OPINION: Record labels should drop abusive performers

It is not hard to see what triggered Spotify to release a new feature that allows users to mute certain artists they deem undesirable: Robert “R.” Kelly.

In July 2017, Buzzfeed News released a bombshell report that Kelly was running an underage sex cult where girls as young as 15 were forced to serve as sex slaves of the widely popular Chicago singer.

The report and follow-up a month later are disturbing, but what is more disturbing is the same journalist, Jim DeRogatis, reported for the Chicago Sun-Times that Kelly was having sex with underage girls in 2000, when Kelly was already a superstar, but three years before “Remix to Ignition” was released.

Jerdohna Johnson, who said she had a sexual relationship with Kelly when she was 15, put it best.

“His music overshadows everything when it comes to his wrongdoings,” Johnson told Buzzfeed. “Nobody thinks about the damage he’s done or is doing to young women, and his personal life means nothing when it comes to executives making money off of him.”

Unfortunately, she’s completely correct. Although RCA Records dropped Kelly from the label, it still rakes in royalties from streams of his 17 studio albums, five compilation albums and 119 singles.

Record labels seem willing to consistently overlook horrific crimes if the artist is popular. Fans constantly seem willing to overlook horrific crimes if the artist makes good music.

XXXTentacion, or just “X,” is a preeminent example. The Florida rapper rose to fame in 2017 with his debut album “17” after years of cultivating a devoted fan base on SoundCloud. But a year earlier, he had choked, beat up and stomped on his pregnant girlfriend, Geneva Ayala, for singing another artist’s song. He threatened to cut out her tongue, Ayala said.

He appeared to admit to the assault in a video leaked shortly before his death in June 2018.

X also graphically described beating up a gay cellmate while in juvenile detention in 2013-14, calling him “f—–” on the podcast “No Jumper” in 2016, four months after he released “Look at Me” on SoundCloud.

Despite this, X became a household name in the rap industry. He signed a distribution deal with Capitol Music and a $10 million album deal with Empire. Record labels do not care. If they can continue producing music and profit margins are healthy, an artist can do whatever they want. RCA only dropped Kelly after the #MeToo movement. Capitol signed X with knowledge of his past and still releases posthumous music.

Just like it did for Kelly for more than 20 years, for many people, X’s music overshadowed everything. Many in his young, fervent fanbase overlook heinous crimes because “SAD!” and “Moonlight” are good songs. His death predictably launched his music to new, incredibly profitable heights as people collectively forgot his original claim to infamy.

Yes, people can grow. But X’s most popular song, “SAD!” which many use as evidence of his growth, would not be possible without his terrible past, as it is a direct response and confrontation to his former self. X and Capitol turned past homophobia, assault and domestic violence into a payday.

Spotify and other streaming services need to drop all of Kelly’s and XXXTentacion’s  music from their platforms. Kelly and the labels still making money off X’s death cannot be allowed to continue to get rich from tainted legacies.

But that will not happen. Streaming services do not want the lose revenue by dropping those artists, particularly X. As of Jan. 31,  X has five songs on the United States Top 50 chart on Spotify, more than any other artist.

Record labels and fans need to ask themselves how much they will allow for the sake of good music. For labels, it’s a simple risk-reward equation. But for the rest of us, it’s more difficult. We must ask ourselves if our personal moral codes allow us to listen to X, Kelly and others knowing their pasts and that every stream directly gives the artist or label money.

The Jerdohna Johnsons and Geneva Ayalas of the world should be enough to press the mute button.