With the recent documentary series, Surviving R. Kelly, many are asking why the self-styled “Pied piper of R&B” has got away with it for so long. Angelo Irving asks if our disgust really translates into action.
Content Note: This article contains explicit reference to acts of child sexual abuse, please read on with caution.
Editor’s note: We are not linking to any R. Kelly songs or videos from this piece.
I wrote about R. Kelly last year after a number of music streaming services decided to stop promoting his music. At the time I expressed mocking surprise that they had done anything, because his victims, black women and girls, have been historically invisible.
Lifetime released a docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly, which has once again shone a light on the history of Kelly’s alleged transgressions. However it does more than that. It highlights the complicity of so many who enabled his behaviour. His former tour manager who forged documents that allowed Kelly to marry Aaliyah at 15. The officers that would allegedly give Kelly advance notice that the police were making checks on his residence. His brother that said, plaintively, that Kelly liked younger women, i.e minors as if there was no issue with that. Or, the myriad other people around him that turned a blind eye. Having binge watched it, I was interested to see what impact this series would have.
This morning, I listened to the Hot 97 show Ebro in the Morning. In the middle of it, the hosts began talking about “the sex tape”. This has often been called a sex tape. It isn’t. R. Kelly didn’t have a “sex tape” that came out in 2002. That tape, if the child is 14, as has been alleged, is a recording of a statutory rape. The concept of consent doesn’t exist when a minor is involved. Anyway, they had a phone in and every caller described their response in the same way: they were all DISGUSTED. So disgusted, in fact, that they had called into a radio show to express themselves. One was so disgusted that she had to be cut off because she couldn’t control her profanity in describing her feelings.
“The question must be asked: how could an abused teenager that had been groomed by an older man (and that is what Aaliyah was) be reduced to a man’s “personal turmoil?”
Let’s look at this brief timeline:
1994: R. Kelly, 27 at the time, marries Aaliyah Haughton, who was 15. Demetrius Smith, R Kelly’s former tour manager and personal assistant, admitted in the documentary to forging documents, changing Aaliyah’s age to 18 in them.
1995: Michael Eric Dyson, writing for VIBE, says of Kelly’s second album “Kelly reshapes his personal turmoil to artistic benefit”.
2002: A video surfaces allegedly showing Kelly engaging in sex acts with a minor.
Also 2002: Jay Z releases the album “Best of Both Worlds” with R. Kelly, a month after that video surfaced.
In the first instance, the question must be asked: how could an abused teenager that had been groomed by an older man (and that is what Aaliyah was) be reduced to a man’s “personal turmoil?” In the second, consider the message that is sent when Jay Z, arguably the most influential musician on the planet at the time, promotes his album alongside Kelly weeks after that video surfaces. In this timeline, Kelly produces a hit record and the issue of his transgressions fades away.
More than that, he is celebrated for turning those transgressions into art and is not only forgiven but celebrated. In a very real sense, the transgressions fuel the art, which is then praised, and the conclusion is the abuse is a foundational part of the art.
I say this because it is important to counter those, like Ebro, that have said that the art has to be separated from the artist. In Kelly’s case, doing so makes the listener complicit in his alleged crimes. How many of the people that were DISGUSTED have two-stepped in the name of love? Or laughed when Chappelle famously used Feeling on your Booty in his “Piss on You” sketch? Kelly’s music has consistently displayed a lasciviousness and a preoccupation with the young, but because the melodies and the harmonies were good, the public gave him a pass. I guess because they were able to separate the art from the abuse.
Aaliyah’s first album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, solely written and produced by R. Kelly, recording started when Aaliyah was 14. R. Kelly is pictured in the background.
Maya Angelou famously said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” With that in mind, these lyrics from Kelly’s first solo album, 12 Play are telling:
Bump ‘n’ Grind
“My mind’s tellin’ me no, but my body, my body’s tellin’ me yes”.
Your Body’s Calling
“These hands have been longing to touch you baby
And now that you’ve come around, to seein’ it my way, You won’t regret it baby”.
Seems Like You’re Ready
“Look in the mirror
Now come here a little bit closer
Don’t be scared, I’m not gonna hurt you
I wanna do all of that things you want me to do to you
And baby, I wanna make you feel really good while I’m doin’ it”
Kelly calls himself the Pied Piper of RnB, wrote and produced a song called Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, and when asked in 2008, in the middle of his trial for making child pornography, if he liked teenage girls, he responded with “When we say teenage, how old are we talking?” Last year, I wrote that “Having a hit track shouldn’t exempt you from scrutiny when your behaviour is suspicious.” It shouldn’t, but it does.
“It is easy to phone into a radio show, write on Twitter or post on Facebook and be disgusted. It’s cathartic too. You know what’s difficult? Talking to and confronting family and friends that harbour the views that are publicly denounced”
I see parallels in the response to Kelly and Donald Trump. There were huge protests and rallies after Trump won the presidency, with hundreds of thousands of women marching against Trump. I thought it odd, especially since Trump won 53% of white women’s votes. Similarly, Kelly’s streaming numbers have gone up since the docuseries aired. It is easy to phone into a radio show, write on Twitter or post on Facebook and be disgusted. It’s cathartic too. You know what’s difficult? Talking to and confronting family and friends that harbour the views that are publicly denounced.
The editor, when I pitched this story, said:
“I want to know how we’re still trying to get him outta here after 25+ years when it was in plain sight in his marriage to Aaliyah and those lyrics – age ain’t nothin but a number?”
The answer is depressingly simple – because we’re not trying to get him outta here. Our disgust will last as long as it takes him to produce a hit record or tour. At that point, the Pied Piper will play his tune and take our kids with him. It was ever thus.