Criminal (Critical) Accomplice: Writing About R. Kelly

Mark Anthony Neal

What if Kelly had been Justin Timberlake or Eminem? Would the conversation fall back so easily into one where a white man mistreated and exploited (raped?) a young black girl because of his racist views of black women?

"He is guilty of self-confessed violent crimes against women such that we should break his albums, burn his tapes and scratch up his CDs until he acknowledges and apologizes and rethinks his position on The Woman Question."
-- Pearl Cleage, Mad at Miles

No apology was forthcoming. A year after Pearl Cleage openly criticized Miles Davis for his gender politics, Miles Davis, the definitive black male genius of the 20th century, and an American cultural icon, was dead. Cleage had taken Davis to task for his raw and uncut confessions -- gleeful descriptions -- of physical violence against black women in his autobiography Miles (1990). I've thought a great deal about Cleage's Mad at Miles (1990) as I've considered my own relationship to the music of R Kelly, the Chi-town bred R&B "genius" who was indicted in June 2002 on 21 counts of child pornography. In January of this year, Kelly was indicted on 12 additional counts in relation to the initial investigation. The indictments stem from a series of video tapes in which Kelly is purported to have sex with girls as young as thirteen. In February Kelly released his sixth CD Chocolate Factory. As I consider reviewing the disc, I can't help but think of myself a criminal (critical) accomplice.

Throughout his career R. Kelly, now 36, has been haunted by rumors of his rapturous relations with under-aged girls. His brief marriage to the late Aaliyah in 1994 -- she was 15 at the time -- was the most visible proof of those rumors. In late 2000, allegations against Kelly became public as two different women alleged that the adult Kelly had sex with them when they were minors. Both women were students at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, which Kelly also attended as a teen. Kelly settled a suit with another accuser in 1998. By the time the videotape emerged in February of 2002 -- on the eve of Kelly's performance at the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Olympics -- a clear pattern had emerged: R. Kelly was likely a pedophile and a child pornographer.

Immediately folks went into celebrity-surveillance mode, as Kelly's music, movements, and mediated messages were subject to intense scrutiny. Many urban radio outlets were at the center of the frenetic coverage as program directors were faced with decisions over whether to continue to play Kelly's music. When stories about Kelly's problems surfaced in 2000, Todd Cavanah, the program director at Chicago's WBBM-FM, admitted that "we play hit songs from hit artists that our audience likes, and R Kelly is one of them." (Chicago Sun-Times, 22 December 2000). Cavanah's tone was very different when Kelly was indicted two years later: "Child pornography is not a funny thing and if [Kelly] is indeed guilty, I don't want to be the radio station that keeps playing his music . . . so we are definitely not going to play R. Kelly." (Chicago Sun-Times, 7 June, 2002). In contrast, Marv Dyson, general manager at WGCI-FM (also in Chicago) offered that "he's still innocent until proven guilty, and I guess he's going to have his day in court. That's still our position, and we will continue to play his music, at least as of this moment." (Chicago Sun-Times 7 June 2002)

When bootlegged videos of R Kelly Exposed began to appear on the streets of major cities and various links to the "R. Kelly sex video" began to circulate throughout the internet, it was clear that folks were more interested in the R. Kelly angle, than the well-being of the young girl(s) in the video. Lost in the exchange of dollars among websites was the fact that those folks who sold and bought R. Kelly Exposed or who forwarded and opened internet links, were also trafficking in child pornography, and in some ways were no different than Kelly. Such oversights are likely to occur within a culture that valued Kelly's celebrity over the lives of the young black girls who accused him of having sexual contact with them.

The issue of race was easily glossed over in much of the coverage of Kelly's sexcapades. Mary Mitchell was one of the few commentators who addressed the significance of the racial identity of the girls as she posits that "as long as [Kelly] is being accused of having sex with underage black girls, the allegations will draw a collective yawn". In contrast she writes, "what would have happened had Kelly gone to an affluent area like Naperville or Winnetka to recruit choir girls…had Kelly been accused of touching a golden hair on just one girl's head, he would have been put under the jail." (Chicago Sun-Times 14 February 2002)

And this was part of the irony that I considered as I began to write about R. Kelly's Chocolate Factory. What if Kelly had been Justin Timberlake or Eminem? Would the conversation fall back so easily into one where a white man mistreated and exploited (raped?) a young black girl because of his racist views of black women? Damn skippy. Cleage addresses such a reality in Mad at Miles as she wonders aloud "what if Kenny [G] was revealed to be kicking black men asses all over the country . . . what if Kenny [G] wrote a book saying that sometimes he had to slap black men around a little just to make them cool out and leave him the fuck alone." For Cleage, the idea that black folks would close ranks around folks who harmed other black folks is unconsciounable, be those folks black or white. Defending her stance Cleage writes, "scratching up CDs and burning cassettes. Pretty right wing stuff I know, but what are we going to do? Either we think it's a crime to hit us or we don't. Either we think our brothers have to take responsibility for stopping the war against us or we don't."

No apology is forthcoming. Released on February 18th, R. Kelly's Chocolate Factory sold over 550,000 copies in its first week, making it the number one recording on the Soundscan chart for the week. As a longtime fan of Kelly's music I was one of those who purchased the recording. Three of the songs were originally slated for Loveland. The latter recording was scrapped because of bootlegging. I was forwarded a bootlegged copy of Loveland in early 2002 and listened to it frequently as it was the most mature and sophisticated music of Kelly's career. A favorite of mine was "Step in the Name of Love", a tribute to the Stepper-Set culture of Kelly's native Chicago. As innocuous as Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" or the "Electric Slide", the song quickly became a favorite of my four-year-old daughter. Very often the two of us could be heard chanting "step, step, side to side, round and round, dip it now, separate, bring it back, let me see you do the love slide" while bumping down the highway. But recently after my daughter asked to hear the song again, it struck me that if she was ten years-older, I wouldn't even want her in the same room with R. Kelly. Suddenly it was all clear to me. No review is forthcoming.

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