Why I Can’t Rock With R. Kelly

Perhaps R. Kelly’s Black Panties should be re-named Black Pull-Ups?

He may have penned the inspirational anthem of the 90s with “I Believe I Can Fly.” He may have helped you conceive your kids with 12 Play. He may have had you Stepping in the Name of Love. He may even have a new album set to be in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 charts. But, I just…can’t rock with R. Kelly.

Ever since a sex rape tape of R. Kelly leaked with an under-aged girl (though he still denies it) and the criminal trial that followed (of which he was acquitted of charges), I gave up R. Kelly cold turkey. I mean, I went from belting out “I Believe I Can Fly” along with the children at 8th grade graduations and Youth Sundays, to scurrying off the dance floor at every gathering every time Step In the Name of Love came on (and I loooove to 2-step, ya’ll).

He’s a pedophile. And, really, unabashedly so it seems. I know what you’re thinking: this song and dance is old news. Didn’t we read some of the same things in the early 2000s? Yes. But, with the release of a highly anticipated album Black Panties just last week (and reading a re-hash of his sordid past on Village Voice), I just couldn’t help myself. It’s certainly not R. Kelly’s first release since the allegations “died down,” but it is the one album that apparently is reminiscent of his sexually-laced, mega-hit 12 Play. Because it seems nearly all of us forget (or ignored) the fact that this is the same man who was under investigation by the Chicago PD for inappropriate sexual activities with under-aged girls. The same man who allegedly married the late R&B singer Aaliyah, falsifying the marriage documents because she wasn’t even 18 yet. The same man who paid off his young victims, leaving their lives forever altered and destroyed.

It’s well-documented that R. Kelly likes ‘em young. No, really…march up to the Cook County courthouse in Illinois and check those documents out. They’re public record. If you can’t…well, here are some documents to get you started.

It’s clear he preys on young women whose brains aren’t fully developed and who cannot give legal consent. Young women, who may look like grown women but are really impressionable children. Young women who have effectively been rendered voiceless by our collective apathy toward him and his proclivity for them. You add money, manipulation and star power, and you have a perfect cocktail for exploitation, and that’s just what R. Kelly seems to have pulled off all these years – all the while scarring the lives of young women.

I just can’t help but think that MOST of his music (especially those of the bedroom crooning variety) is inspired by his lustful thoughts about underaged girls. Like, the lyrics to “Check the Vibe,” (Little cute Aaliyah’s got it?! She was 12 when that song was made, ya’ll). Or, perhaps the title to Aaliyah’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number, which was largely written and produced by R. Kelly. And those aren’t even the most egregious or explicit examples.

But, he clearly gets a pass partly because he’s a huge R&B star who is probably the reason why most of the younger members of Gen Y are even here. He’s the often-conflicted, uber-talented artist whose music can move and inspire. Perhaps we tolerate his antics because he reminds us of the Marvin Gayes and the Rick James’ of the world. But, his demons are different – and arguably, more damaging because there’s little doubt in my mind that his “art” is inspired by his predatory behavior.

R. Kelly is so problematic for me because, much of the time, the Black community’s attitude toward him (and those like him) is disturbingly laissez-faire. We make jokes about his sordid past. We even give him the side-eye. Yet, we don’t hold him nearly as accountable as we should.

The way we let R. Kelly make it mirrors the way we often treat some of those in our family or friend groups: we ignore the damaging impact of their abuse. We know something ain’t quite right, yet we never really investigate the problem fully. We sweep allegations and maybe even outright eye witness confessions under the rug. We allow them around our young daughters and sons. We ignore or try to rationalize red flags. We invite them into our lives and in our homes and unbeknownst to us (and perhaps because of that), we render their victims silent. Each time we celebrate the predator, we further degrade the prey and give them permission to keep doing what they’re doing.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why so many cases of sexual abuse and assault go unreported. According to RAINN, only 3 out of 100 rapists ever serve jail time (and R. Kelly is one of those who slipped through the judicial cracks). What’s more, 60% of young Black women are sexually abused before the age of 18, but most of these crimes go also unreported – often because of the negative stereotypes that surround young black women and their sexuality.

Statistics for sexual assault, according to RAINN

Ask anyone whether they endorse the sexual abuse of young women (and young men), or anybody, for that matter, and 99.9% of us would enthusiastically reply with a “No!” Yet, what are we doing when we don’t advocate for the young victims of sexual abuse in our every day lives? How often do we call some of our young women “fast-tailed girls”? How often do we listen to the stories of young girls who were seduced and manipulated  into engaging in sexual activities with men old enough to be their fathers and dismissively declare that they “get what they deserve” simply because they “look/act too grown”…even though they aren’t at the age of consent? How about we marginalize the predators and hold them legally and criminally accountable because they should know better, instead of the teenaged girls who may be looking for attention and love in all the wrong places – girls who may not be sophisticated enough to understand the ways they are exploited?

A great Twitter discussion on Fast-Tailed Heffas
A great Twitter discussion on “Fast-Tailed Girls” started by Mikki Kendall

Far be it from me to dictate or critique any one else’s musical tastes. To be clear, this is not an indictment of anyone who happens to listen to R. Kelly’s music. I just can’t, and for good reason, I think. We all are walking contradictions and as cultural consumers, everything that we enjoy won’t be all straight-laced or won’t make sense. But this? There’s nothing I can say that would justify my enjoyment of R. Kelly’s music. I just can’t. Not when so many young women (who look like me) are exploited without the wherewithal or the advocacy that they deserve, and when (in the words of journalist and music critic Jim DeRogatis):

 “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”

If you’re like me and won’t be supporting R. Kelly’s newest album, but you happen to care about rape and other forms of sexual abuse, I suggest you check out this list of organizations that are working to end such atrocities. The list was compiled by writer Britni Danielle, who was tired of just ranting about R. Kelly and wanted to add a call-to-action to the ongoing discussion.

What are your thoughts on R. Kelly? Can you separate the man from the music?


Courtney Written by: