This year’s Brit Awards finally made steps towards solving its age-old racial diversity problem, by giving two of the main awards – Best Male Solo Artist and Best Album – to Stormzy, a rapper of Ghanian heritage. But when it came to the movement of the year – taking on the harassment and sexual assault of women – the tepidness of the Brits’ response left a chill.
Organiser BPI made a feeble gesture of offering white rose pins “as a symbol of solidarity” with the Time’s Up movement, which aims to raise millions in legal aid for victims. But this sartorial nod proved counter-productive, merely exposing how little the music industry had done to solve to its own problems.
On the night, only one woman, Dua Lipa, won an award not specifically set aside for a female. Lipa, performing her hit New Rules with a bunch of fist-pumping dancers, was a rousing moment of female empowerment; if only there had been more.
When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in October, it shattered Hollywood’s power structures and ricocheted through film and other professions. The music industry, though, remains largely unscathed, despite having the same extreme power imbalance as film – young female stars and much older, powerful men.
Incidents of assault have been happening, but they’ve been buried. “Over the years, we’ve had to deal with cases of bullying and harassment,” says Naomi Pohl, of the Musicians’ Union. “But generally the person ends up signing a financial settlement so it’s completely confidential. When the Weinstein one broke, it was because there were multiple victims and others felt they could come forward. That hasn’t yet happened in music.”
A few stars have spoken up. In 2014, Lady Gaga said she was raped at 19 by a man in the music industry 20 years her senior. But, while her story made headlines, so did the response of Piers Morgan, whose scepticism encapsulated the challenges victims are up against.
One case that has resonated loudly in recent times is that of US pop star Kesha. She has been embroiled in years of legal battles with her former mentor and producer Dr Luke, whom she sued for sexual assault and battery. He strenuously denied the allegations and in 2016 Kesha dropped the case after several defeats in court; her decision to make her allegations public remains a rare one in the industry.
She did, however, channel her alleged experiences into song, via the rallying cry Praying. Her rendition of it at January’s Grammy awards was the most talked-about performance of the night, as she collapsed in tears into the arms of stars including Cyndi Lauper. Unfortunately, as with Dua Lipa at the Brits, it only highlighted the ingrained sexism elsewhere: just one woman won on the night in 14 televised categories.
But insiders feel the pop world is on the cusp of a reckoning. “It could happen, definitely,” says Pohl. “People are feeling empowered to speak out.”
In the wake of the Weinstein allegations, the Musicians’ Union set up a helpline for victims. In three months, Pohl explains, they’ve had 50 incidents reported in writing and more in person. The MU has advised some victims, especially those who have described incidents of rape, to go to the police, but, Pohl says, “some feel they can’t – one person said their perpetrator had been high-profile”. “A couple” of names have attracted several corroborative accounts from different victims.
Folk musician Emma-Lee Moss, aka Emmy the Great, has become one of the few female musicians to publicly come forward in the wake of Me Too. This week, in a piece for GQ, she explained why she remained silent after repeatedly experiencing assault during her 15 years in the industry. Moss was astonished by the number of other women who responded to her with their own cases. “[The examples I included] were pretty banal,” she says. “I didn’t put the crazier stories in because they didn’t happen in the UK. But that shows the everyday nature of it: people have been experiencing these things all the time.”
Stories submitted to the MU also paint a picture of the sheer normality of sexual discrimination. “One member was nicknamed ‘Tits’ in an all-male band,” says Pohl. “Others say that if you’re the only woman on a tour bus, the driver isn’t inclined to make a proper toilet stop; you’re expected to go by the road.” Of those who have come forward, most are musicians, although Pohl says 25 per cent are from people working in other industry roles.
Veteran music journalist Louise Gannon argues that it’s harder for women to come forward in the music industry than in film because it is “fuelled by sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” – and, more so than in Hollywood, rule-breaking is practically encouraged to keep its provocative image fresh. “It’s a different landscape,” she says, “it’s one built on scandal and controversy. There are not enough female heads of music companies and I think for a very long time it was run like a men’s stag party, where women are often viewed as pieces of meat.”
Another reason for the industry’s comparative silence could be its diffuse geography. “I have stories that happened in Japan, in Los Angeles. The concentration of power in the film industry is in Hollywood, to a small group of individuals,” Moss says. “But people travel so much in music, there are record label heads and promoters all around the world. Maybe that’s why there hasn’t been a perpetrator singled out so far.”
Given the greater sprawl, it’s possible that its problems are even more widespread than those in film. “With Weinstein, people talk about one man,” Gannon says. “I think if you chuck a ball into the music industry there’s lots of men like that. And the victims feel, ‘Where do you start?’ ” Certain names have been named, though. US hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons has recently been accused of rape and assault by multiple women. Simmons said he had “never had a sexual encounter that was not consensual or lawful”. In 2016, US publicist Heathcliff Berru resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct, but denied he had “raped or drugged anyone”. Rapper Nelly is in the midst of a lawsuit that claims he repeatedly “preyed upon his selected female fans”, allegations that he denies.
But, as Gannon says, “It’s very hard to shock anyone in the music industry. If Gwyneth Paltrow says something controversial, it causes ripples of shock. If Lady Gaga says it, for some reason it doesn’t have the same impact.” It might be related to image: while Hollywood actresses are marketed as arbiters of elegance and respectability, female pop stars, encouraged to wear skimpy costumes, dance lasciviously and sing about their sexual appetites, are less likely to be seen as victims.
The music industry has also avoided the raking over of past misdemeanours that has affected film figures. In recent weeks, Hollywood’s A-listers have been repenting for working with Woody Allen – whose daughter Dylan Farrow’s allegations of childhood sexual assault have been given a new airing since Me Too, although Allen continues to deny them – or supporting Roman Polanski, who was charged with the drugging and raping of a 13-year-old in 1977.
However, little retrospective fuss has been made about allegations against some of pop’s heroes. John Peel was accused of impregnating a 15-year-old in 1969, when he was 30 – while he was separated from his wife, Shirley Ann Milburn, whom he had married when she was 15. Yet Peel is still regularly and loudly celebrated on BBC 6 Music and by Glastonbury Festival, which has named a stage after him.
Bill Wyman was 47 when he began a relationship with 13-year-old Mandy Smith, who said she was 14 when they slept together. The Rolling Stone says he went to the police about the claims but the authorities did not investigate. Lori Maddox has alleged she slept with David Bowie, then in his mid-twenties, when underage. But Bowie was roundly celebrated by the BBC in January, to mark the second anniversary of his death. Maddox also claims she was 14 when the 28-year-old Jimmy Page ordered Led Zeppelin manager Richard Cole to “kidnap” her – Page and Maddox subsequently dated.
Last summer, Buzzfeed published a report into the “cult” allegedly run by R&B star R Kelly, where it’s claimed he held women against their will. Kelly “unequivocally denied” the claims and is yet to face prosecution. Protests are planned at his show in Detroit: “How can we let this happen in the #MeToo movement?” campaigner Nicole Denson has argued.
But the fact that Kelly is still performing at all is telling. After Weinstein, Hollywood moved swiftly: ties were cut, actors – such as Kevin Spacey, also accused of repeated abuse incidents – were recast. Such a reckoning is yet to happen in the music industry. However, it may be coming sooner than anyone thinks.