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R. Kelly and the Questions We Must Ask Ourselves

The R&B singer-songwriter was first accused of sexual misconduct more than two decades ago. Why did he have to become musically irrelevant for public opinion to swing so definitively?

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Over the weekend, after being arrested on 10 new counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, the R&B star R. Kelly spent two nights in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. His bail was set at $100,000, but his lawyer told the judge that Kelly “doesn’t have a hundred thousand dollars sitting in the bank, in a shoebox, anywhere.” It was a stark claim about a man who has sold an estimated 100 million albums worldwide, and whose net worth was once valued somewhere in the realm of $150 million. But as Kelly put it himself last year in a rambling 19-minute song, “I’m a broke-ass legend, the only reason I stay on tour is ’cause I gotta pay my rent.”

On Monday morning, a woman named Valencia Love posted Kelly’s bail. She has not said whether or not the money was hers, but she did say that Kelly is “not broke”—contrary to his lawyer’s description, or the lyrics to that recent song. Love describes herself as a friend of the embattled artist. “He’s not a monster … he’s only been a gentleman to me,” she told a journalist. “Let him have his chance in court to prove if he’s innocent or guilty. As a friend, if he says he’s innocent, I can only believe that he is innocent.” Given that three of the four women mentioned in these charges were underage when Kelly is said to have abused them, it was chilling to learn that the woman who posted his bail derived income from the ownership of, among other businesses, a child day-care center.

The charges stem from incidents said to have occurred between 1998 and 2010, but they’re likely catching up to Kelly now as a result of a few recent factors. The most prominent, of course, is Surviving R. Kelly, the harrowing six-part documentary series that aired on Lifetime last month. Little of the information was new—from his 1994 marriage to a then-15-year-old Aaliyah to his high-profile trial and eventual acquittal on 21 counts of child pornography—but in the wake of the #MeToo movement there was a fresh power to seeing so many of the women who have said that Kelly abused them tell their stories at length. It does not help Kelly’s case, either, that mainstream attitudes about sexual abuse have been evolving rapidly over the past few years, with many people finally understanding the psychological toll such experiences take on survivors. But Kelly’s trouble posting bail points to another less triumphant reason it has suddenly become easier to hold him accountable: It’s no longer profitable to keep quiet about him.

The sales of Kelly’s past several albums pale in comparison to his blockbuster years (consider that his 1993 album, 12 Play, went six-times platinum, or that his 2007 no. 1 album, Double Up, moved 386,000 units in its first week). Even in an age when most artists are selling fewer records than they did before the advent of streaming, Kelly’s commercial drop-off is dramatic. His 2013 album, Black Panties, debuted at no. 4 and failed to go gold. His 2015 release, The Buffet, debuted at no. 16 and eventually became the lowest-charting album of his career—a title it did not hold long, as it was usurped by his next and most recent release, 2016’s 12 Nights of Christmas, which debuted on the Billboard 200 at no. 177.

Kelly’s stature as an active hit-maker has diminished significantly since he was charged in 2002, or even since 2008, when he was finally tried. Because of various delays, it took six years for the child pornography case to go to trial—a period during which Kelly released hits like “Ignition (Remix),” “Step in the Name of Love,” “I’m a Flirt,” and the first 22 chapters of “Trapped in the Closet.” The sex tape featuring what prosecutors said was Kelly engaged in lewd acts with a 14-year-old girl was widely passed around in those days, and infamous enough to be parodied on Chappelle’s Show. But within the industry it was a lucrative time to ignore it. A May 2018 Washington Post report provided a snapshot of a typical 2002 exchange between an Epic Records executive and one of Kelly’s assistants, who were working with Kelly and a new boy band he was mentoring, B2K. Around the time Kelly had written and produced their debut single, “Bump Bump Bump,” this executive mentioned to Kelly’s assistant that he hadn’t watched the tape. The assistant was glad: “Because, Dave, if I watch the tape and that’s him, I’m gone and you’re not getting those records.” Neither of them watched it. “Bump Bump Bump” went to no. 1.

