While introducing R. Kelly, the final performer of this year’s Soul Train Awards, host Erykah Badu claimed that Kelly “has done more for black people than anyone.” The compliment sparked a visceral reaction in many due to Kelly’snoted history of accusations of the sexual assault of minors. I myself yelled back at the TV screen, “What has that sum’bitch done for black folks?”
However, a friend and person also sharing a deep disgust of Kelly offered me a dose objectivity. As far as influence goes, Kelly alongside Babyface and Teddy Riley, have literally shaped R&B for the last 20 years. One could even make the case Kelly’s influence is the most pronounced.
That is why even though I choose to personally not support R. Kelly monetarily anymore, it is difficult for me to write off those who choose to as “bad people” as others have opted to. There will always be a debate as to whether or not it is okay to listen to R. Kelly, and even I struggle with a clear answer.
It’s been easier for me to ignore R. Kelly’s music for more than a decade, majorly because I find it comically terrible. However, have I listened to songs from 12 Play recently? I am guilty of that. Do I still listen to Aaliyah’s debut album? All the time, says my iTunes player. Do I still listen to songs from the Life soundtrack, which was majorly written and produced by Kelly? Again, I am guilty.
I’m not sure if that places me on any moral pedestal ahead of those who purchased Black Panties. I don’t know if that makes me just as bad as them, or even R. Kelly, as some have suggested. That’s an easy, sanctimonious response that’s easy to read but not easy to put into practice. If I did wipe my computer and phone clean of anything R. Kelly has touched, I’d have to do the same with Marvin Gaye. Then, perhaps I’d have to question whether I can watch The Cosby Show ever again or anything Bill Cosby’s name is attached to – including my beloved A Different World.
I’d probably call my mom to tell her to turn off Elvis Presley forever. She might listen. She might tell me to shut up and get off her phone.
How does one truly separate the art from the artist? I don’t know. What I can do in the meantime, and what I invite others to do, is to learn to embrace a little more duality.
It’s okay to say that R. Kelly is a musical genius and, more than a likely, a terrible person and sexual predator. This is not a difficult task. There is an ample amount of evidence to help one race to such a conclusion.
With that realization comes a certain responsibility, though – namely accepting that while we can acknowledge that R. Kelly may never face the consequences of the crimes he’s been accused of committing over and over again, we don’t have to literally roll out the red carpet for him while he walks freely.
Read the rest at VH1.