A friend DMed me a link to a Facebook post a few days ago.
Kimya Dawson had made a public post about shit she saw going down for years in the scene in Olympia. Bands getting ripped off by a beloved label, allegedly to the tune of half a million dollars, with several commenters also alluding to creepiness toward young women at shows and parties on the part of the label’s head. All of this bad behavior had been ignored by the scene for years, with people going as far as to ostracize anyone who had pointed it out publicly.
(Teenage Hotdog is doing an excellent investigative piece on this, which I encourage you to read. I’ve linked the most recent post.)
Now Kimya and her friends were making these secrets public. Or at least trying to. In response, my friends and I passed the post around via direct message, debating whether we should still go to the guy’s show at a DIY space next week.
You may notice I’ve named the victim of financial wrongdoing here, but I haven’t named the alleged perpetrator. This wasn’t an intentional move, and it’s illustrative of some internal fuckery in how we process accusations: tacitly, unconsciously, we are willing to give famous (“indie famous”/”local famous”/”I went to high school with him and he seemed so nice”) men the benefit of the doubt in every accusation of wrongdoing.
So we say:
Calvin Johnson–I fucking love Beat Happening–is playing a show on Saturday, rolling with a trunkful of K Records merch and god I wish I wasn’t so broke right now. Hey, did you hear what Kimya said about him? Do you think it’s true?
If he had less cred, if he hadn’t done things that we valued, would this be the story? Or would it be more like:
I heard that Calvin Johnson owes people money, is a real dick about it, and has maybe been using his cred to creep on young girls. I know he makes good records, but dude kinda sounds like a toxic force in the Olympia punk scene. And we don’t even know the money for the records he sells is going to the bands. That’s fucked up.
When someone has stature, we flip from “jeez, it sounds like a pain in the ass to do business with him, is that what I want?” to some Law & Order version of due process: we have to hear both sides and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the rumors are true.
Safe Spaces v. Due Process
Complicating things further, the DIY space he’s playing endeavors to be a safe space, designated by the Feminist Action Support Network as a place where “oppressive or harmful behavior is not welcome.” They state: “oppressive behavior includes any action that perpetuates racism, misogyny, heterosexism, transphobia and other systemic oppressions through antagonism, silencing, intimidation, or coercion.”
Setting aside the more troubling rumors for a second, one doesn’t exactly have to be a feminist scholar argue that a label run by a man not paying artists their fair due in a timely manner, especially artists who belong to historically disadvantaged groups, is oppressive behavior. And if this guy has other accusations piled on top of that, it’s not unreasonable to assume he might not be the best fit to play a feminist safe space.
But in the nature of due process, the folks who booked the show reached out to Calvin after the opening band Plus Sign saw Kimya’s post and dropped off the show. The Pinky Swear team released the following thoughtful, measured statement:
We at Pinky Swear have decided that we will be hosting this show. This decision was reached after much thought and discussion in regards to Kimya’s post and the comments that followed.
We made Calvin aware of what has been said of himself and K on facebook and felt that this conversation was missing his voice. With his permission to post here, Calvin says: “We do owe Kimya some back royalties and have a payment plan in place. She has expressed some dissatisfaction; it and we offered to renegotiate but have heard nothing back from her since.”
We take no sides in the situation and recognize that financial harm was done to Kimya. However, both Kimya (in the comments of her post) and Calvin state that there is a process of accountability/repayment in place at this time. It sounds like it is not perfect, but is being addressed and commitments have been made. Of course we empower folks who have questions for Calvin to (respectfully) bring them up in-person at the show if they choose.
In approaching this decision we looked to the feelings, writing, and actions of fellow community members. We take the responsibility of running a safer space very seriously and our obligations to our friends and community here are of the greatest importance to us. The primary wrong expressed by Kimya was financial, however, we do recognize that there were a range of accusations expressed on Kimya’s thread and have given those consideration as well. At this time and to our best knowledge we do not feel that it would be a threat to the safety of attendees to host this show.
Some folks have brought up the role of Feminist Action Support Network in influencing the decision to host or not host this show (as a FASN designated Pistachio Level Space). It should be made clear that this particular situation/resolution is not in the scope of FASN, which is an organization that works to address sexual and gendered violence in Chicago. We made this decision as an autonomous venue, however this decision is not being made in spite of or without the principles of the wonderful work that FASN does. We will have FASN Support Liaisons present at the show.
