You’ve probably seen the video of Drake kissing a 17-year-old girl, if not on Twitter, perhaps on the various news websites where it has been posted and reported on. Taken at a Colorado gig in 2010, the footage shows Drake kissing and hugging a woman, who has been brought on stage from the audience. After asking her name, dancing with her, kissing her neck, running his hands over her breasts and complimenting her choice of shampoo, the star asks her how old she is. “Seventeen,” she replies. Drake, with apparent surprise, tells the audience, “I can’t go to jail yet, man.” But, keeping her on the stage, he continues: “Why do you look like that? You thick. Look at all this. I don’t know if I should feel guilty or not, but I had fun. I like the way your breasts feel against my chest. I just want to thank you.” Drake then proceeds to kiss the 17-year-old again, once on each cheek, once on the forehead and then – apparently – on the lips.
There has been no comment made on the video from either Drake or his camp, despite several news outlets contacting them. At the time, Drake would have been 23 years old and, although the age of consent is 17 in Colorado, it is 18 across a majority of the United States – hence Drake’s acknowledgement that his behaviour could, in different circumstances, lead to his imprisonment. This lower age of consent has been used by Drake fans to defend his actions, though it was luck – not prior knowledge of the specific state’s consent laws – that meant the rapper did not actually commit a crime. Others claim that the girl in the video was clearly happy to be there, that it was an honour for her to be chosen by a star and brought on to stage. That’s probably true – 17-year-old fans would do anything to be noticed – but that doesn’t make it right. As with most instances of these uncomfortable sexual encounters, it is the imbalance of power that feels most unbearable and, in this particular example, Drake holds the power to make a young woman feel special. It’s no surprise that under the stage lights, the hollering approval of the audience and a celebrity’s acknowledgment of her as a real person with legitimate feelings and desires, she did not resist. What’s more, the onus of resistance isn’t on the young woman, it is on the man on stage, with the audience in the palm of his hand.
Drake has come under fire for more than this video over the past few months. He has recently hinted that he is working with fellow pop star Chris Brown on new music – the man who was charged and then arraigned of felony assault and making criminal threats to Rihanna – the same woman Drake claimed he has been “in love with” since he was 22, and has been rumoured to date. The video has also drawn attention back to the story that the rapper is in regular contact with 14-year-old Stranger Things actress Millie Bobby Brown. She has assured there is nothing untoward about their relationship – they text about missing each other and “about boys”, with Drake offering Brown advice on her love life. There was also the story late last year that Drake may or may not have been dating 18-year-old model Bella B Harris, which surfaced after she posted a picture of the pair cuddling on Instagram, with the caption “no place I’d rather be”. In the end, these rumours turned out to be untrue, but – as with the fact that he gives a 14-year-old advice on her “love life” – there is still something rather off-putting and strange about their closeness.
Again, texting a 14-year-old girl and hugging an 18-year-old model is not against the law, but when paired with the resurfaced video, a concerning trend begins to emerge. It feels extremely uncomfortable to imagine Drake, who is currently 32, knowing the ins and outs of Millie Bobby Brown’s relationships and for it to be spun as a supportive, sympathetic relationship. Brown herself has defended the relationship, calling those who feel uneasy about it “weird”. “I’m lucky to have people in the business extend their time to help me further my career and offer their wisdom and guidance. I’m very blessed to have amazing people in my life. U don’t get to choose that for me,” she wrote in an Instagram story, “It’s nice to have people who understand what I do. Now get back to talking about real problems in this world other than my friendships… jeez.” Again, and this is not intended to belittle Brown – she is 14 years old – a child in the eyes of the law.
The fact this is coming from Drake, too, will be surprising to many of his (at least casual) fans. The “good guy” of hip-hop, Drake has often been ridiculed for his sensitive, more emotional lyrics and has a seemingly strong history of supporting women. Once, he chastised an audience member for groping a girl during one of his gigs, and last year’s single, Nice For What, was considered somewhat of a feminist song. But, now, we must question whether Drake is to be trusted or whether his apparent alliance was simply a marketing decision.
This aggregate mass of news is unfortunate timing for Drake, as the video of him on stage surfaced the weekend following the premiere of Surviving R Kelly on American television, leading to inevitable comparisons between the two and their preference for young girls. R Kelly has been accused of creating an “abusive cult” by the parents of three young women in 2017 and, as a result of the documentary, the star is reportedly under investigation from Georgia police. These aren’t the only allegations against R Kelly concerning young women.
In 1994, when he was 27 years old, he secretly married pop singer Aaliyah, who was just 15 years old at the time. The marriage was annulled the next year and both parties refused to comment on their romantic involvement, with R Kelly telling GQ, “I will never have that conversation with anyone.”
In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins said she had sex with R Kelly when she was just 15, and that he caused her “emotional distress and personal injuries” during their three-year relationship.
In 2001, a former intern at Epic Records accused R Kelly of coercing her into a sexual relationship when she was 17. The case was settled out of court.
In 2002, a further two women sued the star – one for impregnating her when she was underage and then forcing her to have an abortion, and another for filming and then distributing a sex tape without her knowledge. Both cases were settled out of court.
