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