Today, I was at the gym listening to a playlist from a few years ago, when "Happy People," by R. Kelly started playing. I hadn't heard that song in several years. Coincidentally, today I learned that there is a new documentary about R. Kelly on Lifetime called Surviving R. Kelly. The documentary is a series that looks into the rumors and sexual abuse allegations surrounding the singer.
For years, rumors about R. Kelly and his penchant for dating young girls has been swirling around him. He even went on trial after a video surfaced of him urinating on an underage girl in 2002. R. Kelly was found not guilty on all charges in 2008. Years later, Kelly continues to be called out for suspected sexual abuse, including an allegation that he is keeping women prisoner in a "sex cult."
Since the documentary came out, there have been Youtube videos, social media posts, blog articles, and other commentary about R. Kelly and sexual abuse. Commentators have discussed the shameful fact that R. Kelly has been accused of sexual abuses for years and continues to walk free. Some posit that he continues to get away with his behavior because his victims are black women, whose accusations are often discounted or downplayed. They also say that R. Kelly's abuses have been ignored due to the fact that he's a talented producer and musician with an impressive body of work.
What should we do when our entertainers are predators? Over the last few years, directors, actors, musicians, politicians, and many other high-profile people have been called out for sexual abuse and assault. Many have been disgraced, but some continue to hide in the shadows, benefitting from their celebrity or the fear of their victims.
When a celebrity is accused of sexual assault or misconduct (there is a growing list of sexual abusers in Hollywood), should we still consume their product (which is music or movies or television shows)? There have been many voices on this subject and there are bound to be more as people continue to react to the Surviving R. Kelly documentary. Some people feel that the art is separate from the person- that they would rather not know what these people are up to in their private lives. Some people revere these artists and would rather overlook their abuses- after all, these are the people who grace our favorite television shows, who sing the lyrics to our favorite songs. Also, many entertainers struggle with behavioral issues, drug addiction, and other problems that we tend to ignore in favor of blissfully enjoying their work.
Other people cannot separate the artist from their work- their private behavior taints their art. How can we enjoy someone's product knowing that they are an abuser? At the end of the day, we have to decide if there is an amount of talent, an amount of genius, an amount of expertise that excuses people from basic human decency, from rectitude.
As we listen to these women- and not just women in these high-profile cases but women all over the world- tell their stories, recount their abuse, their fear, their sadness, we have to decide if we want to hold their abusers accountable or ignore them. R. Kelly may or may not ever be convicted for abuse, but we have to decide if, by ignoring his behavior or shaming his accusers, we are complicit. I mean, Dave Chapelle did a skit parodying R. Kelly's sexual interaction with an underage girl called "I Want to Piss on You" almost two decades ago. We've known about Kelly's behavior for a long time.
So I lay on the bench, about to benchpress my measly 20 pounds when I heard R. Kelly crooning the beginning lyrics of "Happy People." I hesitated, my hand poised over my phone. Then I turned it off. The song just doesn't sound the same to me. To be honest (and to demonstrate that I'm not above ignoring behavior for the sake of a good song), there are many artists on my playlists who promote drug use and misogyny with checkered pasts involving violence and poor behavior. Perhaps they should be deleted too. One step at a time, I guess.