discourse.
However, it’d be naive to say that music also doesn’t cause and enable social harm. The same pop industry that supports empowering messages from Taylor Swift and Lizzo also props up abusers like Chris Brown. Rap is probably even more controversial. Not only do many artists glorify misogynism, homophobia, and racism, but the rap community supports (and has supported) some truly awful people. It’s appalling that people only really started caring about R. Kelly after the #MeToo movement. It’s appalling that #FreeTayK was a trending hashtag. It’s appalling that people willfully ignored X’s past to make him a martyr.
The interesting question, if a tad a bit unoriginal, is whether or not you can “separate the art from the artist”. I think about this a lot, and I get asked about it quite a bit. It’s more important of a subject than you might think. And, by putting my thoughts into writing, I hope you can better understand my position on this.
i don’t like very bad people or their art
Reductively, I do not think you can “separate the art from the artist”. Before I explain my full rationale, let me tell you what my music listening process is like in this regard.
By default, I’ll assume that every artist is an alright person. I am fine listening to music from alright people.
If an artist has bad messaging in their songs, I view it negatively. The most prevalent example for me is Eminem: while I loved listening to his music when I was younger, homophobic lyrics have definitely turned me off of some of his most popular songs. I don’t think that Eminem is intentionally homophobic and I don’t think he really hates gay people (at least, now) - he talks about how homophobic language comes second nature to him because of his upbringing in a very interesting 60 Minutes interview - but it doesn’t stop me from disliking some of his art, and viewing it as problematic.
If an artist is a bad person, who says or does bad things outside of their art, I process this as part of their public persona - which bleeds into their art. As soon as I learn that information, it seeps into every single time that I consume that person’s art - and most likely will eventually turn me off of it. A good example of this is Justin Bieber: he has a laundry list of bad behaviour (DUIs, assaults, and just being a dick) - and that makes me think twice when I want to put Sorry into my Spotify playlist.
If it’s brought to my attention that an artist is clearly a very bad person, I completely remove them from my library. Of course, “very bad person” is a very subjective term. Usually, this encompasses rapists, domestic abusers, child molesters, violent murderers, etc. In the past, I’ve purged Chris Brown and R. Kelly from my library; while I never listened to Tay-K or XXXTentacion, this would’ve dissuaded me from adding their music to my library. And, unfortunately, there’s a lot more in that list too.
I will admit, the distinction between “very bad” and “bad” is blurry. It’s very hard for me to put the exact logic into words - it’s something that stems more from virtues and intuition rather than concrete reasoning. But, in the case of those who are clearly “very bad”, who’ve done egregious harm to individuals, I’m willing to stand by my reasoning and not support their art.
I didn’t listen to music like this in my entire life. I’m not sure when I decided to bring this new policy into my life, but I’d guesstimate and say that it was around my grade 10 year. At the time, almost all of the music that I listened to was rap, which includes many artists of questionable character.
I can cite a major turning point: reading the police transcript of what Chris Brown did to Rihanna. In the back of my mind, I knew that Chris Brown wasn’t a model citizen, but I don’t think I really understood what he did and what happened. I think that I got rid of all of my Chris Brown songs shortly thereafter.
And look, I do honestly think that Chris Brown has a good voice, and has some good songs. But, at the end of the day, I couldn’t bring myself to support him, or his art.
This is, essentially, the same guiding principle that drives me to not torrent music/movies/TV and pay for all of my textbooks. More than I’d like to admit, many of my moral decisions are driven by an innate feeling of wrongness, almost of disgust. Yes, I can justify all of these moral stances that I hold - I had to for many years on the debate circuit - but they really boil down to an intuitive, dumbfounding emotional reaction.
art is art - but is it the artist?
A common critique I get is that art is not really about supporting anybody; art is about self-enjoyment, about understanding and actualization, about exploring yourself. In this sense, it shouldn’t matter who made the art that you’re consuming - it only matters what the impact is.
Let’s break that down.
I fully understand where this argument is coming from, and in most senses, I agree. Individual people have agency on what they want to value in their lives, and what they don’t. You don’t have to think about the artist that makes the art; there are art galleries founded on that premise! Personally, I have to take the artist into account. I literally cannot get it out of my head, no matter what type of art I consume - and without that information, I feel like I don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle that is this work of art.
Context enriches how I consume art. Lots of music, especially rap, is somewhat biographical. Understanding who the artist is, where they lived, what life experience drove them to create this song - all of these things add on to your understanding of art.
Knowing where and how Kendrick grew up was just as important in helping me understand King Kunta as was reading into who Kunta Kinte was. Understanding Biggie’s life gives even more weight to Suicidal Thoughts. And, there are plenty of examples outside of rap: looking at the almost comical implosion of Fleetwood Mac before Rumours makes the resulting album just a bit more poignant.
But, if I enjoy art through context, then I don’t think it’d be fair for me to conveniently ignore who the artist was when I feel like it. To me, context is part of the art. And in that sense, I am unable to separate the artist from the art, no matter the material form.
This argument extends past just music, and is probably even more powerful in visual art and film. I can’t tell you how many Wikipedia rabbit holes I’ll go down after seeing a movie! And, on net, I think it’s a good thing. But, of course, there is a slight harm.
People tell me that I’m missing out on some art. This is probably true. I did like Waves as a song, I think X has some innovative production, and Ignition is a fun song to listen to.
But, my life is not particularly harmed because I don’t listen to these songs. I’m not missing out on some quintessential experience - definitely not from Chris Brown. And there’s a plethora of great music for me to explore - so what’s the problem?
