Is it possible to separate Art from Artist?

I was a huge fan of R. Kelly’s music growing up and while my love for his music waned when I was asked to “Step in the Name of Love” and completely ended after he was “Trapped in the Closet” for the hundredth time, I knew every word of so many songs he had released prior to around 2005.  In the days before the internet was used as the main source for all things celebrity, I distinctly remember realising that I didn’t know much about his personal life, except reading an article sometime in the mid-nineties in one of the many entertainment magazines that I collected about his short-lived marriage to Aaliyah, another one of my absolute favourite artistes.  A few years later, I read somewhere that he was not only married but had children, facts that actually surprised me, an example of how carefully crafted his image was.

I remember being stunned to see a copy of the Aaliyah marriage certificate and still wondering if it was true because I knew that while she was two years older than I was at the time (I was thirteen, she was fifteen), he was almost thirty and I couldn’t understand how it was allowed to happen.  A few months later, the news broke that the marriage was annulled, I put it at the back of my mind and went on to sing his songs and love his music.  So many of us did.  I did question a few things about his career in the years to come but more on that later.   “I Believe I Can Fly” was the graduation song in 1998 when I finished fifth form.  One of my classmates even sang it at our graduation and I cannot tell you how many times my younger sister and I watched Space Jam and saw the corresponding music video on television.

All of this to say that it was only in 2017 that I began to see stories and documentaries pop up about his alleged horrific treatment of women over the years, including his wife and more recently, the eye-opening documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” on Lifetime just a week ago.  Needless to say I voraciously consumed as much content as I could on the subject for the past few days in an attempt to wrap my brain around the information that had been released since the Lifetime documentary.

I remember at some point in the early 2000s asking a friend if he thought that the moniker the “Pied Piper of R&B” was a bit strange and recalled the fairytale I read from my childhood which had always filled me with a sense of dread.  Was it intentional?  Did he think it was a sick joke?  Also, what was with the sudden friendship with gospel singer Kirk Franklin and the sudden interest in “inspirational” (read, non-sexual) music? Was he trying to “turn his life around?” Finally, did no one ever question why Aaliyah’s first album was entitled, “Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number”?

Fast-forward to early 2019 and stories coming from women who were in relationships with him, his daughter speaking out, people who toured with him revealing that they saw and were complicit in behaviours that quite frankly, they along with him should have been prosecuted for and his brother detailing unimaginable sexual abuse as children that both he and Robert are said to have suffered at the hands of their older sister.  We ask, how on earth were these acts allowed to take place?  Did no one care because it was the norm in Hollywood, because the girls were black and Latina or is there a larger story at play?

R. Kelly’s ability to evade the law in spite of the accounts of countless persons who were close enough to him to see what was happening, the Chicago media’s stories and for heaven’s sake, a sex tape which clearly showed him having sex with an underage girl is nothing short of amazing.  It shows that with the right amount of backing, financial or otherwise, a child who needed help who then turned into a monster could continue to do as he liked for so many years and leave a trail of bruised and broken women in his wake.

For those who maintain that “the girls were too fast” or that the media is “trying to bring another black man down” or for those who still see this is one big joke, there is too much evidence to deny that all is not well in the world of Robert Kelly.  His songs, particularly his early hits, cannot be listened to with the same ear anymore.  The opening lyrics in particular of “Bump n’ Grind”, the song “Seems Like You’re Ready” and Aaliyah’s song and album title (with R. Kelly himself in the blurry background) all sound like his diary entries.   Even the Michael Jackson sung, R. Kelly penned and co-produced (with Jackson) hit, “You Are Not Alone”, is alleged by one of the women who had a relationship with him to be about when she miscarried their baby while still in high school.

On being able to separate art from the artist, it is my opinion that R. Kelly seems to have seamlessly intertwined his music and his behaviour throughout his career.  That is why I say that one cannot be separated from the other in this instance.  By continuing to buy his music and going to his concerts, we are collectively feeding his ego and funding his lifestyle.  We are saying to other young male entertainers that they can go ahead and live similar lifestyles because this man who has built an empire and is constantly praised for being a musical genius, has done so with success and support from those around him.

There is much to unpack and analyse on this subject.  I’ve had passionate arguments with friends about the impact of the #MeToo movement and whether it has “gone too far” and what was exposed by “Surviving R. Kelly”, what is responsible parenting, who can be classified as a “gold digger”, what goes on in the mind of a teenager when it comes to sex and wanting material things and the cultural impacts of sexual assault convictions and allegations re. Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Harvey Weinstein, and Woody Allen.  I read closely the story about United States gymnastics coach Larry Nassar who will be imprisoned for the rest of his life as a result of the sexual abuse of hundreds of young female athletes for several years and felt as though his sentence was more than justified.

I believe that we need to educate ourselves and then those around us, particularly our children about positive and negative sexual behaviours in the context of sexual assault, rape, pedophilia and generally, the meaning of the word no.  Finally, we need to understand how our actions as “fans”, “superfans” and “stans” can be supportive of the destruction of lives very similar to our own.


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