Being an educated consumer isn’t always a good thing. Take the case of writer/cultural critic Professor Mark Anthony Neal, who looks to spend the next few weeks torn between his love of music and his conscience. Should he buy the new R. Kelly record, or shouldn’t he? Should he continue to support a multiplatinum superstar some have called the greatest soul singer of his generation, or boycott the work of a troubled soul facing multiple child pornography charges?
“I have gone back and forth on Kelly,” said Neal, Associate Professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University. “I like his music a great deal, but the only time really I can listen to him when he sounds like he’s being honest about the problems he obviously has. On some songs when he’s talking to God and his mother — he’s telling you that he’s not right. But then there are other times when I just can’t listen to him. Like when he calls himself the Pied Piper. Anyone familiar with the myth of the Pied Piper has to ask ‘just what is he admitting to here?’”
Then again, there was a time when no one thought that people would be discussing a new R. Kelly album. Least of all now, two years after the discovery of a videotape allegedly showing Kelly having sex with an underage girl. That video, which was disseminated over the Internet, was seen as a deathblow to the singer’s career. A scheduled blockbuster tour with R&B superstar Jay-Z was canceled.
Then, something happened. Kelly actually started to sell records again. His next album, 2003’s “Chocolate Factory” went multiplatinum, and the compilation “R in R&B Collection,” released that same year, also passed the million sales mark. “Chocolate Factory” also had two hit singles, “Ignition” and “Step in the Name of Love.” The tour with Jay-Z, once considered a dead deal, is set to gear up again. And there’s a new album “Happy People/U Saved Me” already in stores. The Kelly controversy raises a bevy of provocative, often disturbing questions: How do art and life intersect? Do you judge art by the actions of the artist? And exactly what is the responsibility of the listening community?
For some, it’s not a matter of art and life — its simple right and wrong.
“The thing is,” said Jim DeRogatis, music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, who co-wrote an investigative piece detailing Kelly’s alleged trysts four years ago, “the charges against Kelly aren’t isolated. They’re part of a pattern — this is something that has happened over and over. And it’s tough to listen to a sexually charged song like “Ignition” after you’ve sat down with some of the people who have accused him, and heard about how some of the girls involved have tried to commit suicide, or how their lives have been ruined, like the girl in the video. This is a man of great wealth who uses his position, power and resources to prey on young girls.”
But for some listeners, the only responsibility is to enjoy music, says Erik Parker, music editor at Vibe Magazine. In 1995, Vibe published the marriage certificate documenting the secret marrige of Kelly and the then-underaged Aaliyah. And charges of sex with underage girls have dogged Kelly ever since. Still, said Parker, there is a hard core of fans that will continue to buy his records. Some because of “innocent until proven guilty” (Kelly has denied that he is the man in the video), others because they feel good music is good music, no matter where it comes from.
Still true to his fan base“I think people continue to support Kelly because he maintains a connection to his fan base,” said Parker. “Not that they necessarily condone what he’s doing. But his music speaks to them in such a way that they can separate the man from his music.”
That, says Parker, is what separates Kelly from, say Michael Jackson, who has alienated much of the black listenership with his bizarre behavior. And the fact that Jackson is a huge crossover pop star partially explains why his case has dominated the headlines.
“The thing is, for all of his popularity and 35 million albums sold, Kelly is still an artist whose popularity is concentrated mostly in the black community,” said DeRogatis.
But even in the black community, there are deep divisions on the Kelly issue. Some have claimed that the relative lack of attention on Kelly’s case is tied to the ethnicity of the children involved. If the victims had been white girls, (or boys) Kelly’s career would have been finished long ago.
“That speaks a lot about the lack of value placed on the health, welfare and safety of black children,” said Neal. “But at the same time, much of the black community acts as an enabler for Kelly. By continuing to buy his records, play them on the radio, play the videos, they have essentially patted him on the back, while ignoring evidence of a very dark side of his personality. Also, it speaks to a reality (older man preying on young girls) that much of the black community is in denial about. The only way they can end that enabling relationship is to draw the line and say, ‘we don’t support this’ and stop buying his records.”
That, or wait for an upcoming court date to draw it for them.
“Michael Jackson settled one civil suit against a boy who accused him of molestation,” said DeRogatis. “Kelly has settled half a dozen suits from women who have threaten to sue him. The charges against him now can put him away for up to 18 years. Just because there aren’t any headlines doesn’t mean that the legal machinery hasn’t been set in motion. There will be a court date; it’s just a matter of time.”