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(photo: Josiah Kamau/Getty Images)
by Danielle Bacher
On Feb. 19, Kesha Rose Sebert sat in Manhattan’s New York State Supreme Court building, tears streaming down her cheeks. Judge Shirley Werner Kornreich had just denied a preliminary injunction that would have allowed Kesha to record music outside her six-album contract with producer Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald, better-known as Dr. Luke – and, according to a lawsuit she brought against him in October 2014, her alleged rapist.
That lawsuit not only described how Dr. Luke, now 42, drugged and raped Kesha, 29. It also claimed that Luke controlled and psychologically abused the singer from the time she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career in 2005 through her breakthrough in 2010 and beyond. “Dr. Luke has been tyrannical and abusive since our relationship began,” Kesha, who’s represented by the high-profile attorney Mark Geragos, stated in an affidavit from September 2015. “I was too young and naive to even understand what he was doing to me.”
“She was a prisoner,” Kesha’s mother, Rosemary Patricia “Pebe” Sebert, says today. During several hours-long phone calls from Nashville, where she lives, Pebe, 60, a successful songwriter – she can be seen sitting next to a sobbing Kesha in the courtroom photo that ricocheted across news sites and social media in February – spoke exclusively to Billboard about Kesha’s 10-plus-year relationship with the Grammy-nominated producer. (Kesha declined to speak with Billboard.) “It was like someone who beats you every day and hangs you from a chain and then comes in and gives you a piece of bread. Luke would say, ‘You look nice today,‘ ” says Pebe, “and send her into hysterics of happiness because she was programmed to expect nothing but abuse.”
Kesha, a platinum-selling artist with 10 top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, hasn’t released any music of her own since her second album, Warrior, in 2012, because she refuses to work with Dr. Luke and his partner, Sony Music. “Kesha’s allowed to work with another producer,” Pebe (pronounced pee-bee) explains (and Sony confirms). “But Luke gets to approve them. He gets to approve of anyone she works with. He has final say over everything.”
Though no court has ruled on the veracity of these claims against Dr. Luke, Kesha’s case has hit a raw nerve in music and raised the long-standing problem of sexism and mistreatment of women in the business, an issue for which – compared with Hollywood and other industries – it has remained largely unscrutinized. After the injunction was denied, many of entertainment’s most powerful women – including Adele, Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, Lorde, Lena Dunham and Ariana Grande – voiced their support for the singer and decried the unfairness of forcing anyone to work with an accused abuser. Kelly Clarkson, whose 2004 hit “Since U Been Gone” was produced by Dr. Luke, called him “demeaning” and “not a good guy.”
On Feb. 22, Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to help Kesha with her legal and financial troubles. “It was really random,” says Pebe, who received an email from Swift’s publicist about the offer. “Kesha was like, 'Are you sure it’s not some scammer?’ And then she said, 'I would be honored if she wants to do that.’” (Swift and Kesha later spoke directly.)
Former Runaways bassist Jackie Fuchs, who alleged in July 2015 that she was drugged and raped by then-manager Kim Fowley in 1975, credits Kesha with inspiring her to speak out about her own assault. “She’s making a difference,” Fuchs tells Billboard. “If this hadn’t come out, I wouldn’t have come forward.”
Meanwhile, the support for Kesha has created a PR nightmare for Sony, which maintains that it cannot interfere with Kesha and Luke’s contract. Four pro-Kesha online petitions – including two organized by national women’s advocacy group UltraViolet, one of which demands Sony cut all ties with Luke – have garnered more than 411,000 signatures. A Sony representative tells Billboard, “We have done everything we could to resolve this.” Additionally, Luke’s attorney denied – and Sony would not comment on – a March 9 The Wrap report stating that the company plans to end their relationship with Luke ahead of the expiration of their contract next year.
In a sworn statement in December 2015, Luke responded to the charges from Kesha’s 2014 lawsuit: “All of their horrific allegations of abuse, threats and purported misconduct by me against Kesha are completely untrue and deeply hurtful,” he said. (Dr. Luke declined to comment for this story.) In fact, Kesha and her mother did testify, in an unrelated 2010 lawsuit also involving Luke, that he never made any sexual advances toward her.
According to a statement given to Billboard by Luke’s attorney Christine Lepera, “Kesha’s court filings are and have always been a transparent business ploy to pressure Luke into a more favorable and lucrative contract. Neither Kesha nor her mother have ever sworn under oath that any of the assault allegations have occurred, despite having numerous opportunities to do so. In fact, they swore the opposite in 2011.”
