R. Kelly onstage in Brooklyn in September 2015. Mike Pont/Getty Images
R. Kelly onstage in Brooklyn in September 2015. (Mike Pont/Getty Images)

What Took Sony Music So Long to Drop R. Kelly?

What Took Sony Music So Long to Drop R. Kelly?

Though allegations of abuse against R. Kelly have been public for two decades, it took dream hampton's six-part Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly—and the subsequent public outrage, including a protest at Sony headquarters—to get the music industry to do anything about it.

Variety published a scoop today that R. Kelly's label RCA (a subsidiary of Sony Music) has cut ties with the singer, according to a source inside the company. R. Kelly's name has been removed from the artist roster on RCA's website, though his back catalog will remain with the label.

What took Sony Music so long? According to an entertainment lawyer quoted in the Variety article, most labels have a clause in their contracts which specifies that they may terminate an artist if they are convicted of a crime of moral turpitude. 

Though R. Kelly went to court on child pornography charges in 2000, he was acquitted in 2008. And despite several accusers who've brought civil suits against R. Kelly to recoup damages for alleged abuse—and the numerous women who've gone public with stories about R. Kelly's alleged sex cults and predilection for underage girls—the music industry has, until Surviving R. Kelly, proceeded with business as usual.

Many of these accusations have been known for over 20 years, which is why the industry's belated response feels like too little, too late to many advocates of women's rights. Lady Gaga, for instance, came under fire this week for collaborating with Kelly in 2013; she removed the track from streaming platforms only after Surviving R. Kelly's release. (Gaga has since apologized.) Meanwhile, Chance the Rapper incensed many of his fans when he bluntly explained of collaborating with R. Kelly in 2015, "Maybe I didn’t care because I didn’t value the accusers' stories, because they were black women." 

Chance's admission, though jarring, speaks to the big-picture reasons for why the hip-hop and R&B worlds have been slow to oust abusers and advocate for alleged victims amid the ongoing #MeToo movement.

As cultural critic Sylvia O'Bell writes in her excellent BuzzFeed essay, "Will Time Ever Be Up for Abusive Men in Hip-Hop?": "It is fair to deduce that these alleged predators face fewer consequences because the majority of their victims are black women who are, as Malcolm X accurately noted, 'the most unprotected person in America.' Would R. Kelly have gotten away with decades of allegations of illegal sexual relationships with underage girls and keeping a 'cult' of young women away from their families if they were all white? Would record labels and radio stations continue to support Chris Brown’s career if it had been Taylor Swift’s beat-up face in those pictures?"

These factors, O'Bell notes, and the desire to protect powerful black men from a racist criminal justice system are the reasons people like R. Kelly often go unchecked.

The #MeToo movement is redefining how we as a society view domestic violence and sexual assault, and dispelling myths about how victims should behave in order to be believed (for instance, the notion that victims aren't credible if they take years to come forward due to trauma). Though the industry's lack of action about R. Kelly might be appalling in retrospect, the impact Surviving R. Kelly has had, and continues to have, is a hopeful sign of a growing culture shift.

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