Understanding the R. Kelly phenomenon — and then ending it

Via Village Voice

Via Village Voice

Much has been written about R. Kelly in recent weeks. The release have of his latest album coupled with this Village Voice interview with Jim DeRogatis, the reporter who broke the story on the singer’s alleged child pornography, has people talking again, and for good reason. R. Kelly is a known predator being provided ample chances at redemption without so much as a nod to remorse, let alone any legal accountability for the lives he has damaged. In response, Zerlina wrote about how no one should be listening to his music, Jamilah Lemieux asks whether or not you yourself were wrong about R. Kelly, Michael Arceneaux tells us it’s never too late to start hating him, and Rembert Browne offers up his tale of reluctance to let go as a fan of the music that’s ultimately defeated by the depravity of R. Kelly’s actions. They are all careful considerations of how and why the listening public has allowed this man’s career to continue unabated. 

There’s complicity from the fans, complicity from the industry, complicity from fellow artists, complicity from the courts, complicity from everywhere. We’re getting closer to understanding why. There is, of course, the fact that Kelly’s victims were black girls, and in this society black girls don’t matter. But there’s something else.

Amid all the stomach-churning, this quote from DeRogatis stood out:

Here’s the most sinister. This deeply troubles me: There’s a very — I don’t know what the percentage is — some percentage of fans are liking Kelly’s music because they know. And that’s really troublesome to me. There is some sort of — and this is tied up to complicated questions of racism and sexism — there is some sort of vicarious thrill to seeing this guy play this character in these songs and knowing that it’s not just a character.

R. Kelly’s narrative confirms all of our (wildly inaccurate) suspicions about black sexuality. It’s not hard to think that part of the reason for his newfound popularity among the young white hipster set is his performance of the black macho and the rather perverse interest in black men’s perceived sexual prowess. His real life sexual deviance only lends his music that much more sought after credibility. And he plays it up, trading in the sexually explicit side of his musical output instead of the more traditional R&B  for which he’s also known. Kelly winks and nods (or thrusts and humps) and the audience eats up because, hey, that’s how they are.

But R. Kelly is an actual predator. It’s well documented. He has actual victims. That’s the other side. He confirms not just the suspicions around black male sexuality, but that of black women’s sexuality. Kelly’s victims are young girls. Had they been young white girls, the collective “we” would have been much more outraged, because their “virtue” is to be protected. Not only do we not care about black girls, we believe their sexuality is something over which they exercise no control. They are jezebels and vixens from an early age. Their sexual appetites are insatiable, and their desire to use their sexuality to “destroy” men is not repressed. They crave the attention. They aren’t human beings with healthy sexual urges or agency. They are hottentots incarnate.

R. Kelly beat the charges against him and went on to produce more music, win more awards, make more money, and establish himself as a pop cultural icon. In his path are the lives of young black girls, now women, that he abused. He had sex with girls who could not consent. By definition, that is rape. But, in the sickest way possible, that has helped him.

I can’t pretend any grand morally righteous position about never supporting R. Kelly. I’ve never purchased his music (with the exception of his collaboration with Jay Z), but I’ve performed his music at karaoke, all the while knowing what I was doing felt wrong. It was wrong. It’s wrong to turn a blind eye to what R. Kelly did because his music knocks in the club. It’s wrong to buy his music knowing his past, and even more wrong to buy his music precisely because of that past. It’s wrong to show black girls how little they mean to us.

It’s wrong. It must end.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute. He’ll never perform an R. Kelly song at karaoke again. 

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3 Comments

  1. Posted December 19, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    I have a question. Would it be acceptable to listen to his music if you could do so without him profiting from it? The only songs of his I liked was I believe I can Fly and The World’s Greatest. If I already own a copy and he can’t profit further, is it OK to continue listening to them?

  2. Posted December 20, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Sad to read that you feel this way. All people matter to me. I, for one, care very much about young black girls. This is rotten and cannot go unchanged forever. I look forward to the day when we collectively reject such things.

  3. Posted December 20, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Extremely well said.

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