WXTJ Writes! By Wyatt Carter: Opinion – On Separating The Art from the Artist
Kanye West’s music has soundtracked my life for as long as I can remember. Yeezus was the first album I bought with my own money, and in comparison with what was on the radio, the production on Yeezus sounded like music from the future. The first song I played after getting my license? Late Registration’s Drive Slow. I have a deep emotional attachment to much of his catalog, both officially released and leaked on reddit (Sorry Ye.) Outside of my own experience with Kanye’s music, his music has become ubiquitous amongst the online music discourse community.
Which is why for fans of Kanye’s music, his willingness to engage in irrationality, immaturity, and racism in a banal search for controversy has been so depressing as a fan. In no way do I condone his actions, nor his words, and on a personal level, I am deeply worried for his mental health, and well-being.
Despite the many harmful statements Kanye has made in the past, (like claiming George Floyd’s murder was actually caused by a Fentanyl overdose, to name one of countless examples,) I have and will continue to consume his art.
I believe that it’s possible to accept both the fact that an artist has both produced art that you enjoy, and has done things you cannot condone, but every artist is different. Whenever I hear of or see similar takes, advocating for the enjoyment of art aside from any actions committed by the artist who created it, immediately, members of the Twitterati on both sides of the argument act like their bat-signals have been lit over Gotham. The debate over whether or not it’s morally acceptable to listen to music that’s been produced by problematic figures has dominated discourse online for years, and I want to use this article to paint a picture of why that is, and why I feel the way I do.
Arguing that Kanye’s discography is really good and that everyone should listen to it is not much of a moral quandary for the rate-your-music 20-somethings that read articles on College Radio Station websites. Kanye’s music has been critically worshipped, and overwhelmingly popular.
While Kanye’s provocations in the media and his personal life have stirred up significant controversy, they exist in a realm distinct from the legally and morally egregious actions of other artists. While the discussion of Kanye’s impact is complex, to fully understand the spectrum of ‘problematic’ artists in the music industry, we should analyze the concept of listening to artists with more severe allegations, such as R. Kelly.
In comparison with Kanye West, R Kelly’s music has been critically panned, and although popular in his time, has not enjoyed the same kind of long lasting chart-topping success Kanye has had. Infamously, R Kelly has faced numerous credible allegations of sexual abuse, with many of these allegations centering on his predatory pursuit of teenage girls. Last year he was sentenced to 30 years in jail after being found guilty of eight counts of sex trafficking and one of racketeering in a New York court. It is my personal opinion that R Kelly is a monster, and I will not attempt in any way to defend listening to someone that could carelessly upend the lives of children in the manner that he has. This comparison serves to explore the varying degrees of public and personal acceptance of an artist’s behavior. The stark contrast between Kanye’s inflammatory rhetoric and R. Kelly’s criminal convictions pushes us to question not just where we draw our own lines but how these lines differ among the music-listening public.
This nuanced dilemma prompts a deeper exploration into the intersection of art and the artist’s actions, compelling us to grapple with the ethical dimensions of our cultural consumption. The question of when an artist deserves to be “canceled” by the music listening populace raises profound considerations about the moral responsibility inherent in enjoying creative works. If we can’t always separate the art from the artist,
The notion of who holds the authority to decide which artists should be embraced or shunned introduces an additional layer of complexity. Determining a uniform standardized criterion for cancelation becomes an increasingly impossible task, as it necessitates navigating the often subjective terrain of morality. Furthermore, the landscape of public opinion is dynamic, with perspectives evolving over time. What may be deemed unacceptable today might not have been perceived as such in the past, and vice versa.
The singular individual who has the moral right to evaluate whether or not we should consume the music of problematic artists is the listener themselves.
History is littered with examples of artists who have committed reprehensible acts, and the decision of whether to continue enjoying their work or to shun them from our music libraries is a deeply personal one. Hopefully it’s easy for the vast, vast, majority of the music listening community to condemn listening to music made by a child predator, but what about issues that aren’t as black & white? What if an artist you enjoy collaborated with someone that had taken a life? Some people would argue that listening to that artist’s music would be abhorrent, other people wouldn’t necessarily feel the same way. When it comes to those moral problems, each of us has our own moral compass and unique life experiences that shape our perspective, and there must be nuance to the way we think about each artist. We all draw the line at different places when it comes to separating the art from the artist.
The decision about whether to continue enjoying an artist’s work or to distance oneself from it, is deeply personal and often context-dependent. It’s essential to continue engaging in meaningful discussions about this topic, to challenge our own perspectives, and to respect the decisions of others. The debate over separating art from the artist will likely continue for years to come, but ultimately, in my opinion, it’s up to each listener to decide where they draw the line.
Wyatt Carter is a 3rd year student and DJ for WXTJ. You can tune in to his show HoosGotAux! with fellow co-host Antonio Rosario every Friday from 8-10 PM.