Sometimes great art is made by despicable people. Does that matter? Should it?
These questions inevitably confront anyone who thinks seriously about popular music — so, needless to say, they’ve occurred to every voter contributing to this poll. On December 6, R. Kelly dropped one of the most anticipated releases of 2013, his 12th studio album, Black Panties, which arrived after months of hype that found him duetting with Lady Gaga, headlining the Pitchfork and Bonnaroo music festivals, and popping up beside Phoenix at Coachella. It was his year as much as anyone else’s.
So why is he nowhere to be found in this year’s Pazz & Jop poll results? Is this the year people stopped ignoring R. Kelly’s many crimes? Why, after my 15 years of reporting on those many crimes, have people started to take notice?
The short answer may be the interview the Village Voice ran in December, a conversation I had with fellow Chicago journalist Jessica Hopper that in its first 24 hours online racked up 1 million views. As of this writing, it’s approaching 4 million hits. It is, essentially, all the reporting I’ve done over the years in one place, a one-stop shop for the truth about R. Kelly in the age of social media. Could it be why?
I don’t have definitive answers. All I have are further questions that I think are even more pressing. But first, the background.
During my tenure as pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, I covered Kelly’s rise from busking on subway platforms and singing at backyard barbecues to becoming one of the dominant voices in r&b, selling more than 54 million albums in a three-decade career. It was a great story — pure “I Believe I Can Fly” — but there was a dark side. “Chicago singer and songwriter R. Kelly used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them, according to court records and interviews,” I first wrote in December 2000.
Many more stories followed, none more dramatic or troubling than the report published in February 2002 revealing the existence of a 26-minute, 39-second videotape anonymously dropped in my home mailbox. Shot in the basement “playroom” of a house that Kelly owned in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, the video depicts a man resembling Kelly and a girl the Sun-Times identified (but never named) as having been 14 or 15 at the time. She is ordered to call the man “daddy”; she follows his directions to strike various poses and to open wide as he urinates in her mouth, and she’s ordered to assume different positions as the two have sex. Four months later, the video resulted in the singer being indicted by the state of Illinois on 21 counts of making child pornography.
Kelly was acquitted of those charges in June 2008, but as any criminal attorney will tell you, “not guilty” doesn’t mean “innocent.” In recent weeks I’ve heard from many people who remain haunted by the verdict. “I devoted a lot of time to make sure this pedophile was convicted of this horrible crime,” one investigator wrote. “Justice did not prevail.” Added a woman who worked at Kelly’s label, Jive Records: “At the time it seemed disgusting, but it was the music business, an industry built on the foundation of white male sexual fantasy, so a lot of bad behavior was not only condoned, but enabled and encouraged. And of course I was complicit to some degree because I never spoke out against it.”
Thus does rape culture proliferate.
Kelly’s trial focused on narrow charges relating only to the video; he never was charged with statutory rape, despite dozens of civil lawsuits and out-of-court settlements with underage girls who claim they had sexual relationships with him that left them physically and emotionally damaged. I will never forget sitting with a girl who showed me the scars where she slit her wrists when her relationship with Kelly ended, or comforting a member of Aaliyah’s family who cried inconsolably on my shoulder. (Kelly married the ingénue when she was 15 after falsifying her age on a Cook County marriage certificate, shortly after writing and producing the debut album he titled Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.)
Absent those experiences, I’ve never expected other journalists and critics to feel as strongly about this story as I do. But neither did I expect the cultural amnesia that for years allowed many to ignore any reference to Kelly’s crimes, despite the mountains of evidence in the public record, or to dismiss them with a fleeting nod to past “controversy” or “rumors.” Lazy or squeamish writers have done a huge disservice to a generation of poptimists who were watching Space Jam in their playpens when the trial took place. The Voice interview made some aware of Kelly’s crimes for the first time, and many responded with revulsion in blog posts, tweets, and online comments, often citing the timeline tracing the long and twisted story that I posted on my blog in July.
That timeline was part of a series for Chicago Public Radio that ran the week before Kelly’s celebratory closing set at Pitchfork, and here’s where the bigger, lingering questions arise for our clubby world of music criticism. The owners of Pitchfork, the website and the festival, cannot claim ignorance: Like many of Kelly’s boosters in the music industry, they were well aware of his crimes. Yet they gave him the ultimate slot on a stage within walking distance of the homes of many of his victims, whom they, like other Kelly fans, never once considered.
Kelly isn’t the first superstar to hurt young women — that disgusting lineup starts long before Jerry Lee Lewis and continues well after Chris Brown — and Pitchfork isn’t the first corporation in the entertainment business to abet such behavior. By no means would any Pazz & Jop voter think that we as appreciators of popular culture must act as morality cops policing this sick morass. But few among us would accept that music is mere entertainment, that it doesn’t mean anything in the “real world,” and that our endorsements or condemnations are therefore meaningless as well.
Weighing all of this is a heavy burden that applies to perhaps one-tenth of 1 percent of the art we consume and critique. Even then, that fraction has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and, in the end, there may not be any absolutely right or wrong answers. Voice veteran R.J. Smith doesn’t neglect the harrowing tales of domestic abuse in The One, his brilliant biography of James Brown. Some of us might be disgusted by and condemn those acts but still love Brown’s music; others may never be able to listen to it again. Are we obliged to consider an artist’s crimes while consuming his art? We can debate that, just as, say, classical music critics long have wrestled with whether Wagner’s anti-Semitism must be noted in any review of the Ring Cycle. And we will all have our own answers.
For me, Kelly is a singular case, because of the volumes of evidence I’ve seen, and because that cannot help but inform the way I hear what Jezebel infamously (sarcastically or not) called his “magnificent ode to pussy.” But if he’s forever talking about sex in his art, in addition to telling “haters” to shut up and asking his Heavenly Father to forgive his unnamed sins, I think that obliges us to talk about what we hear him saying, just as we need to talk about what Michael Jackson said in the more unsettling moments on HIStory and Invincible, as much as we’d prefer to bask in the brilliance of Off the Wall and Thriller.
Why? Because art matters. Because criticism and context matter. Because crimes against women and children matter. And because the conversation matters. It’s about time we had it.
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