Singer’s legal combat casts spotlight on sexism in the music industry

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Musics biggest female superstars back singers legal combat to free herself from contract with producer she alleges was her abuser

Six years ago, it looked like nothing could touch Kesha Sebert. Swaggering through her debut music video, the vocalist known then just as Ke$ ha woke up in a bathtub feeling like P Diddy, wiping heavy kohl from her eyes and swigging Jack Daniels. As she said herself at the time: Im not a submissive, perfect pop princess, thats for damned sure.

But fast forward to 2016 and this once gutsy female sat sobbing, pallid and vulnerable at the back of New York courtroom as a judge denied national courts injunction that would have allowed the singer to sever ties with her record label Kemosabe a subsidiary of Sony and free her from the six album contract she is committed to. Following the verdict, Kesha said: All I ever wanted was to be able to attain music without being afraid, scared or abused.

The 28 -year-old, once tip-off as the next Lady Gaga, instead find herself at the centre of a legal battle in which she alleges she suffered 10 years as a victim of mental manipulation, emotional abuse and an instance of sexual assault at the hands of her mentor and long-time music producer Lukasz Gottwald, better know as Dr Luke, who founded Kemosabe. He vigorously denies all the allegations.

The judges ruling has caused uproar. Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Chastain and Lorde have all pledged their is supportive of Keshas attempt to contractually free herself from individual producers she alleges was also her abuser. When I find the outcome of Keshas court case last Friday, I felt sick, wrote Lena Dunham in a lengthy essay criticising the route the legal system treated such rape asserts; Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to help with Keshas legal expenses; and Adele dedicated her first prize of the night at Wednesdays Brit awards to the vocalist. The suit has evidently brought to the surface long-simmering issues about sexism at the core of the music industry.

In recently released tribunal newspapers filed in 2014, Kesha claims that after signing a contract with Dr Luke when she was 18, she was subjected to abuse that left her break, damaged and traumatised, including being plied with date rape drugs. On one occasion, the lawsuit reports that Ms Sebert took the pills and woke up the following afternoon, naked in Dr Lukes bed, sore and sick, with no memory of how she got there. The singer claims she was too scared to report the abuse to the police. In the instance, which has yet to come to trial, Dr Luke faces eight charges including sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment and gender violence.

Kesha cries as she learns she will not be released from her record contract. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/ Getty Images

Kesha was born in Van Nuys, a neighbourhood in northern LA, in 1987, but at five her mom, Pebe, moved the family moved to Nashville. It was not an affluent upbringing. She has said the family lived off food stamps, but the vocalist speaks lovingly of how her mom would take her and her brother Lagan across the American southwest in a battered yellow shipment van.

I grew up with nothing. I recollect sometimes not having shoes. But I was always happy, she said in an early interview. Yet her fragmented childhood, where the family moved home every couple of years, left her feeling like an foreigner. I was never the popular child growing up. I was the weird girl with homemade clothes, writing anthem lyrics in my notebooks in the back of class. I know how it feels to be bullied.

It was in Nashville that Kesha fell in love with music. Her mother was a songwriter who had penned lyrics for Dolly Parton among others and would often bring her daughter into the recording studio to sit in on songwriting sessions.

My mother taught me how to write, Kesha told the Guardian in 2009. When I was younger, she was always, like, Dont write fake stuff. People can tell if its not real. Ive stuck to that the whole way through.

She began to write her own songs and, with her mothers encouragement, record them as demos that Pebe handed out to anyone she could in the music industry. It was how, in 2005, Kesha first caught “members attention” of producer Dr Luke, an established and influential figure who had worked with a range of pop and hip-hop artists. After hearing her material, he called Kesha up and offered to sign her, an opportunity the 18 -year-old jumped at. With her mothers blessing, she abandoned her scholarship place to study psychology and comparative religion at Barnard College and moved to LA.

Keshas musical success was far away from instant. For four years, she worked as a waitress, wrote music for artists including Kelly Clarkson, and sang backing vocals for Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Flo Rida, chiefly while living out of her auto. She was also preparing material for her own album, writing more than 200 songs, and she ultimately signed a six-album deal in 2009 with Dr Lukes Kemosabe records.

Keshas 2010 album debut, Animal, spent nine weeks at No 1 and sold more than 2m transcripts in six months. The albums result single, TiK ToK, transgressed all records for the best selling digital single, with 15 m transcripts changed. Having opened for Rihanna in 2010, Kesha embarked on her own sold-out world tour, playing 90 displays across America, South America, Australia and Europe.

Keshas provocative music and raunchy performances were polarising, but she seemed unscathed by the criticism and instead became an outspoken proponent of female sexuality as something to be flaunted rather than disguised.

Kesha performs at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles in 2012. Photograph: Christopher Polk/ Getty Images for Clear Channel

I understand Im supposed to be feminine and goody, but Im not, she said. Girls can sing about the same things as men, but we shouldnt have to be put through such scrutiny and hellfire. Men sing about strippers, sexuality and drugs and its praised and exalted. When girls sing about these things, were automatically demonised as sluts and drunks. Its not true.

