A 2014 publicity photo of Kesha.
For pop star Kesha, a legal dispute over her contract with Sony music has turned into a fan-led campaign to support survivors of sexual abuse.
In 2014, Kesha Rose Sebert filed a lawsuit against her former mentor and producer Lukasz Gottwald (known as Dr. Luke) asking to be released from her recording contract with his company. In her suit, the singer says Dr. Luke “sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused” her over the decade they worked together, taking actions that had “put her life at risk.” As the lawsuit dragged on for a year, Kesha’s attorney finally sought an injunction, saying that Kesha was unable to work while the lawsuit hung over her head. In an affidavit included in that injunction, former Universal Music Group Distribution CEO Jim Urie summed up the high stakes for the artist: “If Kesha cannot immediately resume recording and having her music promoted, marketed, and distributed by a major label, her career is effectively over.” Her last solo album came out way back in 2012. In court, Dr. Luke denies the sexual abuse and says Kesha filed the lawsuit because she’s frustrated by a “stalled career.”
Last Friday, amid protests outside the courtroom from fans calling on the court to “Free Kesha,” a judge ruled in Sony’s favor. “You're asking the court to decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry,” said the judge, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “My instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing.”
The ruling sparked outcry from Kesha fans and cultural observers alike. Kesha’s lawsuit comes at a time when survivors are speaking out against other high-powered men in the entertainment industry—it’s impossible to hear her story and not think of Bill Cosby and Runaways manager Kim Fowley. Sexual assault survivors almost always face an uphill battle against disbelief, but as writer Caroline O’Donoghue notes, Kesha’s party-hardy persona and lyrics also affect the way her allegations have been seen.
“What Kesha has also done is create a musical persona of a party girl: a girl who gets drunk, and sleeps around, and has “a water bottle full of whisky in her handbag”. Whether or not these things are pop-artifice makes no difference whatsoever. Kesha is culturally the Drunk Girl at the Party, and the world has treated her like the world treats drunk girls at parties: it calls them liars. It says: you don't know what you're talking about. It says: you just had drunk sex, and now you're calling it rape, and we won't let you.”
Today on her Facebook, Kesha posted a statement to her supporters, highlighting the connection between her contract battle and the larger issue of stigmatizing sexual assault survivors. “This case has never been about a renegotiation of my record contract – it was never about getting a bigger, or a better deal. This is about being free from my abuser,” she wrote. “Unfortunately I don’t think that my case is giving people who have been abused confidence that they can speak out, and that’s a problem.”
Lady Gaga posted this photo of herself and Kesha on her Twitter account.
Some stars have jumped in to voice support for Kesha. Most notably, Adele used her acceptance speech at the Brit Awards last night to quickly say that she “publicly supports” Kesha and Lady Gaga posed on Snapchat holding Kesha’s hand in support. Meanwhile, it’s hard to tell whether the public outcry about Kesha’s case will have any impact on the actions of industry giant Sony. So far, none of the stars who work with Dr. Luke have said they’ll cut ties with him.