Kesha v Dr Luke
The music industry cares more about the material value of women than it does about their safety


Last Friday afternoon, in the New York Supreme Court, the American singer and rapper Kesha Sebert, popularly known as Kesha, was denied a legal motion that would have released her from an exclusive recording contract with the label Kemosabe Records. The label was created by the hugely successful American songwriter and producer Lukasz Gottwald, known as Dr Luke, who has had chart hits with pop stars including One Direction, Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. Kemosabe Records is owned by the corporation Sony Music Entertainment.

In October 2014, Kesha sued Dr Luke – her long-term producer – in a civil action in the state of California, alleging sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment, and emotional distress, among other claims. According to her suit, Dr Luke’s sexual, physical and emotional abuse of her began in 2005, when, as an 18-year-old, she was first contracted to work with him. Dr Luke quickly countersued, in the state of New York, alleging defamation. He claimed that Kesha’s suit was simply a way for her to try to gain an advantage in contract negotiations. In 2015, Kesha amended her original suit to include Sony Music Entertainment. According to her amended complaint, “Dr Luke’s proclivity for abusive conduct was open and obvious” to executives within the company, who “either knew of the conduct and turned a blind eye, failed to investigate Dr Luke’s conduct, failed to take any corrective action, or actively concealed Dr Luke’s abuse”.

The motion for a preliminary injunction heard in the New York Supreme Court on Friday was a step towards determining whether or not Kesha’s recording contract could be regarded as void. “I know I cannot work with Dr Luke,” Kesha claimed, in papers filed with the court. “I physically cannot. I don’t feel safe in any way.” She was seeking immediate release from her contract.

The injunction failed. Judge Shirley Kornreich refused to release Kesha from her contract with Kemosabe Records and Sony Music Entertainment, citing “irreparable harm” to Sony’s business if Kesha’s six-album contract is not fulfilled. “My instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing,” ruled Kornreich. Kesha is allowed to work with another producer, should she desire, though the resulting songs will still be owned by Kemosabe Records, Dr Luke’s company. And that, apparently, is enough by way of freedom: that a female artist should still be contractually obliged to make money for the man she alleges is her rapist.

I hate the music industry. My work as music critic is indissolubly bound up with it, but the industry shows me over and over again that it does not value the safety of women. The music industry is built on the creative and sexual exploitation of women, but our humanity is held very cheap. In this case it is clear to me, as it is to others, that a woman’s plea for safety does not hold weight against a corporation’s expectation of profit.

No criminal charges of assault or abuse have so far been laid against Dr Luke. The motion for injunction heard on Friday was not a rape trial. Nevertheless, the judge cited an absence of medical records and specific dates for the alleged abuse as reasons why Kesha’s request to be released from her contract could not be fulfilled. Kesha has said that she was bullied into silence by Dr Luke, which is one reason she had not come forward earlier than 2014 with her claims. Sony’s response to this is worth quoting at length:

This admission – that Sebert never spoke of or reported the alleged misconduct – is fatal to each and every one of her claims against Sony and Kemosabe Records. In short, Sebert cannot have it both ways: She cannot claim that Gottwald intimidated her into silence, then – as an apparent afterthought – seek to hold Sony and Kemosabe Records liable for failing to act on conduct that she did not report.

This is the bind that women are placed in: If you are silent, then nothing happened. Keeping silent is also your fault. And anyway, if you speak up, you will not be believed, because it is your word against your alleged rapist’s, and the physical evidence cannot be proved.

Dr Luke is entitled to the legal presumption of innocence. But Kesha is also entitled to the expectation that her claims might be taken seriously. These entitlements do not cancel each other out. We might wonder why a woman’s request to be made free of her alleged abuser is denied on the grounds that it would be commercially damaging to the company she is employed by, while also recognising that Kesha’s claims have not been tested in criminal court. But will they ever be? The possibility seems remote. So few cases of sexual assault even make it to trial.

The exploitation of women in the music industry is an old story, as old as the industry itself. And the relationship between women artists and powerful men in the industry has often been an ugly one. Ronnie Spector, of The Ronettes, was a virtual prisoner of her producer and husband Phil Spector, who is currently serving a jail sentence for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. Nina Simone was raped and repeatedly beaten by her husband and manager, Andrew Stroud. Tina Turner suffered years of abuse from her husband, the songwriter and performer Ike Turner. Last year, Jackie Fuchs of The Runaways, who performed under the name Jackie Fox, came forward with horrific details of a New Year’s Eve party in 1975, where she was raped by The Runaways’ manager, Kim Fowley, a man who openly boasted of his sexual appetite for teenage girls.

There are countless more cases, many of which we will never hear about, because the women who have been abused are afraid to speak publicly, and with good reason.

Let me repeat: the music industry is built on the sexual exploitation of women. Our bodies are easy profit. The creative labour and the creative genius of women triumphs despite and not because of these conditions. Women in music have tried – and are trying – to find ways in which to express their own sexuality, on their own terms, free of fear and shame, but it is a long struggle.

During Friday’s injunction hearing, a lawyer for Sony said of Kesha: “Our interest is in her success. Our interest is in Dr Luke’s success. They are not in the least bit mutually exclusive.”

I’ll tell you two things that are mutually exclusive, at least by my standards: an individual woman’s right to safety, and a global corporation’s determination to deny her pleas for that safety in the interests of their own profit. Kesha used to style her name as Ke$ha. I wonder why she took the dollar sign away.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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