2018 ended with relative musical newcomer Jacquees declaring himself the king of R&B, sparking a days-long debate over who held the crown for GOAT crooner. While debates turned to memes and social media slander, there existed one elephant in the room: R. Kelly is the most accomplished, most successful R&B artist of the past 30 years. Maybe ever.
It was only a matter of time before his name came up in the conversation, adding another layer to the debate while rekindling the controversy that has surrounded him since a video leaked allegedly showing him urinating on an underage girl more than a decade ago. That led to the inevitable question: Can we listen to R. Kelly and appreciate his music while separating it from his personal life decisions?
The prevailing, collective argument for the continued support of R. Kelly fall into three categories. The first is the idea that all the women who have accused him of abuse and statutory rape are lying. The second is that Kelly is a victim of a smear campaign to take down a Black man while white men get away with similar crimes. Those two arguments are the easiest to rebuff. Especially since there have been dozens of women to come forward, making the notion they’re all lying seem far-fetched at best. (Some of them were featured in Lifetime’s explosive docuseries, “Surviving R. Kelly,” which premiered on the cable network this week. It’s taken more than 20 years for the documentary to get made while Kelly has roamed the world free of any legal consequences.)
Finally, the third part of the argument is that there are some who believe that we can listen to Kelly’s music without having to think about his alleged sexual misconduct with underage girls.
In short, that argument is absurd and only defends the worst among us.
In the documentary, we learned that R. Kelly allegedly had underage girls in the studio with him while he was making his supposed love songs; that the girls he surrounded himself with and abused were muses for his lewd lyrics and musically-executed sexual fantasies. We also learned the song “You Are Not Alone,” which he wrote for Michael Jackson, was about a miscarriage suffered by a girl he got pregnant.
There is no separating R. Kelly’s music from his crimes because he himself interjected his crimes into his music. The DNA of rape and anti-Black woman violence is splattered across every lyric about sex he’s ever uttered.
But R. Kelly isn’t an outlier in the argument over separating an artist’s work from their personal lives. There just simply are some characteristics that define who people are. Jay-Z is a hustler and his music reflects that lifestyle at every couplet, for instance.
So the same goes for those who hold the worst characteristics among us. Rapist. Racist. Abuser. Sexual assaulter. Who we are as people will always impact the energy we put out into the world whether directly or not. Louis CK’s award-winning TV show, “Louie,” is largely focused on his inability to detect or respect women’s boundaries, which deserves more attention in light of the fact he would routinely masturbate in front of women against their wishes. Woody Allen’s films are full of older men who date younger women. And so on. There is no such thing as separating art from the artist because the artist themselves seemingly can’t even make such distinctions.
The idea of separating art from the artist only benefits the artists themselves who use that excuse to continue their successful careers despite the horrible deeds they’ve done. The concept also benefits those who simply don’t care enough about victims to turn the damn songs off or pass on buying movie tickets that support those who do such harm.
It all boils down to the fact that society will faithfully use any excuse imaginable that allows us to overlook the ways in which women are continuously victimized and harmed. Especially Black women. Kelly’s entertainment counterparts like Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein benefit from the privilege of being white men, which allows them to eventually make their triumphant comebacks (CK has already made his return to the comedy circuit). Kelly benefits from the privilege of committing his crimes against Black women, a segment of society that nobody cares enough to end his career over.
But we can’t even begin to reckon with the idea of making R. Kelly pay for his sins if we can’t even stop listening to his music or going to his concerts. If you do still love or want to see R. Kelly succeed then be aware that continuing to support him is continuing to support his years of abuse towards Black girls because his abuse and his music are absolutely one in the same.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.