After social media lit up with stars and others declaring their support for Kesha, Dr. Luke responded on Twitter: “Imagine if you or somebody you loved was publicly accused of a rape you knew they didn’t do. It’s sad that [Kesha] would turn a contract negotiation into something so horrendous and untrue. But I feel confident when this is over the lies will be exposed and the truth will prevail.” (A Sony representative tells Billboard that, following an internal investigation, they found no evidence to support Kesha’s allegations of sexual abuse.)
“I wanted Kesha to come forward a long time ago and end this relationship with Dr. Luke immediately after the [alleged] rape,” says Pebe. “But if she wanted to have a shot at the music business, she had no choice but [to work with him].”
At age 5, Kesha moved from California to Nashville with Pebe and an older half-brother, Lagan. Pebe, who says she’s not sure who Kesha’s biological father is, has written hits for artists like Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. Kesha and Pebe – who calls herself a “sober alcoholic” – even collaborated together, writing several songs Kesha would later record.
Kesha proved to be a talent in her own right. “She’s one of the best co-writers I’ve ever worked with,” says Justin Tranter, a songwriter who also has worked with Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber. “Her instinct for melodies and lyrics is at the highest level.”
When Kesha was 17, her mother sent a demo that the Seberts had made together to Samantha Cox, a writer and publisher at BMI, who passed it along to BMI director of writer/publisher relations Beka Callaway. Callaway, in turn, hooked them up with one of the hottest young producers in the game, a former guitarist in the Saturday Night Live house band with the moniker “Dr. Luke.”
Gottwald and Kesha onstage at the 28th annual ASCAP Pop Music Awards in April 2011 in Hollywood.John Shearer/WireImageLuke had scored his first hit in April 2005 with Clarkson’s No. 2 Hot 100 single “Since U Been Gone,” written with his super-producer mentor, Max Martin, who would co-produce both of Kesha’s albums with Luke. In August 2005, Kesha dropped out of Brentwood High School in Nashville and moved to Los Angeles. In September, at age 18, she signed her deal with Luke and his company Kasz Money. (The financial terms of the deal, which gave Luke control over many facets of her career, including recording and management, have been redacted in court documents.)
On Oct. 5, 2005, Kesha and Dr. Luke attended a birthday party for Nicky Hilton at her sister Paris’ Hollywood Hills mansion. Kesha was drinking. According to Kesha’s 2014 lawsuit, Luke raped her after giving her what he called “sober pills”: GHB, a drug commonly used in sexual assaults. This, the suit alleges, is what allowed him to “bring [her] back to his hotel room alone and rape her while she was unconscious.” The documents don’t specify a date, but according to Pebe, Luke drugged her at the Hiltons’ party and took her back to his hotel that night. An eyewitness at the party confirms to Billboard that both Luke and Kesha were there (although the source says, “I didn’t see anything weird” between the two of them).
By midafternoon the day after the party, Pebe had grown concerned after calling Kesha multiple times and getting no response. (On an average day, Pebe says, the two spoke by phone every six to eight hours.) Finally, her mother maintains, Kesha returned her call, saying she had woken up naked in what she believed was Dr. Luke’s hotel room. “Mom, I don’t know where I am. I think we had sex. I’m sore and sick. I don’t know where my clothes are. I think I need to go to the hospital,” she said. Then Kesha’s phone battery died. Pebe kept calling her daughter until Kesha called back from the hotel’s landline.
Pebe says that a friend of Kesha’s picked Kesha up and drove her back to her apartment. (Kesha never went to the hospital.) “At some point over the following few days I called my best friend and pored over the details,” Kesha recalls in the 2015 affidavit. “I had only had a few drinks but after I had taken this 'sober pill’ I blacked out.” Says Pebe: “Looking back, I don’t know why we didn’t go to the police. Kesha told me not to do anything. She said, 'Mom, I just want to sing. I don’t want to be a rape-case victim. I just want to get my music out.’ I didn’t follow my instincts.”
Less than two months later, according to Pebe, Luke and Max Martin met Kesha and Pebe for lunch at a restaurant in Beverly Hills to discuss who should become Kesha’s manager. (Max Martin declined to comment.) She wanted to sign with David Sonenberg at DAS Communications, who had worked with The Black Eyed Peas and The Fugees, and whom she knew through an industry friend. However, according to Pebe, Luke wanted Kesha to go with his friend, the prominent talent manager Larry Rudolph, who has managed Britney Spears for most of her career. Kesha wound up in tears, Pebe says, after Luke grew frustrated, slammed his fork down and lectured them on his authority over her management. The two walked out of the restaurant and didn’t communicate with Luke again for two years. Kesha signed with Sonenberg and began searching for a record deal.
