It's 2003 and I am sitting in the passenger seat of my friend Robyn's Crown Vic as we cruise around the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin. R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)" comes on the radio and the car's passengers — all of us female, middle class and white — erupt in cheers. Even though it's still cold outside, we roll down the windows and turn up the volume. Strangers give us weird looks, but none of us seem to mind as we sing along and laugh. The song ends and we groan. We repeat the whole thing over again when the it comes back on the radio 20 minutes later.
How lucky we were to be so carefree. How lucky considering that had we been born with browner skin and lived 150 miles south in Chicago, we might not be thinking of R. Kelly simply as the singer who had just released the song that would act as the soundtrack to our sophomore year of high school, but instead as a the sexual predator who was repeatedly targeting, sexually assaulting and ruining the lives of our African American female peers.
I wish I could say that at the time we were completely unaware of R. Kelly's crimes, but we weren't. We knew that he had married Aaliyah when she was only 15 and we knew that he had gone to court in 2002 after a video was released that allegedly showed R. Kelly engaging in sex acts and urinating on a 15-year-old girl. That's where our knowledge ended and unfortunately, what we took away from all that was a bunch of jokes about how R. Kelly liked to pee on people, with little to no thoughts or consideration spared for his teenage victim.
Sadly, it wasn't just my group of immature friends who were thinking like this. R. Kelly's court case became a national punchline with most people going after R. Kelly's urine kink rather than the true heart of his crimes. Truth is, it was far easier to make jokes than it was to face the facts — that R. Kelly, a musician we all liked, was also a child predator who was capitalizing on his indiscretions and using them to sell even more songs and albums.
Unfortunately, that's not a line of thinking that mainstream culture has ever really grown out of. We continue to play dumb about R. Kelly because it's much harder to make "Trapped in the Closet" jokes when you remember that the person behind "Trapped in the Closet" has been sexually exploiting young black women on the southside of Chicago for decades now. Of course, ignoring that kind of information is in and of itself a privilege. It's pretty damn simple (and pretty damn wrong) to pretend like something isn't happening if it's not happening in your own community.
Fortunately (and I use that word very loosely), the public has been taking the allegations against Kelly a little more seriously in recent weeks, thanks mostly to an interview in the Village Voice with Chicago-based music journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has been following the story for nearly 15 years now. DeRogatis was the one who first received the video of R. Kelly allegedly performing sex acts with an underage girl (we say "allegedly" only because he was never charged) and he has refused to stop investigating and talking about R. Kelly's crimes ever since, no matter how much he was shouted down or largely ignored.
In reading the details of the Village Voice piece, R. Kelly's M.O. as a serial exploiter and rapist of young black women becomes impossible to ignore and suddenly his new Black Panties album doesn't seem quite as funny.
DeRogatis tells the Village Voice's Jessica Hopper about how R. Kelly used return trips to his former high school Kenwood Academy as a way to find African American teen girls for him to have sex with.
The details are truly sickening:
"[Kelly] would go back in the early years of his success and go to Lina McLin's gospel choir class. She's a legend in Chicago, gospel royalty. He would go to her sophomore class and hook up with girls afterward and have sex with them. Sometimes buy them a pair of sneakers. Sometimes just letting them hang out in his presence in the recording studio. She detailed the sexual relationship that she was scarred by. It lasted about one and a half to two years, and then he dumped her and she slit her wrists, tried to kill herself. Other girls were involved. She recruited other girls. He picked up other girls and made them all have sex together. A level of specificity that was pretty disgusting."
While this is a shameful thing to admit, I think that somehow it was easier to like R. Kelly if you were ever able to kid yourself that the number of his victims were limited to the two most famous ones. In the case of statutory rape, a lot of people are able to convince themselves that the rape isn't real or that "maybe she really did want it."
But that already weak excuse grows even weaker when you realize that R. Kelly's victims are not just two teenage girls who possibly consented to having sex with an older man (if that was even legal — which it isn't). The victims were dozens of girls who were manipulated, exploited and pressured into a sexual relationship that they legally, mentally and emotionally could not be prepared for and R. Kelly did not — R. Kelly does not — care one bit.
DeRogatis is reasonably enraged at the toothless media coverage that's surrounded R. Kelly for the past 15 years. He famously fought with Pitchfork over their decision to have Kelly headline their festival in 2013 and even called out Jezebel for being unexpectedly flip about the songs off Kelly's newest album. (I myself once did a light-hearted write-up of R. Kelly's autobiography Soulacoaster. For my part, I am ashamed and deeply sorry, though I know that doesn't mean much.)
There's always the question of whether or not you can separate the art from the artist. Can you enjoy a Chris Brown and not feel guilty about his history of domestic violence? Can you watch a Michael Fassbender or Sean Penn movie, knowing that they, too, have horrifying stories of physically abusing their wives and girlfriends in the past? Can you sing "Ignition (Remix)" at karaoke without feeling the weight of everything R. Kelly's done?
DeRogratis has thoughts on it:
"A lot of art, great art, is made by despicable people. James Brown beat his wife. People are always, "Why aren't you upset about Led Zeppelin?" ...Led Zeppelin did disgusting things...I have a couple of responses to that: I didn't cover Led Zeppelin. If I was on the plane, like Cameron Crowe was, I would have written about those things if I saw them.
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 women, rare is the amount of evidence compiled against anyone apart from R. Kelly. Dozens of girls — not one, not two, dozens — with harrowing lawsuits."
He also points out that few artists celebrate their indiscretions quite as openly as R. Kelly — who wrote the Aaliyah song "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number" — does. Not only is R. Kelly unabashed about being a sexual predator, he is using it to sell records.
DeRogatis' logic is a strong one to consider and perhaps a good guide for deciding when and how to support an artist with a violent past. Woody Allen never wrote a movie about going after teenagers (wait, nope, yes, he has) Michael Jackson never wrote love songs about children and, as DeR0gatis points out, James Brown never sang about beating his wife.
R. Kelly, on the other hand, makes music that's almost entirely about his sexual kinks. He's written songs with lyrics like "Age ain't nothing but a number, throwing down ain't nothing but a thang." And when flat out asked about his predatory history, Kelly rarely denies it. Why? Because he's proud of it and has never been held accountable.
When asked yesterday about the Village Voice story on Atlanta's V-103 radio station, Kelly responded to the accusations with a series of bullshit bush-offs like, "Well I feel like I got the football man, I'm running towards the touchdown and stopping and looking back, mess around, I'll get tackled," and, "When you get on top of anything, it's very windy. It's about holding your balance once you get up there…You have to spiritually be a climber."
No defense, no anything. R. Kelly is celebrating R. Kelly and no one — especially a group of black teenage girls with no power whatsoever — is going to stop him.
That is perhaps the starkest and most damning takeaway from DeRogatis' investigation and the national media's response to it.
"The saddest fact I've learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women," DeRogatis told Hopper. "Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are 'bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,' plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, makes this point: one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different."
So it's time we ask ourselves (if you haven't done so already), is the right to guiltlessly enjoy Trapped in the Closet, Black Panties or "Ignition (Remix)" really more important than the bodies, minds and rights of the dozens of black girls victimized by Kelly? What you listen to is a personal choice, but one thing is for certain. It's time to stop ignoring the facts and face the ugly, grim truth: R. Kelly is a serial sexual abuser of teen girls and there's no "she probably wanted it" about it.
(For Jim DeRogatis' full timeline on R. Kelly, click here.)
Image via Getty.