R. Kelly and Guilt
Like seemingly everyone else in the universe, I have been watching Surviving R. Kelly in a state of horror if not quite shock. I’m viscerally disgusted but I can’t say that I am surprised, let alone shocked. After all, R. Kelly’s predatory and abusive behavior towards underage women is probably the worst kept secret in pop culture. For the love of God, he was taped doing unthinkable, unconscionable things to an underaged woman, went to trial with the tape as a central piece of evidence and still managed to avoid going to jail.
Kelly’s popularity didn’t even suffer until the horrifying revelations about Harvey Weinstein kicked off a long-overdue legal, moral and professional reckoning where powerful men are finally being held accountable for their crimes against women, even when we really enjoy their art.
It took The Weinstein Effect, the #MuteRKelly movement and Surviving R. Kelly for the music industry and society as a whole to finally decide that the crimes that Kelly is accused of are so horrifying, extreme and vast that it would be immoral to continue support his career in any way.
Surviving R. Kelly is horrifying in its depiction of Kelly’s crimes but it’s equally damning in its portrayal of an industry and a culture willing to turn a blind eye to Kelly’s crimes because of money, self-interest, misogyny and an attachment to the man’s music so powerful and intense that seemingly decent human beings justified all manner of mental gymnastics to justify continuing to listen to his albums.
I felt implicated in it along with the rest of the music industry because for many years I was a Hip Hop and R&B critic in Chicago when Kelly was making hits and committing unspeakable atrocities. I knew what Kelly had done in the broad outlines. Everyone did. But I did not do anything about it. Actually, that’s not true. I wrote glowing reviews of Kelly’s albums.
I told myself that my job was not to write about morality or review morality, but to write about music. Before the Weinstein Effect it seemed possible, even professional, to separate the artist from their art, or, more specifically, the artist from their crimes, their sins, their transgressions, the ugliness in their souls.
At the time that seemed sane but with the benefit of perspective that now looks like a useful fiction we told ourselves and each other to keep from feeling complicit in the crimes of others, to allow us to sleep at night. Now it seems impossible and immoral to separate what R. Kelly did as a prolific musician and entertainer with what he did as a prolific sex criminal.
It’s precisely because Kelly was so successful and convincing selling sexual fantasies with himself as the star, leading man and God of the erotic arts that he was able to live a sexual nightmare that reduced everyone else to victim or accomplice.
Looking back I’m horrified at how much of an emotional connection I felt not just to the ubiquitous, formerly beloved jams like “Ignition (Remix)” but also to deeply personal ballads like “Heaven I Need a Hug” and “I Wish.”
I’m not sure what I could have done differently. But I could have done something. We all (with the very notable exception of Jim DeRogatis) could have done something. We could have raised our voices in protest. We could have taken a stand. We could have refused to normalize Kelly’s crimes by contextualizing them as the kinds of moral transgressions superstar musicians have seemingly always been able to get away with as long as they’re rich and famous and beloved enough.
Instead we waited until it was too late. As with Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, we needed to be see the vastness and ugliness and brutality of the whole picture before we did what we should have done decades ago, and ejected these horrible men from society as a whole. As with Weinstein and Cosby, it took being confronted with the ugly, horrifying, nauseatingly consistent details for us to come to our senses.
It’s too late to keep Kelly from destroying many lives but hopefully we can learn from our mistakes and be more vigilant in the future to ensure that what happened to Kelly’s victims never happens again with the complicity of an industry and a culture that elevated Kelly to such ridiculous heights that it took a five-part expose, the Weinstein Effect and the testimony of some very brave women to finally send his world crashing down.