Is it OK to listen to R. Kelly’s music—and enjoy it?
That’s the question we’ve been asking each other at FLARE since the latest R. Kelly story broke at BuzzFeed, a stunning 4,800+ word investigation by Jim DeRogatis. The veteran music journalist has spent nearly two decades of his career covering dozens of the allegations levied at the R&B star by women—some underage—along with more than a handful of out-of-court settlements to make them go away. So dogged in his pursuit of the truth, DeRogatis has been blasted by fans who claim he’s jealous of Kelly’s fame and trying to make a career off his name, but he has remained undeterred.
In his latest account, he shares the stories of two sets of distraught parents, and three people within Kelly’s inside circle, who claim their daughters and other young women have been “brainwashed” into living with and pleasing Kelly in something that sounds an awful lot like a cult.
If you’ve read the piece—and you should—there’s an older Q&A with DeRogatis himself in The Village Voice that you should read too. It’s from back in 2013, but it’s even more relevant today. In it, DeRogatis talks about how he came to be the one in possession of the two sex tapes, including the infamous pee tape, that were the subject of the lengthy trial for which Kelly was acquitted (despite agreement that he was the man in the tape performing those acts). What the jury couldn’t settle on was whether the woman in the tape was in fact underage.
It’s startling to hear DeRogatis talk about walking the line between covering personal and public personas of artists. “It’s just kind of disgusting to have to write about this and bum everyone out when you just want to review a record,” he says, speaking to the reasons why many music journalists don’t go deeper when covering Kelly.
That’s where DeRogatis strikes a chord. It may be a real bummer, but can a review really be a complete review if it separates Kelly and his music from known allegations?
And for those of us who aren’t music journalists: does listening to Kelly’s music mean we’re condoning his alleged behaviour?
DeRogatis gets more to the point in the Village Voice interview, asking: “What does it say for us to like his music?” It’s a conversation we rarely have, if ever. Because it’s easier to hum to a catchy tune than it is to ponder the person behind it.
And what if those lyrics insinuate some truly disgusting actions?
That’s where DeRogatis makes an important distinction between Kelly and other problematic artists. He says people always ask him about why he doesn’t raise the alarm about what Led Zeppelin or James Brown did behind closed doors, referring to the Zeppelin crew’s alleged group sex with a fish of some kind and numerous domestic abuse claims voiced by Brown’s daughter and others. DeRogatis offers two explanations.
One: he definitely would have covered the “disgusting things” Zeppelin’s crew did, if he had witnessed them. “If I was on the plane, like Cameron Crowe was, I would have written those things if I saw them.”
And two—although this isn’t a justification, either—DeRogatis says: “The art very rarely talks about these things. There are not pro-rape Led Zeppelin songs. There are not pro-wife-beating James Brown songs. I think in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, rock music, or pop culture people misbehaving and behaving badly sexually with young woman, rare is the amount of evidence compiled against anyone apart from R. Kelly. Dozens of girls—not one, not two, dozens—with harrowing lawsuits.” DeRogatis goes onto to describe the tapes—”numerous tapes” he says—and explains how young women’s lives were ruined. “We’re talking about predatory behaviour,” he says. “Read the lawsuits!”
For DeRogatis, there’s another more disturbing element to listening to Kelly’s music. “This deeply troubles me: There’s a very—I don’t know what the percentage is—some percentage of fans are liking Kelly’s music because they know. And that’s really troublesome to me. There is some sort of—and this is tied up to complicated questions of racism and sexism—there is some sort of vicarious thrill to seeing this guy play this character in these songs and know that it’s not just a character.”
So if it’s not just a character being played in his songs—if it is in fact the guy in that the BuzzFeed expose, the guy with dozens of allegations that date back as far as the mid-’90s, the guy with the underage marriage (and subsequent annulment) to the late Aaliyah on his record—is it really OK to enjoy his music?
DeRogatis’s answer to that question hits the perfect note: “I think, again, everyone has to individually answer. I can still listen to Led Zeppelin and take joy in Led Zeppelin or James Brown. I condemn the things they did. I’m not reminded constantly in the art, because the art is not about it. But if you’re listening to ‘I want to marry you, pussy,’ and not realizing that he said that to Aaliyah, who was 14, and making an album he named Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number—I had Aaliyah’s mother cry on my shoulder and say her daughter’s life was ruined, Aaliyah’s life was never the same after that. That’s not an experience you’ve had. I’m not expecting you to feel the same way I do. But you can look at this body of evidence. ‘You’ meaning everyone who cares.”
In the wake of the BuzzFeed story, Kelly’s lawyer Linda Mensch denied its claims and told TMZ that “like all of us, Mr. Kelly deserves a personal life.” But we can’t help but wonder whether repeatedly doing illegal shit—as alleged—strips Kelly of that privilege, just as it strips the pleasure out of listening to music that seemingly glorifies these acts. It’s hard to hear certain lyrics—like the ones on 12 Play, for example, where Kelly sings “My mind’s telling me no, but my body is telling me yes” and “It seems like you’re ready. Girl are you ready to go all the way?”—over the increasingly loud background noise of his personal life.