why it’s bigger than kesha
Kesha accusations against Dr Luke are just the tip of the iceberg, the music industry has problems that run deeper and more insidiously that you might ever imagine.
It was a sobering moment for many upon learning the verdict of Kesha's suit against Dr. Luke and his Kemosabe label, in conjunction with Sony Music Entertainment. Obviously it was most grievous for Kesha, who over the course of the last few years has fought many demons—from within and without—and really just wants one thing: freedom from her label.
By now most are familiar with Kesha's situation involving her former mentor, superproducer Dr. Luke. It's a case with many twists and turns, deconstructed quite well by Rolling Stone here. In a little over a tweet-length analysis: Kesha wants out of her seven-album deal with Kemosabe/Sony, accusing Dr. Luke of sexual, mental and emotional abuse. However the judge ruled against her, and her request to exit her contract was not granted, though there is hope for an appeal in May. Sony's argument was that Kesha could rectify this situation by simply not working with her alleged tormentor. Is it really that easy though, considering Dr. Luke has a countersuit for defamation waiting in the wings for Kesha as well as a strong financial bond with Sony?
But this is neither the first nor the last time something like this has happened. It's a story we've all heard before in various forms. Hell, if you're a woman working in the music industry, you've probably told it a few yourself. Gender roles in the music industry, like more other work places, aren't balanced. It's a historically abusive epidemic that has trickled into the boardroom, into the studio, behind hotel room doors, and into the backstage. It manifests itself in a number of ways, that as women we have learned to compartmentalize for survival. Maybe it's a male executive calling you "sweetie," or an artist putting his hand on your thigh during an interview. You could be asked to "grab a drink" by a publicist only to realize it wasn't to pitch an artist, but so he could pitch a tent under the bar.
Then there are the severe cases, where there's a threat of physical violence or sexual abuse. Even then, there's a concern for managing secrecy. It isn't always that easy to speak up. This is an industry that's taken women a long time to conquer, so an admission of assault becomes a career curveball, because in many cases the treatment of women worsens in that environment following the fire alarm pull.
Just ask music journalism veteran Kim Osorio, whose harassment suit against The Source magazine was a historical moment in hip-hop. Kim was the first female Editor-In-Chief of hip-hop's Bible in the early 2000s, but her position quickly went downhill when the environment moved from creatively fulfilling to volatile. She details it all in her memoir Straight From The Source, but perhaps the greatest takeaway from her sexual harassment case was that she didn't win it. She won for defamation and retaliatory discharge, as Kim was released from The Source once she vocally acknowledged her harassment on the job and the face of The Source at the time, Raymond "Benzino" Scott, slammed Osorio in an interview. "It took a minute after I realized something wasn't right in the work environment before I told anyone," Kim recalls, explaining she waited a good while before even admitting the abuse to trusted friends. "Initially at the time I was scared to lose my job so I didn't put anything on record for fear of being retaliated against. And that's exactly what happened. When I did complain, that's when they fired me. By that point I had just so much, I felt like it was time to say something. It was just too much." Her multi-million dollar win was a victory for women in hip-hop, despite the courts not recognizing her treatment at work as sexual harassment. "There were people that didn't believe me and probably some people who still don't believe that what I went through at the time was a hostile work environment," she says.
And there are levels to the abuse and its acknowledgment, punctuated by social media. Earlier this year, NY-based journalist Meaghan Garvey revisited her 2015 claims of rape during a trip to Los Angeles to interview rapper Chief Keef [she accused an associate, not the rapper]. While Garvey initially kept the name under wraps, she later heavily insinuated over Twitter this year that it was Distrolord A&R Gustavo Guerra.
This news arrived on the heels of Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman accusing publicist Heathcliff Berru of sexual harassment. Coffman's claim became a domino effect, as many women later came forward with their own horrid tales of multi-tiered assault by Berru. Brooklyn Magazine Music Editor Caitlin White spearheaded the movement, interviewing every victim and closing with an interview with Berru himself, straight from a rehab facility. "The story that broke about Heathcliff Berru's behavior became a flashpoint for the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the music industry," White says. "Social media quickly became a toxic and relatively unsafe place for victims to have a conversation about their experiences. I continued reporting on the story because I believed these women deserved to be heard in a real way, even if they didn't have enormous social platform themselves. I included Berru in the conversation because if we actually want to change the culture in the music industry—and the world—we have to find a way to forgive and heal. Anger only gets us so far."
In her interview, Berru is surprisingly apologetic, something rarely experienced in situations such as these. "The fact that [Heathcliff] has apologized, admitted he fucked up, and is actively trying to become a better person is a completely different response than what we're seeing from someone like Dr. Luke... It seemed important to show that there are other options besides denial and rage," White adds.
"The world is not a safe place for women, the music industry is especially not a safe place for women, and Kesha's current situation speaks volumes to the lack of attention this industry—in particular—pays to protecting women," says Lauren Nostro, Managing Editor of Complex Music. "But that a record label that houses artists like R. Kelly and Chris Brown is not majorly concerned with the safety and well-being of a female artist on their roster, one who made them plenty of money a few years back, is despicable." Nostro also brings up the point of why Dr. Luke has not undergone an investigation for this criminal misconduct. However, entertainment attorney Helen Yu advises it's a difficult territory to traipse into legally. "This is the music business; it's not just putting out widgets," Yu explains. "Sony and Luke have a substantial business together. Luke is obviously angry. His position is that he's been accused of wrongdoing, his name has been maligned, he's been portrayed in the most horrible way as a rapist. This is damaging to his reputation. So he's dug his heels in like, I don't wanna let you go."
