Listening to “canceled” artists leads to deep levels of introspection: If I still vibe to Chris Brown, does that mean I support how he abused Rihanna? If I hum a Morgan Wallen song, do I overlook racial slurs? If I still listen to R. Kelly, am I ignoring all the rape allegations against him?
Whether or not to listen to a canceled artist’s work forms part of the greater “cancel culture” debate. First, let’s discuss what it means to be canceled.
The term “cancel” has been used on a wide array of occasions, often generating ambiguity.
Karsonya Whitehead, the director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace and Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland, said it would make sense to cancel an artist who has acted unacceptably.
“It is no longer okay to use your power, use your position, use your words, use your music, use your art to oppress, to segregate, to humiliate, to have points of hostility towards communities that have essentially been marginalized in this country,” she said.
She finds cancel culture problematic in the sense that it is hard to know how far back in time one can go to call out unethical actions.
“I think that we are still trying to figure out as a culture and as a great community what does that mean to hold people accountable for their past,” Whitehead said.
This prompts another question: Can we separate art from the artist? Sam Fergenbaum, a junior marketing major, thinks so.
“Do I agree with any of the things Kanye has said? Pretty much no for everything. I don’t think he’s a very good person. But he is a creative and musical genius,” Fergenbaum said. “I will forever still listen to Kanye because I respect his music, and I respect the talent that he has, but I do not respect Kanye as a person.”
Whitehead believes separating the artist from their work is impossible. To understand why, we must reflect on what it means to be an artist.
“If I am in that space and I produce a piece of work, a sculpture, a poem, an op-ed column, a lyric, then that work is essentially part of who I am,” Whitehead added.
Meghana Kotraiah, a sophomore agricultural economics and government and politics major, also thinks an artist and their work go hand in hand.
“We make decisions with our money, so every time we stream an artist’s music, they could be getting paid from that or they could be getting money from that,” she said.
Kotraiah said she doesn’t believe in canceling artists just because everyone else is boycotting them, but she does stop listening to musicians when she disagrees with them.
“I don’t want to support or uplift them as a person in society,” she said.
Fergenbaum said it’s unfortunate when talented artists do or say unethical things, but at the end of the day, he would still listen to rappers like Kanye.
“I like to think of it as I like their music, not them. That’s why I listened to it,” he said.
While Whitehead said the artist and the work cannot be separated, she considers Kanye West’s case differently. West isn’t really canceled, as he is still making music.
He’s made radical statements to draw attention, but that’s different to her from being convicted of a severe offense.
“If Kanye was actively assaulting women and children … I think that would be very different,” Whitehead said.
Cindy Wu, a sophomore accounting and international business major, said her decision to cancel an artist depends on context and accuracy. For instance, she stopped supporting K-pop star Seungri when he was proven guilty of prostitution and gambling crimes.
“I never listened to his music again,” she said.
Freshman bioengineering major Trinidad Cubillos said the canceled singer she stopped listening to was Melanie Martinez. Martinez has rape allegations against her, and Cubillos said the idea of listening to her music left a “sour taste” in her mouth.
However, she said she doesn’t judge others who still listen to canceled artists.
“Some artists are very niche, and you can’t really find music that’s just like theirs,” Cubillos said.
Ultimately, everyone has the right to their individual choice, Whitehead said.
“You can eat meat if you want, you can listen to R. Kelly if you want, you can vape if you want, I don’t have to agree with it,” Whitehead said. “But you have the right to choose what you purchase, what you support, what you do with your body, what you listen to and what you watch.”
Nonetheless, Whitehead said artists who have harmed society should not be condoned in the public sphere.
To listen or not to listen? It comes down to a balance of individual rights and creating a safe, civil society.
“I’m going to drive 90 miles an hour, but society tells me that my right to freedom in that aspect is limited by everyone else’s right to have freedom and safety,” Whitehead said. “So if I want to blast my R. Kelly in my own house, but I live next door to someone who has a problem … I can be asked to turn it down. There’s freedom with limitations in this country which I don’t believe is a bad thing.”