In the same year, R Kelly was charged with 21 counts of making child pornography, but was found not guilty after a jury couldn’t determine the whether the girl in the footage was really a minor. Over the next two years, Kelly was accused of a further 12 counts of creating child pornography, but the charges were eventually dropped thanks to insufficient evidence.
Since 2017, multiple women have come forward with similar stories of coercion, control and underage sex. R Kelly denies all the allegations against him.
This concerning alleged preference for younger girls doesn’t stop with R Kelly and Drake. Twenty-two-year old rapper and internet personality 6ix9ine (pronounced “six nine”, real name Daniel Hernandez) was charged with three counts of using a 13-year-old girl in a “sexual performance” as part of a music video in 2015, each of which were documented on film. Hernandez plead guilty and was subsequently offered a deal – if he managed to refrain from posting sexually explicit material to social media, maintained a good GED score and not commit another crime for two years, he would be handed three years' probation and not have to register as a sex offender. Hernandez was unable to meet these requirements, and is currently facing life in prison for racketeering and firearm offences, but will not face jail time for the sexual offences or appear on the sexual offenders register. Instead, a judge ordered Hernandez to serve four years’ probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
It suggests that something even more sinister at play here than men being attracted to young women – that maybe these stars don’t target underage girls only to exert their power, but because it’s easy to do so
It is a wonder these men are not only given the platform to become famous, but the support to stay there after their concerning behaviour is made public. When Nicki Minaj faced criticism for working with 6ix9ine on their 2018 hit single, Fefe, she praised the rapper, calling him “baby” and her “BFF” across social media. On hearing of his present incarceration, she posted her support on Instagram, writing: “Danny, I love you, and am praying for you.” And while Minaj cannot, and should not, take the blame for the actions of the men she surrounds herself with, it’s also worth noting that she has recently defended her current relationship with Kenneth Petty, who has previously been convicted of the attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl, writing on Instagram: “He was 15, she was 16 ... in a relationship. But go awf, internet. y'all can't run my life.”
But worse than support from other famous celebrities is the fact that streaming platforms, radio stations and record labels continue to host and promote these artists as legitimate voices worth listening to over the hushed (often by money and NDAs) accusations from women. While Lady Gaga has spoken out about regretting working on a song with R Kelly and has promised to have it removed from platforms, Spotify has continued to make R Kelly’s music available and easily accessible to the public. Since the airing of Surviving R Kelly last week, streams of his music have increased by 16%. Famously, artists do not make a lot of money from Spotify streams, but the presence and persistence of his music on a platform with 47.7 million listeners per month in the US alone grants him a different kind of currency: power.
This is the same power he flexed when allegedly asking staff to find women “who looked young” at parties. The same power Drake had when he asked a 17-year-old on to stage and then joked about kissing her. The same power Drake still holds which allows him to stay silent on the video’s existence and that, within a few days, means there will be more new, more meme-friendly Drake stories to read. Removing R Kelly from Spotify playlists is not good enough, especially when the move is celebrated as a representation of the brand’s so-called “values”. To remove him altogether is an easy decision to make. This is about making a stand as a company – that is unless you care more about money than women’s rights.
Groupies are nothing new – in the so-called halcyon days of the 70s, women who celebrated, and often slept with, bands and musicians were an inherent part of the culture. As we hear with a lot of questionable behaviour that resurfaces post-#MeToo, that’s “just the way it was” back then, with David Bowie – who is universally revered – apparently having sex with a 14-year-old girl. Now 59, Lori Mattix, who also had relationships with Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger when she was underage, told The Guardian last year she has been rethinking these encounters since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in 2017. “I don’t think underage girls should sleep with guys. I wouldn’t want this for anybody’s daughter. My perspective is changing as I get older and more cynical.” The glaringly obvious response to this kind of historical defence is that we are no longer in the 70s. Time, much like our consciousness of this behaviour, has simply moved on. And while the music industry has been notoriously slow to pick up the pace on its own #MeToo moment, this too is changing.
So, why does this obsession with younger women persist? As Zoe Williams wrote in response to the French author who recently said women over 50 have unlovable bodies, it’s much more about the admiration a young mind has for someone they admire. “Men don’t like younger women because their flesh is firmer, but because their opinions are a bit less firm – or at least that’s the hope,” she writes. “Anyone 20 years younger than you tends to assume you’re right about most things.” In the case of celebrities, and particularly for R Kelly, this translates into keeping the women silent – they admire the star, so do what he says; he must be right.
It suggests that something even more sinister at play here than men being attracted to young women – that maybe these stars don’t target underage girls only to exert their power, but because it’s easy to do so; that there’s less resistance than they might find in an older woman. These age relationships have become normalised over the years, too – no one bats an eyelid when 43-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio debuts his new 21-year-old girlfriend atop a boat in St Tropez. But, now, young women are slowly waking up to the spell of these powerful men, and thanks to the tidal wave of #MeToo and Time’s Up, when they do speak out, they are beginning to be heard.