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When a Culture’s Fed Up

Despite a new wave of #MeToo accounts about R. Kelly, the music industry’s powers that be continue to support the controversial singer. After a decade of protests, can anything bring him down?

A dark portrait of R. Kelly Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This year the #MeToo movement might dismantle R. Kelly’s music career once and for all.

The Atlanta-based activists Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Barnes cofounded the #MuteRKelly campaign in July. Their campaign, which the Hollywood-based Time’s Up movement has endorsed, intends to protest Kelly’s musical tour stops, shut down his performances, and get his music banned from broadcast. Their approach suggests that they may succeed where other critics and activists have failed. For nearly 20 years, the music industry has rebuffed the legal and critical challenges to Kelly’s stardom. But now the activists, targeting Kelly’s business partners, may break through.

Odeleye and Barnes’s campaign is a concerted effort to disrupt Kelly’s profitability, regardless of his popularity. “We join the call to #MuteRKelly and insist on the safety + dignity of all women. We demand investigations into R. Kelly’s abuse allegations made by women of color + their families for two decades,” Ava DuVernay tweeted in April. “We call on those who profit from his music to cut ties.” Where previous conversations about R. Kelly have focused on fan loyalty to the singer, the #MuteRKelly campaign shifted the onus to the far more powerful arbiters of Kelly’s fate—the music industry.

Kelly has aged into a maddeningly secure position in the industry, protected by the very record label that launched his career. At age 24, R. Kelly signed his first recording contract with the now-defunct Jive Records, once a subsidiary of Kelly’s current label, RCA Records, which is itself owned by Sony Music. For a quarter-century now, Kelly has holed up at Sony Music, which has become the singer’s refuge. While R. Kelly has occasionally addressed reports of sexual abuse, including toward underage women, the singer’s labels have routinely answered press queries with terse nonstatements and referrals to Kelly’s team. In the past year, activists have launched several petitions for RCA Records, Sony Music, and the concert production company Live Nation to terminate their dealings with Kelly. In August—following BuzzFeed’s publication of Jim DeRogatis’s harrowing report about Kelly’s traveling, abusive sex cult—the #MuteRKelly campaign, with support from county officials, attempted to shutter an R. Kelly concert in Atlanta. In this case, Kelly’s tour management company, Live Nation, shirked the concerns about Kelly’s alleged sex trafficking in Atlanta. “The show is proceeding. No comment beyond that,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed. Thus, the music industry has sidelined itself from the debate over Kelly for nearly 20 years. And the justice system has already largely failed the survivors. So the ethical considerations have been left to R. Kelly’s fans, his detractors, and the man himself.

For more than a decade now, journalists and activists have struggled to dislodge Kelly from the music industry—even as Kelly has, in fact, lost his commercial luster, not to mention his musical aptitude. In that time, Kelly’s record sales have plummeted. So, too, has his standing on the Hot 100; R. Kelly hasn’t had a solo hit since “Same Girl,” a duet with Usher, released 11 years ago. Nor is Kelly’s music exceptionally popular on the major streaming music services, where most of his catalog is available. He tours frequently, globally, about every other year, and while he’s seemingly bankable as a traveling musician with a deep catalog of hits, R. Kelly isn’t selling out most arenas. He’s a flagging legacy act whose last studio album, The Buffet, released in December 2015, sold 39,000 copies in its first week, debuting at no. 16 on Billboard’s albums chart—a commercial nadir in Kelly’s otherwise multiplatinum career. Since The Buffet, Kelly has released only a 2016 Christmas album, with no new solo projects on the horizon. Kelly’s most recent collaborations with Chris Brown and Tyrese have come and gone.

