Can You Be a “Decent” Person and Buy R. Kelly’s Music?

R KellyIf you grew up in the ‘90s, you’ve probably belted out R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” on more than one occasion. Or perhaps you remember blasting “Ignition (Remix)” in your friend’s car as a teenager. Whatever your relationship to R. Kelly and his music, it probably wasn’t all that complicated. But I’m willing to bet that this week’s explosive Village Voice Q&A exposing the singer’s decades of sexual violence against Black girls changed all that.

In the Voice story, longtime Chicago music writer Jim DeRogatis, who has spent the last 15 years reporting on the R&B singer’s heinous crimes for the Chicago Sun-Times, describes lawsuits filed against R. Kelly by legions of Chicago women detailing sexual predation and rape of girls as young as 13 or 14.

Much of DeRogatis’ reporting was published in the pre-Internet age, however, so many now-20-somethings who grew up listening to R. Kelly have never really known the extent of the singer’s crimes (though many of us remember that he married Aaliyah when she was just 15 years old, and that he was found not guilty on child porn charges in 2008). But now, with these revelations published in such accessible form, we finally have to face, head-on, the question many of us have been skating around for years: Is it OK to be a feminist and still enjoy R. Kelly’s music?

“The politic thing to say is that everybody has to make these decisions for themselves, they have to weigh their own ethical boundaries,” says feminist media critic Jennifer L. Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back” and executive director of Women in Media & News. “But I’m not interested in being politic. I don’t believe you can be a feminist and pay for R. Kelly’s music. I think the broader question is, can you be a decent human being and buy R. Kelly’s music? And I think the answer to that is no.”

Pozner explains that by paying for R. Kelly’s music, and by lavishing him with praise, fans are contributing to a culture that emboldens the singer to continue raping with impunity and boasting about it–explicitly and implicitly–in his music (for example, the cover of R. Kelly’s most recent album, “Black Panties,” features a young Black woman clad only in underwear, curled up on the singer’s lap and being played with a bow). Says Pozner,

It’s not about whether or not you can enjoy the art of somebody who’s a bad boy. It’s about [whether] your money and your love and praise of an artist embolden and allow that artist to continue to evade justice for deeply violent, misogynistic, racist crimes.

Complicating the question of whether or not feminists should continue listening to R. Kelly’s music is the fact that the singer is not the first to abuse women and continue in his musical pursuits without punishment. “It’s important to remind people of the artists who are also guilty of this behavior who get a pass in American culture for a variety of reasons, but most notably due to race,” Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch magazine, tells Ms. “John Lennon was abusive to women in his life … [But we ignore] the behavior of musical deities like Lennon by either never mentioning it or excusing it by saying, ‘He was young, it was forever ago,’ [which] not only smacks of racism, but perpetuates the idea that musical genius or artistry that conforms to what mainstream culture values can stand on its own, while genres like hip hop must take into account the artist’s behavior.”

So we can’t give a pass to any artist who would perpetuate violence against women. And what can a feminist do to stand up against such behavior? First, read everything you can and educate yourself about the situation. Then, says Pozner, write articles, blog posts or explain on Tumblr why you refuse to support artists who rape and abuse women. Other options include “printing out ‘This Man Is A Rapist,’ or ‘Don’t Make This Rapist Richer’ stickers and sticking them on albums,” Pozner offers. “Maybe for college-age feminists, it’s about making sure that their schools never bring him to campus to perform.”

In R. Kelly’s case, Pozner suggests starting a campaign to get his label to drop him. “That’s a call for the industry to stop being complicit with, and emboldening, a serial rapist. [It’s not about] censorship — nobody’s born with a record deal. A record deal is not a human right.”

Whatever you choose to do, buying R. Kelly’s music–and staying silent about his crimes–is no longer an option.

 Photo of R. Kelly from Flickr user andrew steinmetz under license from Creative Commons 2.0



Stephanie Hallett is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She can be found on Twitter @stephhallett.