It took a steady cash flow to maintain the system that protected R. Kelly: Numerous out-of-court settlements paid to women giving accounts of misconduct, lawyer’s fees, and, of course, the sort of lavish lifestyle he flaunted to attract new young women into his life. In the past few months, though, much of that revenue has dried up. In January, Kelly was dropped by his record label. Venues have been canceling his concerts everywhere from Chicago to Germany. GoFundMe has even shut down fan campaigns to raise money for Kelly’s legal defense, because raising money “for the legal defense of a violent crime” violates the platform’s terms of service. (It’s true that a few old Kelly hits saw temporary upticks in their streaming numbers the week after the documentary aired, but 3 million streams of “Ignition” and 2,000 digital copies of “I Believe I Can Fly” aren’t exactly going to breathe new life into his career.) There is a certain satisfaction in seeing justice finally catch up with Kelly. But there’s something tragic about how long it took, and what circumstances led to this reckoning. Kelly’s recent reversal of fortune is a reminder of the kind of protection offered by success, money, and public adoration.

Some people in Kelly’s orbit were more complicit than others, and there is speculation that some of the more active enablers in his inner circle could eventually face charges too. But what of the smaller acts of complicity? What about those of us who kept listening, singing along, laughing at the jokes? This mass reckoning with R. Kelly’s behavior should have happened much sooner. And to prevent something like it from happening again, we all have to ask ourselves some hard questions.

When the accounts of sexual misconduct around Louis C.K. first emerged, I felt something akin to relief: Despite the dozens of times it had been recommended to me, I’d never gotten around to watching Louie. I had no strong feelings about him, and I certainly didn’t have any personal evidence that he was a comic genius. And so—after an emotionally draining season of deciding who or what had been “canceled,” what to do with “problematic favs,” and where we were all drawing our hyperpersonal lines in the sand—here, finally, was a bout of mental gymnastics I could take in from the sideline.

I say this not to pull the “I never liked him anyway” card—a refrain I heard a lot in the wake of the recent allegations against the musician Ryan Adams. (“[A] very gentle reminder,” tweeted the music critic Evan Rytlewski after the Adams exposé, “that ‘I never liked his music anyway’ is an unhelpful response to stories like this. It turns the conversation away from the abuse and toward the art, reinforcing the notion that artistic merit is somehow relevant here. It isn’t.”) But it was not until sitting out the debates about C.K. that I realized how intensely personal and emotionally draining these conversations are. It’s taxing work, drawing those lines in the sand.

Earlier this week, I participated in a discussion with the CBC journalist Jayme Poisson about Kelly, Adams, and music’s seemingly slow response to the #MeToo movement. “For me, watching [Surviving R. Kelly],” Poisson said, “if I felt one overarching thing it was shame. I’m ashamed that I spent a good chunk of my teenaged years listening to his music.” I felt similarly. Since watching the documentary series I’ve been haunted by my own small acts of complicity: Requesting “Ignition (Remix)” at college parties, laughing at the calculated outrageousness of “Trapped in the Closet.” Of course, I was not alone in these behaviors—there was a much larger cultural system encouraging me and my friends to not think too critically about any of this, to treat it all as frivolity, to shut up and dance. But this long-delayed reckoning about what sorts of art we can no longer consume? That is work that can be done individually, and also together.

“Who is this ‘we’ that’s always turning up in critical writing anyway?” Claire Dederer asked in her excellent post-#MeToo essay “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?”We is an escape hatch. We is cheap. We is a way of simultaneously sloughing off personal responsibility and taking the mantle of easy authority.” She adds, “We is corrupt. We is make-believe. The real question is this: can I love the art but hate the artist? Can you? When I say we, I mean I. I mean you.”

And in that spirit I will say that I cannot listen to Kelly’s music anymore, and I am asking myself the uncomfortable questions about why it took so long for me to get there in the first place. Could I have drawn that line in the sand when he was still releasing songs like “Ignition (Remix),” or before our mass cultural grappling with sexual abuse? Would things really have been different, as so many women of color have suggested, had Kelly’s survivors not been exclusively black girls? These are uncomfortable things to think about—and it’s certainly more work than listening to a pop song. But this cultural moment is challenging us to do some self-reflection. It’s the only way we—I mean I. I mean you.—can do better in the future and prevent history from repeating.

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