Yet it was as Kesha began to build her second album, Warrior, in 2011, that the tension between her ambitions to make a more experimental boulder album and the commercial vision her label had of Ke$ ha began to emerge.

It was around this time, and over the next two years, that her brother Lagan and the filmmaker Steven Greenstreet began making a fly-on-the-wall documentary about her. I believe she was extremely disappointed, frustrated and heartbroken with the style the last album was established and released, said Greenstreet. She was put under a lot of pressure and it sometimes felt like she had to almost beg, even plead, to write a song the style she wanted.

Ive heard her music that no one else has heard and its pretty good. Its totally different from the girl that sang TiK ToK six years ago; its someone who has grown up and I just think some people are afraid of who that new Kesha is.

Did I ensure evidence of her under extreme pressure? Yes. Did I consider breakdowns? Yes. Did I witness tears from what I would call bullying? Yes. It was tough and it got tougher on her towards the end.

The second album was released and ran platinum across the world. But as she embarked on the 2013 Warrior world tour, the singers desperation to claw back creative control began to show in public, prompting a petition by fans to emancipate Kesha from her record contract with Dr Luke.

Fans await the arrival of Kesha at the New York state supreme court. Photo: Raymond Hall/ GC Images

Whats been put out as singles have just perpetuated a specific image that may or may not is thoroughly accurate, she told Rolling Stone in 2013. Id like to show the world other sides of my personality. I dont wishes to merely continue putting out the same ballad and becoming a charade of myself.

Things spiralled further for the vocalist in 2014. Various Kesha demos surfaced on the internet but were never officially released and that year she checked herself into rehab for two months to deal with an eating disorder, saying she wanted to learn to love myself again exactly as I am. The court newspapers allege her anorexia was the outcomes of Dr Luke bullying her about her weight.

It was on leaving rehab in March 2014 that Kesha dropped the dollar sign from her name and sued Dr Luke for sexual assault and battery. In reply, Dr Luke and his lawyers filed a suit against Kesha, claiming her accusations were defamation and an attempt to extort Gottwald into releasing Kesha from her exclusive record agreement with Dr Luke.

Emily Gonneau, who worked at EMI before setting up her own music management business, said the case was an extreme version of whatnot just female artists but female industry executives experience every single day and have suffered for so long. She said Dr Lukes close ties to some of the biggest names in music, including Max Martin who masterminded Taylor Swifts 1989, ran a long way to explaining why the male-run music industry was so quick to defend and protect the producer and defamation Kesha.

Gonneau has been at the vanguard of a campaign, Musicognony, which aims expose and overturn sexism in the music industry and said she had witnessed occurrences similar to Keshas.

Lukasz Gottwald, aka Dr Luke, signed Kesha to a six-album deal with his label, Kemosabe Records. Photograph: Richard Shotwell/ Invision/ AP

She condemned the portraying of Kesha as Dr Lukes creation, whose success is solely thanks to him, and said it was often the case for female musicians. Theres this annoyance that shes actually speaking up for herself. Its this Victorian idea that shes constructed her bed and she needs to lie in it. I find that very disturbing, Gonneau said. Were collectively failing and uncovering every other female musician, past and present, who had found themselves in a similar situation.

The legalities of Sony severing Keshas contract are complex given the fact that Dr Lukes label is simply a subsidiary of the company. On Wednesday, the company released a statement stressing that it was doing everything it can to support the artist in these circumstances, but is legally unable to terminate the contract to which it is not a party. However, Dr Lukes five-year contract with Sony comes up in six months and it remains to be seen whether the label will decide to cut him, and his Kemosabe imprint, loose.

The New York magistrates ruling on 19 February was merely on the injunction and the wider civil objection being submitted by Kesha against Dr Luke could take months or years to resolve in court. In the meantime, any recording Kesha wants to do in the near future will have to be under Sonys control.

Kesha a potted biography

Career Started writing ballads as a teen and was signed to Kemosabe Records age 17 after producer Dr Luke heard her demo tape. She signed a six-album deal in 2009, releasing her first album, Animal, in 2010 and then her follow-up, Warrior, in 2012. She has not released any music officially since she became embroiled in a legal combat against her record label.

High phase Her party anthem Tik Tok became the fastest-selling digital way since records began and has sold more than 15 m copies.

Low point In 2014, she filed tribunal papers claiming “shes been” sexually, physically and mentally abused by her long-term producer Dr Luke. A court hearing on 19 February refused to grant the singer an injunction that would have allowed her to break her six-album contract with Dr Lukes record label.

What she says Ive always lived as though Im a fucking god. It never had to do with money, though. I grew up with no fund, but I never ran without anything, it just made me creative and crafty.

What they say Beneath the patina of skeezy Freshers-Week-LOLZ lyrics( got a water-bottle of whiskey in my handbag) lies a talent NME

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