Kesha nearly found one at Warner Bros. Records through A&R executive and former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi. DioGuardi tells Billboard that Warner Bros. and Arthouse Publishing “had a signed agreement with Kesha for recording and publishing rights,” but that Dr. Luke called her to say that he had a pre-existing contract with Kesha. Soon after, DioGuardi says, “we decided to release her from our agreement.”
After the failed deal with Warner Bros., Pebe says, “Kesha would tell me she was going to take her car to Mulholland and drive off the cliff. She was a little dramatic, but I never knew for sure.” One day Pebe says that Kesha reached her on the phone and said, “Dr. Luke just called me and I have 24 hours to fire my lawyer and my managers and go back with him. Anytime I get a contract, he’s going to come forward and basically say he owns me. What do I do?”
Kesha, according to a lawsuit Sonenberg would file in 2010, fired Sonenberg in September 2008. (Sonenberg declined to comment.) She also signed to Dr. Luke’s publishing company Prescription Songs, which houses dozens of songwriters and producers.
In 2008, Luke had an important hit: “I Kissed a Girl,” the first of numerous major Katy Perry singles that he co-wrote and/or co-produced. That year, Kesha came into one of Luke’s studio sessions with Flo Rida. The rapper realized he needed a female voice for his new track, which in early 2009 became the No. 1 Hot 100 smash “Right Round,” and Kesha’s first appearance on a hit single.
In late 2008 or early 2009, Dr. Luke flew with Kesha to New York to shop for a record deal. While there, she would sign to RCA, a division of Sony Music. (In 2011, when Luke formed Kemosabe Records with RCA and Sony, she was moved over to that label.) In the 2014 lawsuit, Kesha claims that before a flight to Los Angeles, Luke forced her to snort “an illicit drug” and made sexual advances on her while she was intoxicated on the plane, where she had started drinking. “I do remember her calling me from the plane telling me that she was so drunk, and [how] Dr. Luke came over and started making out with her and was all over her,” says Pebe. “She told me she felt terrible and was trying to get away from him and then vomited.”
Pebe also claims that Dr. Luke interfered with her personal and professional relationship with her daughter while Kesha was recording her debut album, Animal. He refused to let her work on the music, even though he had promised he would. In 2013, she sent emails, which she has shown to Billboard, to Dr. Luke and his team about the mistreatment Kesha was enduring from Luke inside the studio and out, including the alleged rape. Pebe says he never wrote back.
Dr. Luke, who was born in Providence, R.I., got his start in the Saturday Night Live band in 1996. He spent his off-nights DJ'ing and working on remixes of his and other artists’ music. After SNL, he moved to Los Angeles. He has co-written and co-produced more than 30 top 10 Hot 100 hits and 16 No. 1 singles, including other Katy Perry hits such as “Teenage Dream” and “Roar,” and has been nominated for four Grammy Awards. “Lukasz is just one of those brilliant people who comes along once every five years,” Doug Morris, CEO of Sony Music, said in a 2013 New Yorker profile of Luke.
Music producers are known for using unorthodox and often provocative methods to coax great performances out of their charges – Phil Spector famously pulled a gun on John Lennon during one session – and Dr. Luke, according to some of the artists and executives with whom he has worked, was no exception.
A former Jive executive says Luke “has a massive ego” and is known to be "difficult" to work with. One top music manager who has known Luke for more than 20 years, and whose roster includes best-selling pop and rock acts who have worked with him, says, “Luke is a terrible person. He’s very talented, obviously – he’s a guitar player interested in pop beats – but he’s diabolical. No one likes dealing with the guy. He’ll do anything to f– over everyone. This thing with Kesha is a perfect example. He could have let her out of the deal a year ago – her career was already on its downside – but he’s such an asshole he just wouldn’t do it.”
Veteran publicist Elizabeth Freund has known Luke (who is not her client) since he was 11 years old, when she was his sister’s camp counselor. “There’s not one speck of doubt in my mind that he didn’t commit these allegations,” she says of Luke, who has a girlfriend and two young children. “He’s a loving father and an incredibly generous family member. I’ve seen really good relationships with the people he has worked with for years. He’s strong, kind and a loving and utterly good man.”
Kesha’s career exploded in early 2010, when her debut single, “Tik Tok,” hit the radio and spent nine consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, breaking a record for single-week sales for a female solo artist. Her debut album, Animal – a giddy collision of pop, rock, hip-hop and dance music powered by Kesha’s outsized party-girl persona – hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and eventually sold 1.5 million copies, according to Nielsen Music.