There isn’t some prohibitively overwhelming demand for R. Kelly music; the consumers aren’t the problem. Indeed, they’ve mostly moved on from the 51-year-old singer, whose most popular songs predate his 2003 arrest, which culminated with his 2008 acquittal, on child pornography charges. More than a decade beyond his commercial peak, Kelly’s most loyal collaborators are the record labels, music publishers, streaming companies, broadcasters and DJs, tour management, producers, and other studio collaborators—including Chance the Rapper, Lady Gaga, and his problematic RCA labelmate Brown—who perpetuate R. Kelly’s livelihood to this day. The vast infrastructure that produces R. Kelly is the very infrastructure that preserves him in light of all his dark deeds. The unwitting consumer is very much so beside the point. But empowered consumers, such as Odeleye and Barnes, are now forcing Kelly’s allies to account for the singer’s predatory history, which his tours and his budgets have enabled.

The entertainment industry’s systemization of sexual abuse and other misogynistic violence does not begin with R. Kelly, nor does it end with him, his label, his genre, or his generation. The music industry is no less fraught than Hollywood. In pop music, Kesha has waged a four-year emancipation campaign against her record label, Sony Music, and her former producer, Dr. Luke, whom the singer says sexually assaulted, harassed, and coerced her. In hip-hop, consumers and critics have spent the past year reckoning with a breakout star—the 20-year-old rapper XXXTentacion—whose former girlfriend has described being beat, strangled, and imprisoned by him while pregnant. For wary consumers, XXXTentacion is an especially treacherous artist; so much of his music, including his major-label debut album, ?, grapples with his history of violence. Repeatedly, music critics have struggled to review XXXTentacion, and to account for him, with moral clarity. He’s a best-selling rapper who makes groundbreaking music, so we must consider what his music means, what his stardom portends, and what we might want to do about him. These are troublesome questions, and even the most sensible answers are largely unwelcome. The music industry has simply declined to answer them.

In October, the Capitol Records subsidiary Caroline signed XXXTentacion—real name Jahseh Onfroy—to a first-time recording contract, reportedly worth $6 million. Reportedly, Capitol president Steve Barnett considered the relevant ethical concerns—raised by consumers, critics, and his own company’s staffers—only to flatly dismiss them, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Onfroy’s arrival at CMG incensed numerous staffers, according to four sources with knowledge of the signing,” the Times reported in January. “Barnett told executives that Onfroy’s surging popularity would help the company have a bigger market share in hip-hop and acknowledged the controversy around the artist, encouraging those with concerns to voice them.” Barnett and his staff declined to provide additional comment to the Times. Once again, the record label opts for radio silence. The strategy for defending R. Kelly and XXXTentacion against scrutiny reveals itself to be the music industry’s strategy for defending itself, its assets, and its profits. In Barnett’s consideration, consumers exist only as an uncomplicated measure of potential demand.

R. Kelly is only the most grotesque example of an industrywide dereliction that’s become routine. For more than two decades, R. Kelly has—by survivors’ accounts—seduced countless teen girls, including the late singer Aaliyah, whom he briefly wed when she was 15. Since the Chicago Sun-Times broke the earliest reports of Kelly’s predatory misconduct in 2000, the media has made a scornful spectacle of the singer’s apparent perversion, and fans have indeed turned on him. The only silent, complacent faction is the music industry, which has the only remaining stake in Kelly’s music career, and the only remaining power over the singer. To be sure, the R. Kelly fan does bear some responsibility for considering Kelly’s misconduct. Ideally, the consumer examines all art, and all artists, with some scrutiny toward a performer’s personal commitments, especially if those commitments are inhumane. But there’s a middle ground between punitive revisionism, which would have us scrub R. Kelly from public memory, as if he weren’t one of the most captivating and influential musical acts of his generation, and cheerful indifference, which would have us ignore or rationalize Kelly’s misconduct, if only so fans might continue to enjoy his catalog. It’s entirely possible for consumers and critics to strike a balance for themselves.

For the music industry, however, the concerns are far less complicated, outside of determining liability for dropping Kelly from his recording contract. After all, the music industry’s prevailing concerns are neither artful nor critical; the major record labels are in the business of selling stars. The music industry chooses to sell R. Kelly despite survivors’ accounts of his misconduct, and despite his own fan base’s loud and persistent objections. The record labels have long avoided the interrogation that disgusted fans once largely reserved for one another. And now that Kelly’s publicist and lawyer have both fled, RCA Records may indeed be the only party left to account for its talent’s behavior.