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Why R. Kelly’s continued success is “inherently wrong”

R. Kelly 'The Buffet' Tour - Chicago, Illinois Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

Since the news broke last week that singer R. Kelly is allegedly holding young women against their will in an abusive sex cult, recriminations against Kelly have piled up thick and fast. The allegations that Kelly has a habit of abusing young women and girls have been public knowledge for decades, so why, many people have demanded, is he still able to sell music and record and perform and live the life of a beloved superstar? But answering the question thoroughly requires delving into the manifold ways race, gender, class, and celebrity are playing out in the R. Kelly story, which is a Herculean task for anyone.

It’s the task culture critic Jamilah Lemieux set for herself with her Colorlines article “Why Are Some of Us Still Defending R. Kelly?” Lemieux, a former Ebony editor and contributor to publications like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian, has been arguing against Kelly for more than 15 years.

For Lemieux, it’s personal. She and Kelly share a hometown of Chicago, where Kelly was first accused of statutory rape, and where the news first broke, in 2002, that a video tape existed of Kelly engaging in sex acts with and urinating on a girl who was allegedly 14 years old. And as Lemieux has noted, Kelly has consistently targeted young black girls and women, in a pattern that fundamentally affects the discourse surrounding the latest allegations against him.

Lemieux argues that black women and girls have been forced to bear the burden of white supremacy by protecting the black men who hurt them. “Is ‘the system’ so corrupt, so terrible, so biased against Our Men that we won't allow them to be punished for consuming the flesh of young girls?” she writes. “Are the odds so stacked against Our Men that we can’t allow one who made it out of the ghetto to lose it all for defiling our daughters?”

I spoke with Lemieux over the phone about why R. Kelly has been able to survive so many scandals, and how to respond when an artist who makes art that you like is accused of doing monstrous things.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

R. Kelly’s tendency to go after teenagers and very young women has been public knowledge for years and years. Why do you think it’s been so often ignored?

Jamilah Lemieux

Honestly, I think the R. Kelly situation sits perfectly at the intersection of class, insane privilege, sexism, and specifically sexism toward black women and girls. If the majority of his alleged victims had been young white women, it’s just hard for me to believe he would have been able to go on so long virtually unchecked.

Constance Grady

And why is that?

Jamilah Lemieux

It’s hard to believe that there would not have been a more concerted effort by members of the law enforcement and the judicial system in the state of Illinois [where Kelly was sued by multiple women alleging that he initiated sexual relationships with them when they were minors], or in the state of Florida, where R. Kelly was tried on charges related to some of these allegations, and members of the music industry, and fans. I don’t see people standing for the sheer number of accusations against this person had these been young white girls.

Now, had this been a white male artist of R. Kelly’s level of celebrity and white female alleged victims, I can’t definitively say that he would not have escaped any sort of punishment for what he’s doing, but I don’t believe that anyone would have allowed R. Kelly, a black man, to allegedly abuse white girls in that way.

I hate to even make the comparison, because an abused girl is an abused girl and nobody deserves that sort of treatment. I think all girls should have the relative level of protection that is often — not always, but often — extended to white girls, specifically class-mobile ones.

But everything about this story reminds me of how much it takes for a black girl to be believed or to be taken seriously. I’m not only pointing the finger at law enforcement or the music industry or the media here. There are fans, many of them black women. There are supporters, even in our shared hometown of Chicago, who have willfully ignored the things we have said and heard and known about this man for years, because he’s popular, because he makes music that people like.

Constance Grady

What do you think is a good way of addressing this dilemma that we see with R. Kelly and with other very powerful men who are accused of hurting women, where the fan base will say, “Yeah, he probably did that, but I really like the art he makes”? How do you respond to that?

Jamilah Lemieux

I think that the relationship of a consumer or a fan to art is a personal one, and it’s really hard to, for lack of a better word, police something like that, to tell people how and when or why they should consume art.

The thing is, this person is still alive. This person is allegedly still harming girls. This person has been flippant and dismissive when met with these accusations. This person seems at the very least like he could be a possible danger to young girls and women in his company.

