Savannah Cooper | Reporter
With the releases of HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” and Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly,” viewers are reminded of the countless scandals associated with some of the biggest names in art and music. With this knowledge, a debate has risen among consumers of whether art can or should be separated from the artist and, in instances of alleged crimes or confirmed scandals, should consumers dismiss the art all together due to the actions of the artist behind it.
In this modern era of fame, artistry comes with an unprecedented invasion of privacy thanks to the increased access to information consumers have. Fifteen or 20 years ago, the world’s top artists’ personal lives weren’t common knowledge unless it was front-page newsworthy. Today, that barrier has dissolved and one sound bite, picture or video can change a career forever.
Dr. Michele Henry, division director and professor of music education, knows this argument is nothing new, but he said the integration of technology adds a different element.
“I can say that this is not a new quandary,” Henry said. “Some notable musicians throughout history were known for their poor personal life decisions. I think the difference now is the speed at which everything can be known about a person, and the potentially greater influence that has on the listener with regards to the music. I also believe that many today in the popular music culture use music as the vehicle to seek or establish celebrity—which is often the main goal (rather than the art).”
With the great allure of celebrity and the potential to become one overnight thanks to social media platforms, there’s also been the rise of “cancel culture,” a social media-based ideology characterized by the collective expulsion of an individual from power or fame due to their personal opinions or actions.
Celina senior Emeka Nzeakor is the in-house disc jockey at Scruffy Murphy’s, a popular nightlife bar off of Speight Avenue that caters to both Baylor and Waco communities. As a DJ, producer and music fan, Nzeakor said he believes “cancel culture” is necessary and valuable to fans.
“I think cancel culture with artists is a total necessity because as fans we’re the only people that can really hold these artists accountable because the people that are directly making money off of them are not going to do it,” Nzeakor said. “I do think when cancel culture becomes hypocritical, that’s when it becomes a problem because I think so often people kind of go off of, OK if this the public consensus it must be right, and my opinion about it isn’t necessarily valued unless my opinion is what everyone else’s opinion is.”
In the past month alone, Canadian neo-soul artist Daniel Caesar, Bronx rapper Cardi B and Miami social media influencer Julz Goddard, stage name YesJulz, have all been in cancellation talks for a variety of acts that fans deemed problematic.
Common actions or beliefs that have placed celebrities and public figures on the cancellation chopping block are issues like racism, sexism, homophobia or xenophobia, as well as cultural appropriation — topics that have inflicted pain or cultural trauma on certain communities.
Houston junior Marion DuBose reluctantly started playing the violin in fifth grade when his older sister taught him. The stigmas attached to string instruments weren’t appealing to him until he came across the fairly new electric violin which transformed him from a shy introvert to a well-rounded performer with business cards and a growing clientele list.
As a musician, DuBose said he feels artists have the right to be fully expressive of their opinions and shouldn’t experience repercussions for it.
“I just feel you don’t have to necessarily cancel someone’s opinion out, or how they represent themselves when it comes to a song or people’s ideals on different things because if you think about it we’re in a democratic country,” DuBose said. “I think everyone should have a voice or an opinion and even though people may not agree with what people think or say, it’s still their right in my opinion.”
Finding inspiration in artists like Frank Ocean, Tori Kelly, Etta James, H.E.R. and Daniel Cesar, Houston junior Sion Firew is a rhythm and blues, neo-soul artist and said she finds it possible to separate the art from the artist.
“It’s easier for me to distinguish music from the person,” Firew said. “A lot of people who I listen to, I really don’t know their biography or what they’ve been through. I just know that they make incredible songs and those are inspiring, and they’re a great lyricist. As a musician, I wouldn’t want someone to not listen to my music just because I disagree with them on a certain topic.”
As a DJ who has to cater to a vast audience that changes frequently, Nzeakor said he can’t separate the art from the artist due to the content of some songs.
“I do not separate the art from the artist. I can’t,” Nzeakor said. “People like to think the job of the DJ is to start the party, to have the party jumping, but my number one job is to have everybody be comfortable. A perfect case is YNW Melly who has that song ‘Murder on My Mind.’ For all intents and purposes that song makes me feel terrible hearing it because I come from a place, I use to live in south Dallas, where that stuff happens everyday down the street, up the street and to hear somebody sing about it so trivially is not OK.”
With this in mind, Nzeakor said it’s important to consider how others might interpret music and hold artists accountable for what they create.
James Lewis, better known as DJ Batman, became the Ferrell Center’s first in-house DJ when WNBA Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was finishing her senior year at Baylor, and the need for energized fans increased.
As a private, Baptist university where a diverse body of fans attend home games, from young students to older lifelong fans to Waco natives, DJs face the unique challenge of satisfying a wide range of music tastes.
Working for local radio station 94.5 The Beat as well as the Ferrell Center, Lewis is cognizant of cleaning up today’s hits while also mixing in classic rock and karaoke staples to cater to his audience.
“Even though I clean it up, the song could still have some strong subliminal messaging. So I have to be careful on that,” Lewis said. “A lot of the hot songs I can probably play cleaned up. For instance, ‘Mo Bamba’ was just fine until that sorority video where they said it and everybody saw, Shazam it [the song] and listened every word and it got totally exed out.”
Michael Jackson, also known as the “King of Pop,” became a cultural icon through his historical discography and innovation. Jackson transformed the Super Bowl Halftime Show into a highly anticipated event, integrated the then newly formed Music Television station (MTV) and provided a new framework for music videos with the release of the 14-minute-long “Thriller” video. His case in particular is difficult, because he’s hard to write out of the history books due to his deeply ingrained influence across all genres of music.
As a music educator, Henry said he recognizes that the release of new information, like that highlighted in “Leaving Neverland,” brings forward new challenges for lesson planning and accurate teaching.
“The question of what to do with all of this — particularly from the standpoint of a music educator — is tricky,” Henry said. “In many ways, it is similar to the question of the professional athletes who are viewed as role models, but make the same kind of poor choices. Do we want to hold these individuals up as aspirational models for our students? The difference, I believe, lies in the art itself. While a score or a timing in sports is relatively neutral and can possibly be obtained by multiple athletes whose careers will come and go with age, musical/artistic product is different, in that it endures. It is also different in that it is an expression of an idea. It communicates feeling and perspective, and therefore infuses value through the art.”
In a fast, social media-driven culture, consumers face the new challenge of witnessing the humanity of musicians in a more intimate way, but each individual consumer has the power to choose their beliefs regarding these artists, as well as which songs will stand as the soundtrack of their life.