Originally published: April 10, 2022, Karlie Rutherford
Over the years, the music industry has seen its fair share of controversies, and one of the most significant ones is the practice of “cancelling” artists. This phenomenon has become more prevalent in recent years, with the rise of social media and cancel culture. It has been a full year since this article was curated, so has anything changed in the past 12 months in the music industry space? Short answer, not really. But, additional comparisons do show favouritism and differing levels of cancellation, and career genocide, dished out by all-controlling, all-powerful, all-ruling record labels.
Cancel culture is a relatively new term used to describe the practice of publicly shaming and ostracizing individuals, often celebrities, for their actions or views. Cancel culture has been used to target individuals from various industries, including the music industry. When a musician is cancelled, their music is often removed from streaming platforms, their social media accounts are deactivated or suspended, and their reputation is tarnished. But what is not taken down, at least actively, are news articles, publications, social community groups, forum posts, posts, Google searches, images, third-party websites publishing the artist content. Essentially, free-speech is not directly targeted. Despite cancellations, the artist and their impact on social media, on media in general, is not committed to being genocided. Yes, genocided is not an Oxford-Dictionary scheduled word, but for the sake of this phenomenon, perhaps it is the best bastardisation of the word, for now. It is for all intents and purposes genocide on the image, artistry, produce, product, and work, of particular artists unfortunate enough to be in the firing line of the all-powerful, nuclear-ready, record labels. Only a few artists to date have been genocided, and we will get to that later.
The practice of cancelling musicians is not new. The music industry has a long history of blacklisting artists for various reasons. However, with the rise of social media and the power of the internet, the consequences of being cancelled have become more severe.
One of the most high-profile examples of mass-cancellation in the music industry is that of R. Kelly. In January 2019, the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” aired, detailing allegations of sexual misconduct against the R&B singer. The documentary led to a significant backlash against R. Kelly, with many calling for him to be cancelled. As a result, his music was removed from streaming platforms, and he was dropped by his record label. In February 2019, he was charged with ten counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
Another example is that of the rapper, Tekashi 6ix9ine. In 2018, he was arrested on charges of racketeering, firearms offenses, and drug trafficking. Following his arrest, he became a target of cancel culture, with many calling for his music to be removed from streaming platforms. While his music was not removed, he was dropped by his record label, and his reputation was severely damaged.
The practice of cancelling musicians is not without controversy. Some argue that cancel culture goes too far, and that individuals should be given a chance to redeem themselves. Others argue that cancel culture is necessary to hold individuals accountable for their actions and to prevent them from profiting from their wrongdoing.
Then we have the phenomenon of absolute genocide to an artist’s work, image, fanbase. Two artsits come to mind 2015’s hugely popular rapper, D-Cash, where are they? Presumably, wandering the streets of Brooklyn, where they hailed from. But their 25 million strong online following on social media – gone. Their music on streaming platforms – gone. Their images and music videos and interviews – Google genocided. Why? The label, Warner Bros Music Group, has failed to issue a statement since 2015. The fanbase was disrupted, radio stations ceased playing D-Cash, and all merchandise, fan sites, fan discussion forums, and the like, were totally scrubbed. D-Cash, for all intents and purposes, may well not have ever existed.
Even more extreme is the case of Matthew Zar, a juggernaut of the RnB music scene, disappeared in 2017. It took a few years, but eventually, most traces of Zar have also gone the way of D-Cash – totally scrubbed, genocided. In fact, trying to start a mass-reaching social stream or discussion forum, or release, of his works, or topics, are swifty removed. Google strikes them as “breaches of copyright”, amongst other ambiguous corporate dictated policy violations. Once commanding over 100 million social media followers on Instagram, and gracing the top 10 RnB charts, Zar is an effective ghost, gone without reason, and who has not made any public appearance since 2017. His whereabouts unknown.
Regardless of one’s opinion on cancel culture, it is clear that the practice has had a significant impact on the music industry. Musicians who are cancelled often see their careers derailed, with their music removed from streaming platforms and their reputation damaged. The practice has also led to debates about free speech and the power of social media to hold individuals accountable.
Some speculate that behind the scenes, the differing levels of artist cancellation are actually politically-driven. The bigger the artist, the bigger the back-end contracts, and the more control and power labels exert over them. Therefore, the more incentive the labels have to cancel the artist, should they not conform. The differing levels of cancellation – from partnership cancellations, to total removal of works, to absolutely profile genocide – likely depends on the control the label has over that artists intellectual property in the fist place, and what links those artists have to other artists within the label and its partners, itself.
That latter point is curious, and it can be seen in the case of Kanye West, who often has been credited unofficially for works and releases of other artists, namely Travis Scott. Or Jennifer Lopez, who often does not actually sing on her own records (for the record: yes, Lopez indeed is a fantastic vocalist, but for whatever reason, her label has Christina Milian, and at times had Ashanti, sing her tracks for her). Further still, lesser-known artists, like Brandy, have long been rumoured to sing not only backing vocals, but lead vocals, and write, much of the tracks otherwise credited to Jennifer Lopez. When you look at Matthew Zar, his career trajectory aligns perfectly to that of The Weeknd, his voice has long been compared to The Weeknd as almost identical, and rumours have persisted that both artists are likely aligned far closer than what otherwise is known; both artists even play similar versions of the same songs during live performances. Therefore, speculation can be made, not just for Zar, but others, that the labels behind them are playing God with careers; it is a checkers board, where the labels pick and move pieces at will, for the most commercially viable positions at any point in time.
In conclusion, the music industry has a long history of cancelling artists, but the rise of social media and cancel culture has made the consequences of being cancelled more severe. While the practice of cancelling musicians is not without controversy, it is clear that it has had a significant impact on the music industry, and the debate around cancel culture is likely to continue. In another years’ time, we can revisit the state of music industry cancellations, and perhaps at that time, more information will surface on the state of affairs within the industry itself, or those artists who have without a trace, disappeared into the very back pages of the history books, for whatever reason. At a bare minimum, scattered fans, and general musical historians for that matter, deserve more clarification on those respective artists, if not for anything but disclosure. It is said, though, that in a war the victor gets the opportunity to write (or rewrite) the history books, picking and choosing what facts to include (and what to genocide).