The month of May this year had been shaping up to be an excellent time for Doja Cat. The Los Angeles rapper and singer is an undeniable hitmaker, with her song “Mooo!” becoming a viral hit in 2018 and her song “Say So” reaching No. 1 on the Billboard charts on May 11. However, her success soon turned to controversy later that month when she was accused of hanging out in internet chat rooms with racist incels the same day her unreleased song “Dindu Nuffin,” a term which is disparaging to victims of police brutality, resurfaced from the depths of 2015. As #DojaCatIsOverParty began trending on Twitter, it was clear that the internet had made its decision: Doja Cat was canceled.
Doja Cat, to some of her defenders and fans, was a victim of “cancel culture.” Defined by dictionary.com as the “popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies” when they’ve done something that the public finds “objectionable or offensive.” The goal of canceling someone is to punish them. Both former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump have lambasted the idea, with the latter calling it “the definition of totalitarianism” in a speech at Mount Rushmore in early July. To many people in the public sphere, cancel culture seems to be, and often is, public enemy number one. It stops its targets from being able to grow from their mistakes and does nothing but show how intolerant and polarized we’ve all become.
Cancel culture isn’t without its supporters, though. Adherents to cancel culture see it as a way of teaching the person, brand or retailer being canceled, a lesson. They did something wrong, so to boycott their work can seem like an obvious solution to those who support the idea of cancel culture. According to American writer Camonghne Felix, cancel culture can serve as “a way for marginalized communities to publicly assert their value systems through pop culture.” In that way, cancel culture gives those typically silenced in mainstream conversations a voice. In their eyes, this works.
However, I have to disagree: Cancel culture doesn’t work because it doesn’t exist.
Can you name someone who has actually been canceled? R. Kelly? J.K. Rowling? PewDiePie?
R. Kelly, currently facing, 18 federal counts of various sex crimes, enjoys more than five million Spotify monthly listeners — albeit from a Chicago correctional facility. Additionally, J.K. Rowling, childhood icon-turned-TERF, still reaps the profit from her seven-book Harry Potter franchise and the accompanying movie series. PewDiePie, the gamer who had more than a few antisemitic moments, has more than 106 million subscribers on YouTube after signing a live-streaming deal with the media giant.
The word “canceled” has always had a sense of permanence to me, and by that standard, none of these people were really canceled. Maybe “paused” could be a better word for it, but by all accounts, Kelly, Rowling and PewDiePie have all lived on and continued to amass enormous wealth. Hardly anyone labeled as a victim of cancel culture ever really suffers long-term.
Doja Cat’s canceling in May of 2020 wasn’t even her first time being canceled. It happened August of 2018 when Twitter users discovered her tweets containing homophobic slurs from 2015, and the subsequent apology still gets heralded as one of the most hilarious celebrity apologies ever. After that, Doja Cat was “canceled” for about a year, but once the “Hot Pink” rollout began, the rapper was back and even more successful than before.
That still leaves me with the question: Has anyone ever been canceled? Despite what happened in May 2020, August 2018 and the rest of Doja Cat’s problematic history — including, but not limited to, appropriation of Hindu culture in her “So High” music video — the rapper is thriving, having just performed a medley of two of her biggest hits in this year’s MTV Video Music Awards show. Even the people we assume to be the most thoroughly canceled still retain strong followings outside of mainstream approval, however small and quiet their supporters might be. People like what they like, and some are able to separate the art from the artist. To them, it doesn’t matter what the artist has said because they can’t “make the music not bop,” as explained by YouTube vlogger As Told By Kenya.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think critically about what and whose content we consume, though. Separating the art from the artist is nearly impossible when oftentimes the art is the artist, and regardless of how separated the two are, the art funds the artist. We’re still responsible for our support, no matter who we put it toward.
And that’s why in May, I canceled Doja Cat. I didn’t feel comfortable with listening to someone who wrote an entire song around a slur so obscure that people discovered its origin in one of 4-Chan’s most insidious discussion boards; I took her songs out of my playlists and moved on. I canceled Doja Cat for me, and that’s often what it is. There is no wider “cancel culture,” because canceling an artist or an author or anyone else in the public eye is an individual action; it’s up to individual people to decide what they are and aren’t willing to support when they consume any type of media.
Jordan Hunter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.