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Justice for Kesha?

Photo: Kolombiyar / Wikimedia Commons

If you looked at the screen for just that one moment, Sunday night’s Grammys ceremony was a validation for Kesha.

That moment was this: There Kesha was, onstage, surrounded by other women performers like Cyndi Lauper, holding white roses—the Grammys’ answer to the Golden Globes’ black gowns, a sign of recognition of #MeToo and Time’s Up—belting out “Praying.”

“’Cause you brought the flames, and you put me through hell / I had to learn how to fight for myself,” Kesha sang. “And we both know all the truth I could tell / I’ll just say this is, ‘I wish you farewell.’” For years, the pop star fought to get out of her contract with Sony Records because, she said, producer Dr. Luke “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused [her] to the point where [she] nearly lost her life.” Kesha sued the company in 2014—which means that, for years before people had begun talking about Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar, Kesha was there, without support, at least of the verbal or fiscal variety, from the vast majority of people in her industry. But, all the same, there she was, at the Grammys, singing farewell to her abuser—“No more monsters, I can breathe again”—after a moving introduction by Janelle Monáe, who had assured the audience that women “come in peace, but we mean business.”

Validation for Kesha. Vindication for Kesha. Justice for Kesha.

Then, however, zoom out. Or watch more than just that one scene—that one moment of the ceremony. Watch the entire Grammys, a show in which Lorde was the only artist nominated for Best New Album but who was not offered a solo performance slot, and after which Neil Portnow, the president of the Recording Academy, told women to “step up” to get more recognition. As Monáe noted on Twitter, just 9.3 percent—nine point three percent—of Grammy nominees were women. “Imagine the percentage of black women,” @trapcry tweeted in response.

This is not to equate sexual assault to Grammy nominations, but rather to suggest that there is a sexism to the Grammys and the music industry that it, like almost all industries, does not want to interrogate. But leave aside that the Grammys did not and do not seem to want to reward women. Kesha and her chorus were followed by a speech on immigration by Camila Cabello, who introduced a performance by U2. The band is made up of Irish people, though to pretend that Irish immigrants are the people under attack right now in America seems at best accidentally and at worst deeply, intentionally disingenuous. Yet the issue of immigration was indeed addressed, albeit by Bono on a barge holding a megaphone designed to look like an American flag.

These two introductions and these two performances, together, essentially comprised the entirety of the discussion around social justice, of any kind, at the Grammys. Almost everyone I saw on the show seemed to carry a white rose—but almost no one, given the opportunity to speak, explained the reason for carrying it. Instead, they read off the teleprompter.

Now, zoom out a bit more. Look at the artists and producers in the room, and consider those beyond the room. Look at who—or, rather, who did not—speak out in support of Kesha. Imagine how many would have been happy never to see the white roses or listen to “Praying.” Imagine how many are still, as I am writing this, harassing women while profiting off them. If you prefer, imagine how many are already bored of the conversation and wish that it would move on.

And then, imagine all the people at home who watched the show. Imagine the ones who saw only a show—same old, same old, except for that one song. And imagine the ones who were tired of even that, and were not made to confront much of anything beyond it. And imagine the ones disappointed, because they remembered the silence toward Kesha and heard the silence everywhere in the ceremony but for the chorus around her for that one moment.

Sunday’s show gave Kesha a stage for a night. But that was not an examination of a system or a reckoning with the industry by those in it or a preventive measure against the alleged abuse that plagued Kesha for years. That was not, in other words, justice for Kesha. Or for others—those who came before and who will almost surely come after—in an industry that owes it to them.


Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Previously, she was the associate editor at New America. Her writing has appeared in The Economist and Slate, among other publications. She received her bachelor's in Russian Literature from Columbia and her master's in Russian and East European Studies from Oxford. She has conducted independent research on the topic of Soviet dissidence in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, as a Fulbright grantee, in Bremen, Germany.