Pop stars falling from pedastal: how do we decide who we cancel?

Written by: Charisa Chedie

Amsterdam, The Netherlands – The documentaries about world-famous musicians Michael Jackson, titled ‘Leaving Neverland’, and ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ about R. Kelly are breaking the internet. Vigorous discussions are taking place on social media about these artists, their sexual life and their art. Questions arise about separating the person from the art they make. For instance, do we no longer do the ‘Moonwalk’ while playing ‘Thriller’ because Michael Jackson allegedly abused children? ‘If you’re a hip-hop fan, there’s not a lot you can listen to.’

‘I’m not playing his music anymore’, says 3FM DJ Vera Siemons. Every Saturday and Sunday Siemons’ (26) hosts an evening radio show on radio station 3FM. We talked on the phone about her decision to not put The King of Pop on rotation anymore. ‘The documentary is pretty convincing and even though it’s not proven if he’s guilty yet, sleeping with little kids is not ok.’ For Siemons, the king has fallen from his pedestal.

Rakesh Kanhai thinks there are more sides to a person. As an executive producer, Kanhai worked with big Dutch pop artists like Boef and Famke Louise. ‘Michael Jackson is a father, a great musician and an alleged child abuser. I will listen to his music because it’s just one thing of who he is. He can’t help he was given this talent.’

When the story about R&B-singer R.Kelly first broke, things compared to the Jackson case were a bit different. Kelly’s numbers on Spotify spiked when the trailers of ‘Surviving R.Kelly’ were released. Memes about the contagiousness of Kelly’s hits were created. The Daily Show made a sketch about covering your ears instead of your eyes, inspired by the movie Birdbox. ‘To focus on what he (R. Kelly, red.) did and not get seduced by his music’, comedian Roy Woods Jr. joked during the show. In the movie, taking off your blindfold leads you to get seduced by your worst fears. Which in this case, is getting hyped by Kelly’s music.

‘I wouldn’t work with guys like R.Kelly’, said Talpa music’s artist & repertoire manager Randall Spann. ‘It’s like he’s confessing in all his songs about the sexual abuse. It’s so explicit. Even if he starts making gospel, he doesn’t have any credibility left.’

Dutch artist Frenna was arrested in 2016 in Surinam. The police arrested him for having sex with a minor and the production and distribution of child pornography because there was footage of the two having sex circulating social media. He was jailed for almost three months. Just a couple of weeks ago he released a new album which now holds the first spot on Spotify’s album top-50.

Cancel culture – the decision to collectively cancel an artist – seems very selective. ‘It’s about popularity. How big is the artist? What does he mean to his fans?’, criminologist Jeroen van der Broek tells. ‘Honestly, nobody wants one of the biggest artists in history to be a pedophile, we don’t want to hear it.’

Van den Broek, who researched online music and street culture, continues telling. ‘Imagine you can’t listen to artists who’ve been found guilty by a judge. If you’re a hip-hop fan, there’s not a lot you can listen to. I haven’t been digging in cancel culture yet, but young people just listen to what they like. People who are a bit older decide if someone is still credible enough to listen to.’