I’m listening to my Apple Music library on shuffle.
A song from my teenage years starts to play. The familiar beat brings me back to my junior year of high school, and as the chorus comes in, an unmistakable voice fills my AirPods.
Suddenly, my good mood brought on by nostalgia is ruined. For a millisecond, I contemplate letting the song play. But my better judgment kicks in. As I hit the skip button, I say to myself, “I forgot R. Kelly is on that song.”
Like most Black children, R. Kelly’s music was an integral part of my upbringing. I sang “I Believe I Can Fly” at school assemblies, danced to “Step in the Name of Love” at family gatherings, and enjoyed the absurdly entertaining Trapped in the Closet series. His body of work accompanied me as I moved through life.
Sadly, I continued to listen to his music even after the accusations of pedophilia and that revolting sex tape surfaced. Kelly’s actions were illegal and immoral, but it didn’t affect my views on him as an artist. At the time, I thought the man and the musician were two separate entities.
For years, I placed R. Kelly’s transgressions in the same category as the allegations against Michael Jackson. I believed they were guilty when jokes were made at their expense, but I never truly considered the severity of their crimes or how it impacted their victims. Instead, I pledged my unconditional support to them, both personally and professionally.
As time progressed and society entered the space where sexual assault and the deplorable treatment of women were being brought into the light, it became difficult to listen to R. Kelly. He still had his loyal fan base, but the collective realization of his heinous acts caused a large portion to wash their hands of him –myself, included.
Erasing R. Kelly, literally and figuratively, made me ask myself a few questions. It wasn’t hard to depart from the music that solely featured him, but what about his collaborations with other artists? What about the songs he wrote for others? Can I listen to the music from his proteges without being perceived as a supporter?
Rather than getting caught up in the minutiae of his musical contributions, I did away with them altogether.
Now, in 2021, the growing popularity of the Verzuz series has made music fans reassess the influence of their favorite artists. Connoisseurs, critics, and casual fans speculate who would beat who in a head-to-head battle, and Kelly’s name is mentioned frequently. Many feel that he’s unrivaled as a performer and songwriter.
Yet the acknowledgment of R.Kelly’s musical genius can’t eclipse the revolting exploits of Robert Kelly, the man. As much as we want to see his creations get their just due, there’s no way to support R.Kelly’s music without supporting Robert Kelly’s actions. He’s the architect of timeless classics, but he’s also responsible for the destruction of the lives of multiple women and their families.
Currently, R. Kelly is in a jail cell awaiting trial for his sex crimes. He’s been disgraced, humiliated, and physically assaulted by other inmates. Still, the abuse he’s suffered doesn’t compare to the trauma his victims experienced and are still experiencing.
I may not be able to listen to “The World’s Greatest” or “I Wish” anymore, but I can take pride in having a clear conscience and no longer financially (or emotionally) supporting a monster.