Taylor Swift is talking about it, Lady Gaga is talking about it, and #FreeKesha has captured headlines, but the legal battle between Kesha and her record producer Dr. Luke is far more complex than a hashtag.
In short, Kesha filed a civil suit in 2014 that alleges Dr. Luke drugged, emotionally abused and sexually assaulted her during her tenure with Kemosabe Records, the label owned by the producer. Her legal team was seeking to break her contract with Kemosabe Records and its parent company, Sony Music Entertainment, so she could continue her career outside Dr. Luke’s influence. On February 19, the New York Supreme Court denied a preliminary injunction related to the case, sending the singer into tears and her supporters into a flurry of anger and activism on her behalf.
If this development sounds like the latest in an endlessly intricate series of events, it’s because it is. To begin at the beginning will require walking back through years of accusations and hardships, both personal and professional.
The Ri$e of Ke$ha (with a $)
Most people probably heard Kesha, now 28, before they even heard of her. Though she had been working with Kemosabe Records and Dr. Luke since 2005, she made her uncredited radio pop debut singing backup for rapper Flo Rida’s “Right Round” in 2009.
Later that year, Kesha blew up the scene with “Tik Tok,” a party-hard earworm that basically defined summer 2010. Fans were captivated by her glittery, grungy persona and the dollar sign flourish in her name sent people a-Googling over the pronunciation. Her first record, “Animal,” and other hits soon followed. By the time she released her second album, “Warrior,” in 2012, her pouty freckled face and raw sound were instantly recognizable.
Behind the scenes, she was still working with Dr. Luke. The co-workers maintained a public friendship, too, exchanging conversations and pictures over social media and appearing at functions together.
Who is Dr. Luke?
Lukasz Gottwald is not actually a doctor, but he is a ridiculously successful and well-known music producer who has produced huge hits for the likes of Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson and Pink. Since his label is owned by Sony Music Entertainment, that gives SME full rights to his services as a producer. As one can guess, Dr. Luke is inextricable from Kesha’s rise to stardom; not only was he her record producer from her beginnings with Kemosabe in 2005, but he also co-wrote and produced the 2009 Flo Rida single that served as her first step to fame.
The ‘Free Kesha’ movement begins
While her 2012 album “Warrior” was far from a flop, fans began to suspect the singer was being “controlled” by Kemosabe Records and Dr. Luke. In 2013, a petition to release Kesha from her recording contract was circulated, asking to remove her from Dr. Luke’s purview. In a 2013 Rolling Stone interview, Kesha said she didn’t feel she had creative control over her music.
“What’s been put out as singles have just perpetuated a particular image that may or may not be entirely accurate,” she said. “I’d like to show the world other sides of my personality.”
In 2014, Kesha checked herself into rehab for an eating disorder, saying she wanted to “learn to love myself again exactly as I am.” When she left two months later, she dropped the dollar sign in her name. Later that year, she sued Dr. Luke for assault and sexual battery. The struggle, hinted at in her interviews and public statements, was suddenly made very real.
Accusations of abuse and countersuit
The scathing lawsuit filed by Kesha and her lawyers in October 2014 alleged that, for the entirety of her professional career, she had been controlled and abused by Dr. Luke. The suit alleged Dr. Luke persuaded her to sign with his label, “showered her with promises of fame and fortune,” and has been pulling her strings ever since.
“For the past 10 years, Dr. Luke has sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused Ms. Sebert to the point where Ms. Sebert nearly lost her life,” the suit alleged. “Dr. Luke abused Ms. Sebert in order to destroy her self-confidence, self-image, and self-worth so that he could maintain complete control over her life and career.” The suit included claims of multiple instances where Dr. Luke had “forced himself” on Kesha while she was “intoxicated and drugged,” and then threatened her into silence. (Kesha’s full name is Kesha Rose Sebert.)
The suit also claimed her continued association with the record producer would be “life threatening.”
In response, Dr. Luke and his lawyers filed a lawsuit against Kesha, claiming her allegations were defamation and an “attempt to extort Gottwald into releasing Kesha from her exclusive recording agreement with Dr. Luke.”
And so, the lines were set: Kesha and her camp made it clear they saw Dr. Luke as an abuser who was a threat to Kesha’s career and life, and Dr. Luke’s camp believed her accusations to be an extreme form of contract negotiation.
In fall 2015, Kesha and her attorney Mark Geragos petitioned for a preliminary injunction in her case. Geragos stated the motion was to hasten a decision in her case and allow her to record with other labels and producers in the meantime. “Her brand value has fallen,” Geragos stated. “And unless the court issues this injunction, Kesha will suffer irreparable harm, plummeting her career past the point of no return.”
Court ruling and backlash
As Kesha’s struggle became more and more public, her fans and fellow artists continued to paint the narrative that Sony Music Entertainment, Kemosabe Records and the law itself were perpetuating a system that was holding hostage the very life and livelihood of a victim of a abuse. The Free Kesha movement that started as a vague petition in 2013 became #FreeKesha, a rallying cry that is, to the viewing public, as much about victims’ rights as it is about creative freedom and the legalities of binding contracts.
However, last week’s court ruling was a harsh blow to Kesha’s cause. Though the original suit against Dr. Luke had included vivid and disturbing accounts of sexual and psychological abuse, a judge for the New York Supreme Court said her allegations were vague and there was no medical evidence provided to back up her claims of abuse. The injunction was denied, and her fans, outside the courthouse and around the world, reacted with anger.
Does she have to work with him?
The most common claim by #FreeKesha supporters is that she now is being forced to work directly with her alleged abuser, as stipulated in the original contract. This is a claim echoed by major stars like Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato and Bleachers lead singer Jack Antonoff, who recently offered to produce music for her until she is relieved from the influence of “that creep.”