Thank you for your patience and of course, the conversation is always open–reach out privately or post below.
So Pinky Swear did their due diligence, heard both sides, decided the payment plan between Calvin and Kimya (initiated by the artists after threat of legal action, not encompassing all of Calvin’s unpaid debts to bands) constituted an accountability process, and that the other rumors expressed in the comments did not rise above rumors. [Note: Kimya has clarified that this payment plan only covers a fraction of the artists owed money–she chose to speak out because other people continue to be ripped off.] While frustrating, this is a respectable show of impartiality in the face of a difficult question. They know it’s ambiguous and they left the conversation open. They’re obviously really good people struggling with a really tough issue. But does that make a space safe?
As far as an outside observer can tell, everything troubling has now been addressed and there’s no wrongdoing to worry about. It’s easy to assume that because you’re not hearing about something, it isn’t happening.
Rumors v. Accountability
2015-16 seems to be the time for brave women and trans* and non-binary people to speak out against harassment, assault, financial wrongdoing, and more of the bullshit they face trying to exist in a music scene that is dominated by men who feel entitled based on their success. We praise oppressed people for coming forward with their stories and effecting change, but usually the moment we finally listen and believe comes only after years of vague rumors, whispered warnings, and DMed links to FB posts.
So those of us weighing the decision to go to the show on Saturday are left wondering: Is Calvin a missing stair or just a guy who got overwhelmed by success, picked up some haters, and is trying his best to do what’s right? Despite the handful of recent, high-profile gains we’ve made in believing marginalized people who speak out, we still live in a culture that goes out of its way to protect famous men at the expense of everyone.
This hyperextended benefit of the doubt does a disservice to marginalized people trying to chill at a show that’s supposed to be fun in a space that’s supposed to have their backs. It does a disservice to fans who want to know whether the person whose art we’re buying is engaged in ethical behavior. It’s not even really helping the people who do shitty things, as we enable them to toss out their humanity and help feed their belief that their actions are beyond reproach. Instead of members of the community calling them in the first time we see messed up behavior, they’re given permission keep operating in the same garbage ways for years. Eventually, they either sort it out on their own or (more likely) there’s no option left but to call them out and cut them out of our lives when their victims finally come forward en masse. Nobody wins in that scenario, but it’s the one we keep repeating.
By giving our heroes a pass on problematic behavior because we like their work, we’re creating unsafe spaces, feeding a culture of silence, incentivizing further bad behavior, and denying the possibility of accountability and growth in our communities. Can you imagine anything less punk rock?
The Art v. The Artist
This dilemma is by no means unusual in DIY scenes. Jes Skolnik pointed out on Twitter yesterday:
As Jes says, it is easier to believe that someone simply engaged in the capitalistic end of music is a bad guy. When it comes to someone who makes art that you love and helps promote artists that you love, it’s harder to believe they could do good work but also do bad things. We identify with their work and their taste, so we want to give them a pass.
Cupcake has written about the problems involved in separating the art from the artist. In this case, it’s particularly hard to ignore wrongdoing and just keep going to shows and buying records, since the issues are literally his behavior at shows and what he does with money from record sales. But because the full extent of what the artist has done is unknown, we perform this weird mental math: is x thing bad enough to never buy his records again?
If this were a perfect world, I’d have some truth bomb to drop at the end of this piece that would better settle the question: an outspoken victim or a compelling origin story for the rumors, one where amends have been made and it wasn’t as bad as all that. But it isn’t a perfect world. And we don’t know the whole truth. As Teenage Hotdog said, it’s hard to investigate vibes. As they continue digging and soliciting comment, we might get a definitive answer, or at least a large enough collection of stories that the “dun dun” sound finally plays.
But we may also have to live with the uncertainty and decide how we feel: do we trust our hero is a good person because he likes the things we like? Or do we by default believe that someone who is called a creep is probably a creep? How do we navigate rumors when safety is at stake?
Cupcake has made some important suggestions for ways we can work to spruce up this garbage world and make safer spaces, but many of the implementations so far have focused on instances where the situation is clear. We can run it through our internal court of law and spit out a clear verdict and an appropriate response. But does that still leave us potentially complicit in more ambiguous cases? What is our obligation when we just don’t know the whole story?
Do we go to the show on Saturday?
Do we keep buying K Records?
Do we pass the story along?