Opinion: Erick Morillo’s Death Exposed Ugly Truths About DJs, Power and Fame

Abby Lowe discusses the problematic and widespread reaction to Erick Morillo’s death.

9 min
Morillo 1
Sept 8, 2020
Abby Lowe

When a celebrity dies, outpourings of grief inevitably flood social media. Sometimes this grief seems beautifully genuine, reflecting the totality of the deceased’s strengths and weaknesses. Other times, it’s more contrived; an obvious ploy for coveted social media engagement. But the death of Erick Morillo highlighted an even uglier side to online grief — one that systematically erases victims of sexual misconduct, while pretending to acknowledge the worst of Morillo’s behaviour.

There’s no denying that Morillo’s death is tragic, and that the protection of his family is paramount. He was 49, and though the circumstances surrounding what happened haven’t been revealed, his death is presumed to be suicide. Even before he died, he admitted to an ongoing battle with drugs and alcohol. And despite being one of the most recognisable DJs on the circuit — someone with a megawatt smile, tons of charisma, and a talent for picking all the right tunes — he never seemed able to find contentment. Nevertheless, he was loved for his contributions to dance music, for his role as mentor, and as a family member and friend.

But none of this changes the fact that Morillo was charged with sexual battery a month before his death (nor any of the allegations that have been made subsequently). Morillo initially denied involvement, only handing himself into authorities when a rape kit tested positive for his DNA. So while his passing is tragic for everyone who knew him or loved him, a woman must now live without the opportunity for justice.

Unfortunately, the majority of responses to Morillo’s death didn’t reflect this. In a frightening display of predominantly male solidarity, most tributes hinted at his “troubled” past while conveniently forgetting about the victims of his alleged crimes. Some of the world’s biggest DJs made statements inadvertently defending his actions, admitting that they knew he’d behaved badly ‘but he was always a gent to me’. There were similar cries of ‘he’s not perfect but…’ — clear attempts to distance his actions from his personality, a gift sadly not bestowed to his alleged victim.

There are several well seasoned tropes at work here, all of which predictably reinforce patriarchal dominance. For starters, a stream of famous faces within the industry refusing to call out a fellow DJ for deeply damaging crimes is a classic example of the privilege afforded to those with money, and consequently, power. In this instance, a conscious decision was made by his peers to overlook unspeakable behaviour in favour of upholding a friend’s legacy.

That sends a message: powerful men aren’t held accountable, and women’s trauma is easily hand waved away. We’ve heard this story countless times before. Think about Harvey Weinstein’s reign over Hollywood. Yet the only way the narrative will evolve is when people gather the courage to challenge unacceptable behaviours — even in death. Is it easy to question the status quo, particularly when a friend is involved? Absolutely not. But it’s in this uncomfortable, murky place that real change can finally begin to seed. The alternative just leads to the perpetuation of the same damaging cycle.

This was abundantly clear in the backlash against the victim’s allegations. The subtext of silence in a lot of posts by big-name DJs paved the way for the all-too-common discourse surrounding the majority of rape claims: she was probably just after his money, or why did she go back to his house if she didn’t want to have sex with him? As ever, the burden of proof lies unfairly with the victim, and anyone in a similar position is no doubt thinking twice about coming forward with their suffering.

Given the frequency of responses like this, and the renowned difficulty of prosecuting rape cases, it’s no wonder that only 15 per cent of sexual assaults are reported, and even less result in convictions. Imagine the courage it takes to come forward in the face of such venom, especially when that person is in the public eye. Eulogising Morillo as a one-dimensional figure without also honestly discussing his victims helps no one. And in the process, recklessly dissuades women from speaking out against misconduct.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that many of the DJs involved in the furore didn’t intend to stoke such vitriol, and perhaps as a consequence of grief, or in the impulsive rush for validation of that feeling, didn’t consider the victim or any other sexual abuse victims who might read their posts and be hurt by them (this would explain why many were hastily deleted). But that begs the question — did they really need to post at all? And if they did, surely it’s obvious that public profiles come with responsibility and that means posting with caution and compassion, always. Moreover, sexual predatory is indefensible in all circumstances. It is irrelevant if the perpetrator came from a damaged background, personal anguish is not an excuse. And regardless of the contribution anyone has made to the canon of dance music, actions that take place off the dancefloor must be viewed concurrently with what goes on inside the booth.

Indeed, where many of Morillo’s defenders have seemingly stumbled is in confronting the age-old dilemma of how to separate the art from the artist. This is understandable. It’s by no means a straightforward concept. And when someone has memories inextricably intertwined with some of the best times of their lives, as they often do in the case of dancefloors, it’s difficult to disconnect from the person who was the driving force in the creation of those memories. But this is an erroneous approach, since we exist in a time so defined by personality-driven culture that it’s near impossible to isolate the creation from the creator themselves. We cannot remove them from what we already know, which means the artist is an inherent part of the art we consume. Instead, we either must reconcile with the mistakes of our artistic heroes, or move on from the artist completely. Otherwise the cycle will only continue.

If Morillo were alive, he would have faced due process in court, and one way or the other, his accuser would have gained closure. As it stands, there’s no opportunity for rehabilitation and no chance for retribution. Without a long overdue reckoning of our values, it’s destined to remain a tragedy for everyone involved.

Abby Lowe is a freelancer living in London. Find her on Twitter.