Luke’s focus on Kesha, says Pebe, only intensified with her success: “This is when Luke started getting really hateful,” she says. “He saw her as a cash cow and started manipulating her all the time. She thought all her dreams were finally coming true, but this was just a f–ing trip to hell.”
In late August 2012, Luke and Kesha set to work on her second album, Warrior, in Luke’s Malibu studio. Pebe recalls that Luke would comment about how Kesha, who has spoken openly about her battles with bulimia, wasn’t fit enough. “He ridiculed my body and my weight to the point where I almost killed myself,” Kesha says in the 2015 affidavit. “He encouraged me to not eat – even when I was eight days with no solid food and skipping meals to work out two times a day.”
On one song, according to Pebe, Luke wanted her to sing a lyric that included the phrase “some fat bitches in the bar.” “She would never say something like that – not in a million years,” says a collaborator of Kesha’s who heard about the incident from her. “There’s no way Kesha would ever want to degrade a certain body type in a song.”
Kesha’s 2014 lawsuit states that Luke once “physically backed Kesha into a corner, where she was curled up in a ball, crying and fearing for her life.” Pebe says that Luke did this, shaking his fist and screaming at her, after Kesha refused to sing the “fat bitches” lyric. Kesha, according to the 2014 lawsuit, bolted out of the studio and ran barefoot down the Pacific Coast Highway, crying. She climbed up nearby mountains and hid so he wouldn’t be able to find her, then, says Pebe, called her manager to come pick her up.
Pebe says that Luke constantly criticized Kesha, saying things like, “Katy Perry is so much better than you. You’re not a good writer,” after she worked long hours in the studio. (Kesha and Perry were once close friends, “before they both got famous,” says Pebe.)
According to Kesha’s 2014 lawsuit, Dr. Luke once called her a “fat f–ing refrigerator.” Pebe says he did this during the shoot for the music video “Die Young,” which came out in November 2012. Luke, says Pebe, made the comment to the video’s director after Kesha had stripped her clothes and laid down in a bra and underwear for a scene. Kesha, says Pebe, would cry and tell her mother, “I would rather be dead then spend one more day with him.”
One night in 2012, Pebe remembers that Dr. Luke had Kesha and Pebe come to his studio and proceeded to scream at them for three hours. Kesha asked him if she could leave to go to the bathroom. She fled to her car and texted her mother: “Mom, I’m not kidding. We are going to Mexico. F– the music business.”
In 2013, Kesha co-headlined a tour with Pitbull after “Timber” – Pitbull’s song, co-written by Luke, Pebe and others, and featuring Kesha – spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100. But Kesha’s personal struggles mounted, and in January 2014, she entered the Chicago-area rehab facility Timberline Knolls for her eating disorder. She was joined a week later by Pebe, who previously had sought treatment for alcoholism and an eating disorder of her own. “Bulimia is a control issue,” says Pebe. “I really believe that the further this thing got with Dr. Luke, the less control she had and the worse her bulimia got, because it was the only thing [that gave her] control.”
Kesha filed her lawsuit against Dr. Luke on Oct. 14, 2014. Kesha, says Pebe, had undergone a lot of therapy since going into rehab and knew “she couldn’t go on as a healthy person” without breaking free from Luke – that she was no longer “willing to be a victim.” Just one week later, Dr. Luke succeeded in having her testimony in a 2010 civil case – in which her former manager, Sonenberg, and his company, DAS, sued Kesha for $14 million in commissions – unsealed. In that deposition, taken in June 2011, Kesha contradicted what she would later claim in her lawsuit against Luke: She swore under oath that Luke never gave her a “roofie” or coerced her into sex. (Pebe says that Sonenberg was the only other person she was sure knew about the rape at that time.) “Dr. Luke never made sexual advances at me,” Kesha testified. And on Oct. 18, 2011, Pebe gave a deposition claiming Luke never gave Kesha drugs and that she was not aware of any sexual relationship between the two.
Kesha’s 2014 lawsuit states that Dr. Luke “repeatedly threatened that if she ever told anyone about these abusive incidents, he would destroy both [Kesha] and her entire family.” Once, the documents say, he took Kesha “down to the beach to 'have a talk’ with her,” and “threatened to shut her career down, take away all her publishing and recording rights… He threatened to harm Ms. Sebert and the entire family’s careers, as well as their physical safety.” Kesha “was genuinely scared,” says Pebe, and would sometimes hire security to sit in the driveway of her Nashville house. “Luke almost destroyed us,” says Pebe. “And he has done it intentionally.”