And then there's also the notion that this is in fact an unproven accusation, footnoted by a TMZ post of a video from 2011 where Kesha pre-sobriety is calmly denying any abuse. "She's been in and out of rehab, she's undergone a lot of psychotherapy, a lot of analysis," Yu adds. "I tend to believe when you're in those types of facilities and having the types of treatment that she's had, the raw emotions surrounding why you were self-medicating come to surface. If it happens to be that she was sexually and emotionally and mentally abused, it's definitely within the realm of possibilities." The fact that Kelly Clarkson has recently admitted to being strong-armed into working with Dr. Luke in the past or else her project won't be released only validates Kesha's claim that if she stays on Sony, her music won't get its proper push. Maybe it was sobriety that awakened Kesha's emotions, or maybe it was just a release of the fear. After all, assault of any kind is impossible to reconcile, especially when it involves familiarity.
"This is not the business of protecting little girls," says singer/songwriter Esthero, who has her own harrowing account of assault involving a very well known artist. While Esthero declines to name names, she recounts the story here for the first time publicly:
I was assaulted in my sleep by someone I thought was a dear friend who was a well-known artist, a well respected artist, someone I trusted. I didn't talk about it or report it for many reasons:
There had been alcohol involved. I had been with him all night with his friends at a club in New York, dancing and being sexy; and I knew that NO meant NO and I didn't ask for it, but I think there was a part of me that thought nobody will take me seriously because I was drinking. And then there was the fear in saying something about somebody so well respected and who ironically had a reputation musically of respecting women. So there was so much there. Anyway, there was this friendship with him where I felt safe enough to lie in a bed with him to sleep. We had been out drinking, and I didn't want him to drive any more than he already had to get me home.
As we were going to sleep he had made some advances, and I said "Hey, no funny business." I said NO, but I was cute about it... because God forbid I hurt his feelings or emasculate him…. because we're taught our whole lives that men's feelings are more important than ours. And maybe it's not even taught, but it's a sense that all women intrinsically have that if a man is emasculated it can become a volatile situation and that you might be in danger. When men get angry, there's always the possibility of danger. And that's just something we all fucking instinctually know. So I tried to give him a hard "NO" without hurting his feelings. I tried to be funny about it. I tried to bro down with him. My friend. And then I rolled over and I went to sleep. Feeling safe. And then I woke up because his fingers were inside me.
I remember saying "What the fuck are you doing?!"
And he had this moment where he realized what he was doing, and he got up, and he ran out and I followed him asking why and trying to figure out what the fuck was going through his mind that made that ok…and he yelled at me and he cried. I remember thinking it was very much like a toddler doing something they knew they weren't supposed to be doing. There was a lot of shame in him and a lot of fear. And I was torn between my compassion for him and compassion for myself. Because there was a friendship there, there was a part of me wanting to protect him.
Some time passed and I had to attend an event that he would be at and I hadn't seen or heard from him since that night. So I tried to get right with it in myself. I thought maybe he hadn't reached out because he was afraid, and so ashamed. I was still making excuses for his lack of spiritual or emotional evolution. I had decided I would look at him and hug him and just tell him quietly "it's ok." But when I approached him he just looked at me and coldly said, "Yo, I didn't like how you acted last time I saw you." Up until that point I had made up a million excuses for him: he was drunk, it was a momentary lapse in judgment, he didn't mean it." But the moment he said that nonsense to me I knew there was no remorse for what he did, and there was no making excuses after that. Man, it was so hard because it's not like it was just some random asshole. This was someone who was supposed to be my FRIEND. This was the person who was supposed to protect me from pieces of shit like that. And even after that night I still didn't talk about it. It took a minute for me to process that fear, that anger. These sorts of traumas can take time to process. You think you know who you are…what you would do…what you won't tolerate. But you really don't know—until it happens to you—what your evolution process will be. I've shared this with a few close friends but this is the first time I've spoken about it publicly. And I wish I could say it was the only time I have been assaulted, but I can't. I just think this particular story was important to share given the fact that there was a pre-existing relationship there that complicated things. This was not a stranger. We think of sexual assault and rape and we often pair that thought with some stranger lurking in a dark alley waiting for some vulnerable unprotected woman to walk by. But we can be abused and assaulted by friends, by lovers, parents, colleagues, by people we know and it can make things very cloudy, it can cause the hesitation to speak up. Sometimes we're not even aware that it was abuse until we've got enough distance from it and see it through healthier eyes."
Situations like these can begin from the most minimal moment and then escalate to levels Esther. That's the reality we're faced with as women in the music industry: deciding what's worth voicing and what isn't. We're constantly told to develop a thick skin, but even the hardest callus can't thwart the pain of assault. And regardless of whether or not it happened last month or last decade, when a woman speaks up, she deserves to be heard and taken seriously. "We have to rebuild our community with different rules and mechanisms for women to be heard and protected," White says. "Part of that rebuilding includes men admitting they fucked up and actively seeking to change the way they treat and conceive of the role women have in the industry."
Text Kathy Iandoli
Image via YouTube