Content Warning: Readers should be advised this article contains topics of sexual assault, antisemitism, and violence.
It’s November 30th. You see the notification drop down: “Your 2022 wrapped has arrived.” This would normally bring excitement, but this year you almost feel dread. You know who is going to be your number one artist and that means you can’t post on Instagram because, let’s be honest, you don’t want to celebrate the fact that you were in the top 0.1% of listeners to a Nazi sympathizer, right?
Last issue I worked on the MOR video “Headphones in the Hallway” which was about what music ORHS students listen to and why. As the video developed, I observed many students listening to Ye (formerly known as Kanye West). Soon after, controversy arose surrounding Ye and antisemitic comments he was making. I stopped listening to Ye after finding that out because I knew streaming an artist’s music gives them royalties and I didn’t want to support him or contribute to his platform. This made me think about the artists I listen to a lot more and made me question whether an artist can be separated from their art. I’m not saying that everyone needs to stop listening to any problematic artist, but I do think people need to think before listening and learn more about the artists they are directly or indirectly supporting.
I talked to Madeline Healey (‘25), who agreed that separating art from the artist can be difficult. She said, “it’s impossible to completely separate the two because no matter what form the art is or who the artist is they’re always going to be connected.” When making my decisions of who I listen to, it does tend to be very situational. An artist is going to be very embedded in the art they produce so by listening or supporting their art, I usually feel like I am supporting them as a person and the decisions they make.
Don’t get me wrong, Ye’s album Graduation was all over my playlist and I was a big fan of “Runaway,” but I stopped listening to him. I’m Jewish and I do not feel comfortable listening to the art from someone who was saying hateful things about people like me. I remember some of my friends who were big fans saying “separate the art from the artist” after I skipped him on aux, but I just couldn’t. Yes, I miss listening to some of his songs, but I knew that by streaming Ye’s songs, I would be contributing a small amount of royalties that would be distributed to him. I didn’t want to be a part of that. People may say that listening has almost no effect money-wise which could be true, but it’s not even really about the money to me. It’s about not normalizing hate speech and not just accepting it by refusing to listen to his music.
Just for fun, I researched how much one stream gives an artist on Spotify: approximately $0.04 for 10 streams. That seems very small and insignificant but when an artist like Ye has 49,321,109 monthly listeners on Spotify, that number adds up quickly. If each one of those listeners were to listen to just one song ($0.004) Ye would make almost $200,000. According to the New York Post, Ye made approximately $250 million in 2021 from royalties and other income sources like his profits from Yeezy sales and his former partnership with the Gap. People who listen to Ye now are still giving him power and a platform, even without brand deals, which gives him money through media exposure.
According to the NPR article, “How antisemitic rhetoric is impacting Jewish communities and what to do about it,” “Ye has twice as many Twitter followers as there are Jews on Earth.” Since Ye made his antisemitic comments, there have been violent threats made to synagogues and there was even a banner hung on a freeway in LA saying “Kanye was right about the Jews.” Giving him any sort of platform or even just ignoring the fact that he is spreading antisemitic ideas is creating bigger problems. In the article, Deborah Lipstadt phrased this idea very well: “‘the longest and oldest hatred’ is being normalized anew – making people think its ok to do or say certain things.”
I talked to Maya Ajit (‘23) who stopped listening to one of her favorite artists, Alexander O’Connor (otherwise known as Rex Orange County) after sexual assault allegations came out against him. The allegations were dropped on December 22, 2022. “Personally, I think you can’t separate art from the artist especially with music because it’s so personal. You can’t always take the music as it is without factoring in who the person is as well,” said Ajit before the allegations were dropped. O’Connor denied the allegations against him but after hearing about it, both Ajit and I had stopped listening to him just like how I stopped listening to Ye. At the time before they were dropped, I just couldn’t listen to him singing lyrics like “I’ll be the one that proposes in a garden of roses and truly loves you long after our curtain closes,” knowing what he had been accused of. Another thing to keep in mind is that even though the charges were dropped, it doesn’t mean the alleged incidents didn’t happen. The victim could very much be telling the truth, but for various reasons O’Conner isn’t being prosecuted. The charges were dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service, not the victim.
Andrea von Oeyen, the orchestra teacher at Oyster River High School, has needed to separate art from the artist in the classroom. I play violin in orchestra and remember playing a piece by the composer Richard Wagner who was suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer in the 1800s. She shared what was going through her mind when picking this piece and said, “transparency is really important where you tell students that ‘this is an important, historical piece of music and here’s why,’ but also, we shouldn’t hide the fact that this composer also has some more controversial ties.”
To me, Wagner is a situation where it is more ‘ok’ to listen or play his music. Although he was suspected to be a Nazi sympathizer like Ye, Ye has a much bigger platform given that he is still alive. What Wagner did was still wrong, but he can’t spread hate or use his platform the way that Ye can and does. Wagner’s history can also be used as a learning tool in the classroom since he is no longer around to continue spreading the hateful ideas he once allegedly supported.
So, when is it acceptable to listen to a problematic artist? It comes down to you and your own comfort level. However, I hope now that when you click shuffle on your playlist and you see the name of an artist who has been in the news lately, you google them. I hope you take the time to do some thinking and determine whether the art is really worth separating from the artist.
– Libby Davidson