New documentary ‘Surviving R Kelly’ might finally be opening peoples eyes to the rappers abusive behaviour – but will it make a real difference in the music industry?
The news cycle over the past few years has been dominated by scandal after scandal involving once-revered celebrities, and the age-old debate of art vs artist has been revitalised, enriched and debated to death as a result. What once concerned Hitchcock, Picasso and Polanski, has now become Cosby, Weinstein and Spacey. With the release of Lifetime’s documentary, Surviving R Kelly, the “Ignition” rapper is the most recent name to reignite the debate. But does this scandal out of the many, many other scandals being brought to light actually bring anything new to the long-exhausted question of the separation between art and artist? I think so.
R Kelly, unlike some of his peers whose careers took a nosedive after their crimes were discovered, has always been known for his violent and perverse behaviour. His career was rife with sexual misconduct involving minors from the beginning, with child pornography indictments and allegations of emotional and physical abuse to name a few. Perhaps it’s because of the #MeToo and the Women of Colour (WOC) movements that his crimes have only now managed to receive the criticism they deserved. The WOC started #muteRKELLY which led to Spotify removing his songs, along with XXXTentacion’s, from their platform and also inspired Lifetime to greenlight Surviving R Kelly. The Lifetime documentary has brought these crimes back to the mainstream with interviews with his victims and comments from celebrities such as John Legend. Since its airing, Chicago and Atlanta have opened cases surrounding the allegations and Lady Gaga, Chance the Rapper, Celine Dion and more have vowed to remove their collaborations with Kelly from streaming services.
So, what’s so special about R Kelly? In my opinion, it’s because his work reflects the worst parts of his lifestyle. There is no separation between art and artist when the music is based on the real-life experiences that the artist creates and we condemn. Let’s take the recently deceased XXXTentacion as a comparison to R Kelly. His crimes, like R Kelly’s, are detestable. XXX robbed and beat people as well as sexually and physically abusing a pregnant woman. But, the difference between the two is that his best songs weren’t about his crimes or anything related to it. His most famous songs were about his battles with depression and mental illness, which was something that wasn’t done much in a community where vulnerability was a weakness. When listening to XXX’s work, I can emphasize with his struggle and it’s what made me fall in love with his music. With R Kelly it’s different.
R&B is known for being a heavily sexualised music genre, and that goes double for Kelly’s work. Every lyric about sex that Kelly has written is steeped in abuse and violence against young women and unfortunately, most of his music focuses on sex. Lyrics from “Down Low”, (“Keep it on the down low/ nobody had to know”) and “Bump n Grind”, (“My mind is telling me no/ but my body… is telling me yes”) are especially disturbing given the context of his crimes. Another explicit example of this is the music he wrote for his protégé, Aaliyah, whom he illegally married when she was 15. One of the songs, the outrageously titled “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number”, doesn’t require any explanation as to its blatant perversity. When the girls he surrounds himself with and abuses are the muses for his lyrics, it’s impossible to separate his crimes from his music, especially considering his victims were often in the recording studio with him. Robert Kelly shows off the worst parts about himself and has been continuously rewarded for it by becoming one of the most successful musicians in the past 20 years. To be fair, XXX, before he moved onto his more sombre work, was known for more aggressive content, reflecting a violent persona and in the same vein as Kelly. It’s difficult to separate those songs from his crimes without thinking about where his aggression led him, but the difference is that X progressed as an artist, favouring more introspective lyrical themes in his later work. As to the view that Kelly’s non-sexual songs such as “I Believe I Can Fly” should be considered separately and still receive acclaim, we must consider the fact that supporting his career is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. The debate of art vs artist goes much deeper than this, but in the case of R Kelly, we don’t need to go so far; if you can still enjoy his music despite the lyrics, you should at least be aware of the dark reality underlying them.
It has taken a while, but now that cases against Kelly are being reopened, there is hope that his past might finally catch up with him. But there are many more figures in the music business that have managed to avoid scrutiny that need to be looked at again. Music legends such as Jimmy Page, well documented as having maintained an abusive sexual relationship with a 14-year-old. Nelly, who’s been accused of raping multiple women. Chris Brown, of course, recently released from an arrest based on rape charges, who somehow despite the media attention directed to his domestic abuse crimes, maintains a fruitful career and has managed to keep his content on Spotify. We can only hope that their time will come.
Surviving R Kelly will premier on Crime + Investigation on 5 February.