And again, there’s also the video. The video at the heart of the 2008 trial is something that was seen by a whole lot of people. If you go looking for it on the internet, it’s still there. So with some of the other allegations that have been leveled against powerful or influential or well-known men, there’s this absence of that sort of evidence. People have decided to take Kelly’s acquittal in that 2008 case as a sign that he’s just not guilty, but it has everything to do with the fact that the young lady who was in that video would not participate [in testifying against him].

Absent a victim, the state of Illinois could not prove a crime. But if you’ve seen even a screenshot of that video, there’s no question about the youth of that girl.

This is a person who makes music that is incredibly sexual in nature. This is someone who has written lyrics that play with the idea of age and consent, right? “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” for Aaliyah, and “Show me some ID” for “Bump N’ Grind.”

I am not somebody who is comfortable listening to somebody like that singing about sex. I would not want to send the message to him or to anyone else that I am complicit in things that it seems that he has done to young girls and women. Obviously other people feel differently.

It’s hard for me to tell someone that they have to divorce themselves from memories they may have created to that music, or the enjoyment they get from it. But I think it’s irresponsible to continue to make space for this person to continue to create, to continue to perform.

If there’s something that he recorded in 1992 or 2000 or 2005 before you knew these things about him, and that’s something that you still want to engage with, I suppose I can understand that a bit more, but this isn’t the sort of thing that makes you sit down? This isn’t a reason to lose a record deal or a sports sponsorship or the opportunity to collaborate with others in your field? I just find that to be inherently wrong.

Constance Grady

Do you think anything will change after this latest round of accusations?

Jamilah Lemieux

I hope so, but I’ve hoped that in the past. There have been some reports that his ticket sales are up, and that perhaps this spate of attention has increased that. I don’t know if people are going in hopes of seeing some sort of — I don’t know what they’re looking to see, if they’re looking for evidence, if they forgot R. Kelly existed and now that he’s making headlines again they want to go and see him. I’m saddened by that, but I hope we’re able to put some pressure on certain stakeholders to loosen their hold on him or their need to support him.

I think the most likely positive outcome from all of this is that young women will be reminded, or perhaps even taught for the first time, that these sorts of relationships are not acceptable, and they’re not okay, and they’re also not their fault. And we can have a conversation about that part of rape, which is something that a lot of people don’t seem to think actually exists at that point, where you can offer a verbal consent and you’re thus a consenting adult [and can still be raped], which is true.

I’m hoping that artists are turned off and decide they don’t want to be associated with somebody like this, and that the systems of deception and dishonesty and manipulation that allow a person like R. Kelly to behave as he allegedly has for so many years start to break, that somebody who starts to behave in the way he has allegedly behaved won’t get tied to a major label.

That instead of saying, “Okay, this artist is really talented, but he’s got this thing with little girls. It’s weird, but maybe we could just send somebody on the road, make sure the only girls who come back to his room are 18,” like, don’t take that chance! Don’t empower and embolden somebody like that. Say, “You know what, there’s some weird shit with this guy, and it’s not right. He has absolutely no room on any record label or any song that I’m producing.”

I think we have unfortunately almost run out of time to truly punish or hold R. Kelly accountable. And the fight to get people of the mind that he needs to be held accountable at all, I’ve found, is not nearly as easy it should be. We have gone through this in 2001 [when the first stories that Kelly was being sued for statutory rape broke], and in 2008 [when Kelly was tried for charges of producing child pornography], and then again in 2013 [when Kelly headlined Pitchfork], and then again now. There are so many people that are willing to say they’re standing by this guy.

Lady Gaga recorded a record with him after the trial, and gave a performance at an award show that almost gave a little wink and a nod to some of the things he’s been accused of. It’s really disheartening, but I’d like to believe if she had to do it all over again, and if people who collaborated with him in recent years had to do it all over again, they wouldn’t.

We may not be able to punish this R. Kelly, but I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to stop the next one.