Since Buzzfeed published Jim DeRogatis’s report on Monday that R. Kelly is allegedly keeping young women in a sex cult in his home and dictating “what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records,” the age-old issue of separating art from artist and continuing to engage with the work of someone you find to be morally reprehensible has resurfaced. But the biggest issue when it comes to the R&B singer’s decades-long history with underage girls or barely legal women isn’t whether it’s still okay for you to drunkenly karaoke “Ignition (Remix)”—it’s that the song, or any R. Kelly material released after allegations began surfacing in the mid-1990s for that matter, should have never existed in the first place.
It should have been over for him as soon as details of his illegal 1994 marriage to a then-15-year-old Aaliyah (whom Kelly met three years prior when he was 24 and she was just 12, and for whom he wrote and produced the sickeningly titled Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number) emerged. Not sufficient? His career should have been derailed in 1996 when Tiffany Hawkins sued him, alleging that he had had sex with her and other minors when she was 15, leading to her suicide attempt. Instead, that same year, “I Believe I Can Fly” found its way onto the Space Jam soundtrack and, a little over a year after Hawkins filed suit, earned Kelly three Grammys.
The fact that R. Kelly has gotten this far, that in the year 2017 he’s anything more than the answer to a trivia question, is shameful, and it’s time to step up and stop enabling him.
Given our societal reflex to protect children, why reward an alleged sexual predator for his Looney Tunes movie theme knowing he was accused of having sex with girls who were basically in that movie’s target audience? Why choose him as our national representative for a performance at the opening ceremony for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City? Why collaborate with him (particularly if you’re an outspoken advocate for survivors of sexual abuse like Lady Gaga, whose cringy single with Kelly includes lines like “do what you want to my body”)? Why book him to perform at Bonnaroo and Pitchfork in 2013—over a decade after he was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography?
Is it because Kelly’s victims are predominantly young, black women, and we value them less than, for example, the white women Bill Cosby is accused of preying on? Is it because it’s easy to find humor in outrageous projects like his 33-chapter opera Trapped in the Closet, or the time he sang his entire life story in 45 minutes for GQ? Hell, Aziz Ansari has not one but two entire bits devoted to R. Kelly, making him seem like some kind of eccentric goofball rather than a dangerous predator. Reviewing Kelly’s 2013 album Black Panties, Pitchfork raved: “His brilliance is in routinely bringing out into the open the things that—with good reason!—stay in the darkest corners of our minds.”
The most agonizing part of DeRogatis’s latest report (which Kelly has denied) is the fact that, legally, there is nothing that can be done because the women involved are now above the legal age of consent, and at least one of them, Jocelyn Savage, has spoken to TMZ and insisted she’s fine (though Jezebel recently published an interview with a member of Kelly’s entourage who describes the women living with him as being “completely manipulated and brainwashed” and said “it was like witnessing Stockholm Syndrome.”). There are clear patterns that emerge in the report: Many of the young women caught in Kelly’s web met him at one of his shows, and many were aspiring singers who were promised career advice or even collaboration. It seems clear that he has long used his star power as a means of luring in and exploiting these women, and that some of them never quite recover from the experience.
So why do we keep giving him that power, knowing this is what he does with it?
We saw earlier this year with PWR BTTM the swift ripple effect that can occur once someone in the industry decides to take a stand against an alleged abuser. If we can’t put R. Kelly on trial or send him to jail, we at least have the power to remove one of the biggest weapons in his arsenal and make him irrelevant. We need to make it clear that no label should sign him or distribute his music, no venue should book him, and no parent should do the mental gymnastics necessary to send a young daughter to his hotel room to “discuss her career.” Reading the testimony of one mother who spoke with DeRogatis, who last saw her daughter on Dec. 1, 2016, is heartbreaking.
Sadly, it’s almost always money, not morality, that talks in the music industry, which means it is on fans to strip Kelly of his power and influence. As long as people keep buying tickets to see him perform, he’ll keep getting gigs. As long as his albums keep selling, he’ll still have a recording contract. As long as younger superstars keep collaborating with him, he’ll keep luring younger fans. It’s the same reason mental illness and substance abuse often get overlooked and artists like Amy Winehouse get pushed beyond their breaking point—there are shows to be played, merch to be sold, money to be made, and as disgusting as it sounds, there will always be people who value that over the personal safety or wellbeing of others.
So it’s on us to stop lining the pockets of R. Kelly and those affiliated with him, who are willing to overlook the obvious risk to young lives, to stop letting catchy songs outweigh two decades of serious abuse allegations. The fact that he’s gotten this far, that in the year 2017 he’s anything more than the answer to a trivia question, is shameful, and it’s time to step up and stop enabling him. Better late than never.