  1. So is this also a call to avoid purchasing or supporting any Beatles music and/or music made by John Lennon?

  2. To clarify, my main concern — and I mentioned this — is institutional responsibility on the part of the music industry that profits off of an (alleged) rapist as a cash cow. In terms of fans’ responses: Stephanie asked me what feminists can do if they want to take action, so I offered a variety of strategies off the top of my head. However, I was not specifically issuing any suggested calls to action — if people want to take any of those steps or make any of those statements, great. But I wasn’t saying “Jennifer Pozner is telling all feminist women to start a petition/make stickers to put on CDs/lobby his label to drop him/etc.” I was just offering some ideas in response to a question about options for what individual people *could* do.

  3. My understanding of the premise is this: Can you be “decent” if you support a person (financially through buying records, going to movies, etc) who engages in behavior that is dangerous, immoral, mysogonistic, etc. I’d say yes. The music may, to a certain extent, reflect negative practices, but it’s independent of him as a person.

    If you really want to take this (weak) premise further: Can you be a decent person if you support: 1.) Eminem (mysoginistic lyrics about killing wife, homophobia, violence, etc.)? 2.) Jay-Z (pled GUILTY to stabbing someone!!! and made a national anthem out of a some repeatedly referring to women as “bitch”)? 3.) Rihanna–Can i be a strong woman if I support an individual who defends her assailant? Who goes back to him to repeat the cycle? Who engages and performs in a sexually derogatory manner? 4.) Miley Cyrus (do you even need to ask? perpetuates racial stereotypes, co-ops cultures, sexualizes herself, engages in drug use, etc)?

    I could go on. We could all go on. Another example would be any athlete who has assaulted his wife, girlfriends, etc. (list is too numerous to count). Should I never go to a Philadelphia Eagles game (Michael Vick), Bengals game (Chad Ochocinco), Patriots game (Aaron Hernandez) because to give them my money is to support these men’s actions?

    To the furthest extent,should you only support people, artists, athletes, musicians who share your political beliefs? I’m an Independent, but if I disagree with a star’s political positions (whether Republican or Democrat) am I implicitly supporting that idea? Could or should i not go buy the new Beyonce album b/c she’s a Democrat? Should I forego my visit to NJ b/c they have a Republican governor?

    SO many variables and with all that, I say, The answer is Yes you can be a decent person.

  4. Trucker Jay says:

    Does signing petitions make you a decent person? Does not listening to R. Kelley make you a decent person? Or does being a decent person make you a decent person?

  5. Being a decent person means treating your loved ones right. It means not hurting people who love you. It means owning up to bad behavior and apologizing for the wrongs you have done. Taking responsibility for your actions as opposed to putting the blame on others.

  6. The question should be- Can you be a decent person while treating people badly? Can you be decent if you treat people badly and fail to acknowledge that you treat people badly?

  7. A lot of evil has been perpetuated because “decent” people who clearly have a moral compass of their own failed to speak up or act against it. One of the reasons why people like R. Kelly, Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen have gotten a pass is due to people’s ability to compartmentalize by separating appreciation for their artistry from the clear evidence of their dangerously flawed characters. We live in a celebrity-obsessed society which gives a pass to celebrities and other well-connected and financial well-off individuals that everyday folks wouldn’t get. In R. Kelly’s case, it’s exacerbated by the fact that black girls are marginalized by the larger society, especially poor ones. It’s also exacerbated by the failure of many black adults to acknowledge predation of minors by black adults, when they would be outraged if he had been a white man doing the same things to those girls regardless of celebrity. If it had been white underage girls he’d done this to, he would have been tried and convicted in record time. He knew exactly which girls to prey on and how to rope them in.
    The worst apologists are those who use the Bible to excuse the egregious wrong-doings by telling us not to judge R. Kelly lest we be judged. The problem is that at the same time, they judged these underage girls by calling them “fast tails” while failing to judge a full-grown, married man who preyed on them. In fact, all of us judge one way or another, which is why we have laws and why most of us have a moral compass of some kind. If we didn’t do any judging at all, anything would go and the result would be pure chaos. The cognitive disconnect is even clearer when seeing how they apparently overlook the admonition of Jesus Christ that as we do to the least among us, we also do to Him. Since none of us are perfect, I guess it’s possible to be otherwise decent human beings, but still occupy a big blind spot when it comes to recognizing and acknowledging the disastrous effects of deviant, dangerous behavior.

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