How Should We Talk About Artists Like R. Kelly?


Jessica Hopper’s excellent interview with Jim DeRogatis, the journalist who originally brought to light the sexual assault allegations against R. Kelly in the early 2000s, has pretty much blown up the Internet this week — she tweeted earlier today that the piece has hit a million page views in a little over 25 hours — and thrown the light firmly back onto the realities of Kelly’s ongoing fascination with underage girls. It’s also started a debate over how anyone could support the work of a person accused of such things.

The thing is, though, that these accusations have always been a matter of public record. Hopper’s piece didn’t contain any revelations per se (which isn’t a criticism, because it never claimed to). It just put the focus back on what the world in general has preferred to forget. It seems that this needs to be done periodically (cf. Kate Harding’s feature revisiting the facts of the Roman Polanski case for Salon in 2009), because otherwise people are all too eager to put aside unwholesome facts about artists they admire.

Because, let’s not forget, before Hopper and DeRogatis exhumed the facts, Kelly was largely forgiven. Or, at least, the whole thing was conveniently forgotten. In an excellent essay published on Brooklyn Magazine‘s website this morning, Kristin Iversen compares Kelly and Terry Richardson, suggesting that “it does not take a very big logical leap to wonder why R. Kelly is a monster, but Richardson is a celebrity darling.” This is true, but it also doesn’t take a very big logical leap to wonder why Kelly was a critical darling right up until two days ago, when DeRogatis has been speaking about these cases for years.

Part of the reason, I suspect, lies in the fact that the files the Village Voice published yesterday never got circulated widely — certainly not as widely as they would have been if the suits were filed today. Noisey’s Drew Millard alluded to this in an essay a couple of weeks ago, prior to the Hopper piece, in which he argued that “what separates Kelly from deviants past is that he exists in the age of the internet, where news breaks fast and hard, and a surplus of information is at our fingertips at all times.” This is true, but it wasn’t that way in 2002. Hopper suggests the same thing: “A lot of [DeRogatis’] reporting on this is not online, it is not Google-able.” With that in mind, I suspect that the reaction to the Kelly allegations would be very different now from what it was in 2002.

Having said that, I do remember there being a pretty sizable stink at the time, so it’s not like the allegations sank without trace. However, once the court case was over and done with, everyone was very happy to forget that the whole thing never happened. Why? Part of the reason for this, certainly, lies in the fact that Kelly’s victims were young black women. As DeRogatis observes glumly in his interview with Hopper, “The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.” (He also makes the point that a new generation of journalists are unsure of their legal standing when mentioning accusations not proven in court, which is also true.)

But part of it is also that people just didn’t want to believe bad things about an artist whose work they enjoyed. R. Kelly is hugely popular across a wide and diverse fan base, from hipsters who love the kitsch appeal of Trapped in the Closet to people who find his R&B grooves genuinely sexy. None of these people want to know that they’re listening to a man who pisses in the mouths of underage girls. As Hopper said on Twitter, “MANY black feminists and writers [have] been putting Kelly on our plates for years, [and] DeRogatis as well. [People] don’t wanna hear.”

She’s right. They don’t. And if they do, we usually end up returning to the art vs. artist debate, which raises its head every time a case like this emerges. There are certainly plenty of artists who’ve been shitty people over the years, and the argument raised in their defense is generally that one should be able to enjoy and appreciate the art even if the person who made it is awful. Clearly, there are limits — I can’t imagine anyone’s going to be listening to their Lostprophets records any time soon — but in most cases, people are happy to make the distinction (particularly in the case of Great Artists), because it makes things easy. Even DeRogatis alludes to this: “I can still listen to Led Zeppelin and take joy in Led Zeppelin or James Brown,” he told Hopper. “I condemn the things they did. I’m not reminded constantly in the art, because the art is not about it.”

This argument starts to break down when the lines between art and artist are blurred, though — you can cite Woody Allen, Jerry Lee Lewis, and various others. And in the case of R. Kelly, it seems the art is about literally nothing else. Millard suggests, “A love of R. Kelly’s music comes with it a tacit admission that one is fine listening to music made by a guy who’s probably a pedophile. Some people can separate the art from the artist, others can’t. That’s just the way it is.” But not only are you listening to music made by a guy who’s probably a pedophile, you’re listening to him sing — in pretty explicit terms — about sex.

Personally, I really don’t see how you can say things like, “Oh, R. Kelly is so sexy, and his songs about sex are so good” when you’re talking about a man who has been accused of raping two dozen minors. That isn’t to say that if you enjoy R. Kelly’s work you’re endorsing his personal life — that’s a pretty asinine argument — but it’s important to be clear about exactly what you’re listening to and who’s singing it. (Dustin Rowles made essentially this argument in a piece for Pajiba earlier today.)

More generally, though, I think we need to move toward a more nuanced and realistic approach to thinking about art and artists. The fundamental problem lies in the fact that the way we relate to the world — and especially to the idea of fandom — is so polarized, so black and white. People have to be either monsters or darlings. There’s no room for shades of gray — especially not in these days of Internet shit-slinging, where everything is grist for the outrage mill. (And, yes, I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone else.)

The Internet is not a place for shades of gray. It’s a place where people are either stans or haters, where artists are either all good or all bad. But this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to the Internet — it’s reflective of society at large, and the way we tend to be all-or-nothing about our likes and dislikes. (Look at the way sports fans will boo a player they hate when he plays for a rival team, then cheer him wildly when he gets traded to their team a year later.) If you approach the world like this, it’s impossible to acknowledge the failings of an artist you like. It’s why Terry Richardson still gets work — because it’s easier to ignore accusations about him than to acknowledge that you’re probably hiring a deeply fucked up person for your cover shoot.

A healthier approach, ultimately, is to acknowledge that this stuff is complicated. It’s convenient and reassuring to put a schism between the art and the artist, and to try to view one in isolation from the other, but it’s not an especially realistic point of view. No one is a saint. John Lennon beat his wife and neglected his son. Norman Mailer tried to kill his wife, and William Burroughs actually did. And so on.

In acknowledging this, and understanding that ultimately, art and artist are two sides of a coin, you can decide exactly how you want to consider the work of the artist. You may still enjoy the work of R. Kelly. If so, that’s entirely your decision. But be honest about it. The facts of the accusations against Kelly are not things that should be forgotten again.