Sony maintains that it has made it possible for Kesha to record without any involvement with Luke. Nonetheless, “it’s his company, he’s CEO, and he’s not obligated to do what Sony thinks is best,” says Pebe. Sources confirm that if Kesha did record for Sony without Luke’s involvement, he would still be entitled to revenue from record sales and publishing.
“Sony is doing everything it can to support the artist in these circumstances,” a lawyer for the company stated in February, adding that Sony “is legally unable to terminate the contract to which it is not a party.”
In September, Kesha submitted an affidavit from Jim Urie, former president/CEO of Universal Music Group Distribution. He agreed that, without an injunction, her career would never recover. “No mainstream distribution company will invest the money necessary to distribute songs for an artist who has fallen from the public eye, as is happening to Kesha at this very moment.”
Later this year, Kemosabe’s five-year contract with Sony Music – worth an estimated $60 million – expires, which leaves Sony to decide whether to renegotiate the terms or cut ties with the label. Regardless of what happens between the two parties, though, Kesha’s contract with Luke, and obligation to RCA, will still stand. According to a prominent entertainment lawyer, the contract is ironclad.
There are few if any precedents for a music-industry contract dispute that centers on alleged sexual abuse. More conventional cases will often end in a settlement and renegotiated terms. “Dr. Luke basically owns Kesha until her death. He doesn’t have to give her any money and is under no time constraints. She can’t legally put any new music out, or he can and will sue her,” says Pebe.
After receiving Kesha’s lawsuit, Dr. Luke filed a defamation case in New York against her; her current manager, Jack Rovner; and Pebe. In it he calls Kesha’s claims "defamatory statements containing lurid allegations of physical and mental abuse – allegations that Kesha and [her mother] have themselves admitted are false.“
Two weeks later, he filed a similar defamation suit against Pebe in Tennessee. On Feb. 3, the New York case was dismissed due to jurisdictional issues. The other case is still pending.
If Kesha decides to file an amended complaint, the judge will need to decide whether to dismiss it, and the denial of her injunction could come up on appeal. If Kesha beats a dismissal motion, a trial likely wouldn’t happen until next year at the earliest.
“Artists get stuck in horrible record deals all the time and often don’t have the power to say or do anything about it, but Kesha’s situation is on a whole other level,” says songwriter Tranter. “For her to be so brave, to be as honest as she’s being, it’s one of the more inspiring things I’ve seen.”
Kesha, says Pebe, has been living in Los Angeles in a new house, working on music – she’s got 30 songs written – and spending time with family. She was on vacation in the Bahamas with her longtime boyfriend, Brad Ashenfelter, 28, when she came to Nashville to accept the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award at the Nashville Equality Dinner on March 5. There she delivered an emotional speech about growing up as a “misfit”: “We just knew that we were bullied for being ourselves,” said Kesha. “My message today is: Don’t be afraid to speak up against any injustice you experience.”
Pebe believes that, in order for Kesha to get healthy again, she needed to go public with her struggles. And indeed, “Kesha is so much better now,” she says. “She wasn’t comfortable with having to do this, but I think she realized as this thing progressed that she can advocate for sexual abuse or other things. The fact that she is at peace with that has really been healing.”
Whether Kesha’s fight continues to fuel debate over the music industry’s treatment of women – and in particular, young women relying on powerful men to help launch and maintain their careers – remains to be seen. No other accusations like Kesha’s have been leveled against Luke. But in March, like Clarkson, Lady Gaga reiterated her support for Kesha, and Marina Diamandis (of Marina & The Diamonds) tweeted, in reference to Kesha, “The great thing about our generation is that we now live in an age of exposure. Rape and abuse allegations don’t fade away.” On March 11, organizers plan to deliver the four petitions against Sony and stage a protest outside its New York headquarters.
In the 18 months since Kesha made her allegations against him, Dr. Luke has had three tracks he co-produced and/or co-wrote – R. City’s “Locked Away,” Maroon 5’s “Sugar” and Pitbull and Ne-Yo’s “Time of Our Lives” – break into the top 10 of the Hot 100. He has also recently worked with stars including R. Kelly and Ciara and plans to release an album by the young pop singer Becky G on Kemosabe later this year.
The manager and 20-year acquaintance of Luke’s believes his career is virtually finished: “He’s f–ed. He’s done. He has rarely had success working with guys, and virtually every big female star in the world has come out against him. Why would anyone work with him now?”
But another high-ranking music executive says, “There will always be someone who’ll want his magic. A new artist who’s hungry enough – you can bet they’ll be calling him. He’s the holy grail for a certain type of artist.” Or, as another industry insider says, “A hit fixes all.”
Additional reporting by Shirley Halperin.