If Kendrick Lamar is the voice this generation needs but doesn’t deserve, it’s informed by how sparingly he chooses to use it. In a time when we’re never not logged on and everything’s either slathered in too many coats of irony or overzealous outrage, Lamar is precise and sharp with language. He doesn’t complain much about the fuming pile of burnt skin occupying the White House in interviews, presumably because a baseline familiarity with his music makes it clear where he stands. He rarely reveals much about his personal life. Perhaps most aspirationally, he almost never tweets, beyond the occasional promo for new music, tour dates, DAMN. pop-up events, and signal boosting other artists signed to his label, Top Dawg Entertainment. Because of their scarcity, his tweets that break from the formula matter a little more.
On August 26, just past midnight, Lamar offered some enthusiastic support for a rising 19-year-old rapper who wasn’t signed to TDE. “Listen to this album if you feel anything. Raw thoughts,” he wrote. “Fifth listen.” The artist was XXXTentacion, a controversial MC from Florida whose frantic, enraged flow has become inextricable from horrifying allegations of domestic violence. When Kendrick tweeted out the co-sign, Pitchfork had yet to report on the graphic testimony of his alleged victim—including battery by strangulation and false imprisonment—but it was already well-established that XXXTentacion had been accused of unspeakable acts.
In the wake of widespread sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and the domino effect of shitty entertainment industry men falling by the day, the “separating art from the artist” debate has been revived, and the ethical consumption of art an inquiry at the forefront of conversation. While the well-being and perspective of victims is infinitely more important than if you feel comfortable listening to Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me again, it opens the question of what art we can engage with while keeping a clean conscience. In some cases, like with Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy and Amazon’s removal of Jeffrey Tambor from future seasons of Transparent, fans aren’t given much choice.
The discussion gets thornier in music, an industry that, at its highest levels, hasn’t responded with the swiftness of Hollywood to widespread allegations of abuse. R. Kelly still tours internationally, despite decades of sexual abuse allegations. Chris Brown released a 45-song album in October, more than eight years after he assaulted Rihanna, and just months after his ex-partner Karrueche Tran was granted a five-year restraining order from Brown for violent threats. Most albums from Lostprophets, whose frontman Ian Watkins is currently in prison for the attempted rape and sexual assault of a child, are still available on streaming services. Only in isolated incidents within communities that are small enough—and with a fanbase that holds accountability above the art—is restorative justice brought about more decisively.
But what do we do with artists who enable or actively promote abusers without directly committing those crimes themselves? The issue of complicity is never an easy one, because it often raises more questions than we’ll likely have answered: How much did you know? When did you know it? Why didn’t you do anything about it? Since this traumatic news cycle has been moving at a breakneck pace, parties who align themselves with abusers have been met with only slightly more scrutiny—it’s next to impossible to keep everyone accountable when there’s a new abuse story by the day.
Kendrick’s glowing endorsement of XXXTentacion is only one example. Drake recently urged his fans to buy merchandise from longtime associate Baka Not Nice, who has been convicted of assault and human trafficking. Right around this time, Drake was the subject of some glowing headlines after telling some dude in his audience to stop groping women. The aforementioned Chris Brown album, Heartbreak on a Full Moon, features guest verses from Future, Young Thug, Lil Yachty, along with alleged abusers R. Kelly and Kodak Black, who was indicted on a first-degree criminal sexual conduct charge in October. Noah Cyrus, Miley’s younger sister, had a single with XXXTentacion earlier this year, which Cyrus nor her label have been willing to explain. (TrackRecord reached out to her label, RECORDS, for comment earlier this year and did not hear back.) MTV was also playfully coy about whether or not X would be welcome on their TRL reboot to perform the song with Cyrus. (He didn’t.)
Of course, this problem isn’t contained to hip-hop or major labels. The Warped Tour is finally coming to an end next year, after consistently offering a platform for alleged sexual abusers. Indie mainstays Real Estate parted ways with guitarist Matt Mondanile in 2016, under the guise of him shifting focus to his side project, Ducktails. When multiple women came forward this year to accuse Mondanile of sexual misconduct, his attorneys alleged that the other members of Real Estate signed an agreement to remain silent by “sidestepping the controversy to protect the band’s commercial viability.”
Some of Ducktails’ catalogue has been scrubbed from streaming services, but there’s been little question of what to do with Real Estate. They currently have tour dates booked through next February, and it’s easy to imagine them taking a few years off, coming back with a new record, and getting back to business as usual. Their complicity has hardly been questioned, despite the significant chance that other members were aware of and chose to ignore the misdeeds of Mondanile for as long as it had been an open secret in their community. It would be unjust to hold Mondanile’s former bandmates to the same degree of punishment as the direct perpetrator of abuse, but what if they could have prevented further misconduct by severing ties when they found out? Would that have even been enough to prevent it?
As a listener, it’s natural to think about if, at all, it’s ethical to continue engaging with an artist’s music after they’ve been outed as an allegedly terrible, criminal person. It’s a personal, case-by-case question that evades easy answers, besides the generally accepted and correct notion that you shouldn’t give them any more money. But then, we must wrestle with our own complicity, in propping up these artists who are peripheral to abuse with minimal scrutiny. How do we write or share a news story about Drake telling some groper off without exploring the contradictions of his actions? How do we willfully choose to ignore the slight wrinkles in Kendrick’s ever-cementing legacy?
It’s hard to know what to do with the complicit, potentially milkshake duck A-listers. They probably won’t read your tweets, they don’t care much about a minor wing of dissent, and even in the event that they are the ones perpetrating abuse, they will probably rack up enough streams to garner major label support. For most of us, it starts on a localized level in our own music communities, by listening to and believing victims, their preferences for what happens after the allegations go public, and holding friends, bandmates, and other associates of the abuser fully accountable. All we can do is hope that it trickles up.