“support” & ethical consumption
On top of that, there’s an element of support. I listen to all of my music on Spotify - that means that record labels and artists profit per listen. I think that adds to the moral gravitas of the situation: do I want to be literally giving money to an abuser, even if it’s only a fraction of a cent?
In response, people say that this is exhausting, hypocritical, and not impactful. Think of how many things we consume in the world, backed by how many not-socially-responsible corporate actors? There’s no way that everything I consume is 100% great and amazing. So why am I choosing this hill to die on?
I think being an ethical consumer is all about the freedom to make choice. For some things, I have little choice or purchasing power available to me. I buy all of my textbooks, even though I know that textbook companies tend to be unethical about their business practices - but mostly because I don’t get to choose what textbooks I have to have. I use a phone and computer, even though a significant portion of the rare metal mining is abusive towards workers and certainly terrible for the environment - because I need to have a phone and computer in this day and age. And, I end up throwing out a lot of food byproducts (e.g. egg shells), even though they could be composted - because all of the residential blocks around me don’t have compost. I feel bad about these things that I do, and I try my best to fix them - but I am contributing to the problem.
However, consuming music is not one of these low-choice situations. I have almost complete choice over what kind of music I listen to, over what artists I support. This is one of the easiest choices I can make: there’s literally no barrier to me not listening to certain kinds of music, especially with the advent of streaming. At this point, it’s not even inconvenient - they’re just not in my playlist.
In situations where you have the most agency, your morals shine the most. In that sense, I think I have almost an obligation to follow what I believe in, which is ethical consumption.
Now, that isn’t to say that I’m perfect. Off the top of my head, I should probably become vegetarian soon, maybe use Amazon a bit less, and look more into who makes my clothes and shoes. Everything requires a start though, and music is an easy place to start.
As for its efficacy, it’s kind of a valid point. R. Kelly probably isn’t individually impacted because I don’t listen to Ignition any more. However, I think that’s kind of a cop out. Firstly, this is probably more about principles and morals, so efficacy might not be the largest concern. And secondly, it sparks discourse - like this blog post - and might convince other people to do the same, to push for action, or at the very least become a bit more informed. And that can snowball into 18 federal offenses very, very, quickly.
a tension with rap
I do see one problem with my philosophy: how I treat “bad”. I listen to lots of rappers that deal or have dealt drugs (Jay-Z, Pusha T, and 21 Savage come to mind), and even more rappers who glorify violence, machismo, homophobia, and misogyny. I view these things as bad (and probably not very bad), and that reflects in how I view the music. At the same time 21 Savage is one of my favourite artists - and probably has done more bad things in his life than Justin Bieber.
To some extent, I’ve become desensitized to misogyny in rap, which is probably not a good thing. And, part of this is just me turning a blind eye. At the end of the day, rap doesn’t get a good … rap, and for good reason.
Now, I could give you a few defenses for 21 Savage and the other rappers that I listen to, but at the end of the day, I’m believing in those defenses less and less. Subconsciously, it might be why I’m drifting away from a lot of rap, and trap in particular.
I will say one thing though. I look favourably on people like 21 Savage and Dr. Dre because there’s a sense of regret and reform. I can understand that people do bad things and make mistakes, and can still become better (though not necessarily good) people. Some crimes reflect more on environmental factors than others, and once people are taken out of that environment, they change; in that sense, I’m a bit more forgiving than most.
a note on moral relativism
I often get asked if this affects my enjoyment of classical music. Unfortunately, I don’t really listen to classical music - or much music made before I was born, really, which is kind of a shame - but I think it would. Most of the stuff I talked about above works, but you can also inject another interesting question: were the artists progressive for their time? I get to cheat a bit because I just don’t consume much old art, but this is a very valid discussion when looking at visual art and music that’s stood through the test of time.
I don’t think I have too strong of an opinion on this, but I will say one thing: I don’t think I’d listen to pieces by Wagner, for the same reasons that I’ve outlined above. However, if you want to swing me on moral relativism, you are more than welcome to.
I extend a similar view towards other types of art. I don’t really feel like watching any movies by Roman Polanski, even though they’re apparently quite good. My view of Kevin Hart and Louis C.K. has soured recently, as has my view of their work. And, there’s this whole shit show with Jeff Epstein - we’ll see how this plays out, but I’m definitely never going to be a Prince Andrew fan (though let’s be honest, I wasn’t one before).
and, cancel culture?
I admit, I leaned into the clickbait with that title. I think there are serious problems with cancel culture. People jump to conclusions wayyyyy to quickly, mostly just reinforcing their own beliefs (and occasionally prejudices) without enough evidence. Often times, backlash really is just people wanting to get angry over very small and insignificant things, wasting valuable political capital on unimportant drama instead of real problems. And, it often completely screws someone’s public persona, even if they’re not actually guilty or actively are trying to reform.
Yet, I think the idea behind it is good. Ethical consumerism is becoming more popular and effective; even the most die-hard capitalist has to agree that shifts towards fair-trade, eco-friendly products, and corporate social responsibility have generally been a net good, even if there are cases where it’s super bad. Of course, there’s way more legwork to do in that field (especially in CSR); but, baby steps.
the next episode?
In sum, I have significant, almost limitless agency when I consume art - and as such, I should probably exercise that agency morally. At the end of the day, it’s a pretty easy thing for me to do, but it makes me feel good. Isn’t that what life is all about, anyways?
Oh yeah, and like morals and social good too.
I’m not fully satisfied with this post. There’s still a bit more I want to talk about, but I’m not exactly sure how. I guess for now, I’ll leave this mini-essay at its unsatisfying conclusion.
Until next time!