Active Listening: Music and Being “Socially Woke”


by Sararosa Davies

A couple years ago, I discovered an artist named Tom Milsom and slowly but surely got into his music. I bought some songs, then some albums, and on it went. I listened enough to read his Wikipedia page and watch some of his Youtube videos, but never became as rapt with him as I was with other artists. A year after I started listening to him, a couple of women that Milsom dated came out with allegations of abuse and rape. At the same time, other women came out with numerous other counts against other Youtubers, the most of them musicians. I had trouble making sense of the music Milsom made and how it conflicted with his horrible behavior. I eventually deleted his music from my library, and stopped listening to him altogether.

I do not want to support artists that use their power to abuse others. This is a practice that I have picked up recently, but it has been incredibly hard to stick to. I am plagued by this question: How do I stop supporting an artist who has been so essential to my trajectory as a music listener? Though I wasn’t a huge fan of Milsom’s work, his music got me interested in other Youtube musicians. Those musicians were huge for me at the time. It is still hard for me to look back and separate my fond memories of their music with the acts they did.

As a community, we can’t implicitly support abuse and sexual assault by ignoring it when it’s by artist we like. Yet, often we stick to artists who do these things because we like their art.  

How do we unstick ourselves from artists who take advantage of other people, often younger, when we love the art they make? As a socially conscious person, am I still woke if I have trouble letting go of someone like David Bowie who has done things I disagree with on a deep level (having sex with a minor, saying some fascist things, etc)?  I was mad that I felt sad after his death, I was mad that I had supported a rapist. And yet, I listened to his music that day, trying to make sense of all those thoughts. How do I reconcile this love of music and the discovery of new artists with the unbearable fact that artists have the potential to abuse their power?

I don’t know the definite answers to any of these questions, but I think I am starting to figure them out. Here are some of my not-so-concrete, ever-changing “rules” for dealing with the problems that come with being a socially woke person who loves art and music.

First, I try remember that art is complex and that the world that surrounds it is complex.

I could go on and on about aesthetics and what makes art what it is, but for the sake of time, I’ll say this: Art is subjective. The artist has their own interpretation of their work and so does every single member of the audience. Maybe the artist made the song for themselves or maybe it’s for an audience. I think about Lizzo’s song, “My Skin,” in comparison to Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” when it comes to this. Both songs make strong statements about important social issues, Macklemore’s about racism and white privilege, while Lizzo’s is about women and women owning their own bodies. The songs explore the internal thought process we all go through when it comes to our opinions on said issues. Both songs come from places of internal struggle, but because of context, who made them, and the time of release, people’s responses varied. Critics of Macklemore’s song stress the idea that people will listen to a white man, Macklemore, talk about racism, but will disregard people of color who talk about it. People who like the song stress the attention Macklemore brings to the issue. Lizzo is a woman, making a song for women and women responded to the song with praise. Other people might have had different ideas. Artists might not be able to predict how an audience responds because their art is personal to them.

The same thing goes for us as listeners. Whether or not you like a song and its message, it is still art. Other people are going to interpret it differently because that’s what we all do. Music, and all art in general, lives in more than just one world. Remembering this helps us move through controversies in a more graceful manner, even if the conversations we have are anything but graceful or easy.

Second, I try to involve myself in communities where I feel safe. If there are any.

But in order for these communities to exist, we need to actively create them. This is especially important in music when it comes to certain scenes. If a member of a group does something like sexually assault or abuse someone, that person can’t stay in the group. Don’t buy their music, don’t book them in shows. Don’t let them be paid. They have to understand that their behavior is not okay.

This isn’t easy at all. I am guilty of supporting artists (and people) who have done bad things, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes out of confusion. When another Youtube artist, Alex Day, was also accused of abuse, I continued to listening to him. Then, after getting up the courage to read testimonies of the women he abused, I stopped. Sometimes I have no idea about what happened concerning the artist, sometimes I refuse to believe certain accounts of a story of sexual assault. I hate it when I do that. I am entirely guilty of not paying attention to the controversies because I am not ready to address the complexities of an artist. I am still actively working on this for many reasons. I want to stick to my values, I want to improve.  When I have an urge to revisit Tom Milsom’s videos or to see what he’s up to, I use all the self control I have to click away or turn on some other music. I try to remember all the accounts of abuse I read. I try to look up political artists who stand against the things he did. I try to surround myself with other art.

The thing is, when enough people ignore or dismiss an artist’s actions, it’s enabling. This is not to say we should create communities that are bent only on punishing the artist and do nothing for ourselves. Instead the focus should be on the positive changes we can make for ourselves. I am a member of an awesome Facebook group for female-identifying and non-binary people in the Minnesota music industry. This community was created in response to the sexism that permeates the music industry both here and elsewhere. What began as a place to vent, became a community of huge, warm support. We go to each other’s shows, post each other’s articles, and start discussions about what all of this means to us. Rather than focusing on what others can do, we change what we can for ourselves.

And third, I am wary of idolizing an artist.  I try to be aware that the musicians I like are all human, complex, and “problematic.”

By putting the musicians we like on the same level as us, as hard as it may be, we are immediately looking at them from a different point of view. When we idolize artists, we disservice many. We disservice ourselves because we make musicians seem more than human. We give them huge amounts of praise and forget ourselves. We’re devastated when they don’t live up to our expectations. For survivors of sexual assault it can be hard when the general public talks continues to idolize perpetrators. (Ahem. Bowie. Milsom. Alex Day. R. Kelly. etc) It can be incredibly traumatic.

None of this is easy, graceful, or fun. But when it comes to consuming art, it’s important to think about your values. I am still trying to figure this out and likely will be for a long time. Things ebb and flow, artists come and go. Sometimes the best music is made by horrible people, and it’s okay to be figuring out what those people mean to you. There are no bad questions when it comes to this. Because if you are asking questions, that means you are thinking. And that’s only the start.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: