Talent Over Morals

R Kelly

On the morning of Sunday, December 13th, I woke up to several messages telling me to listen to Chance, The Rapper’s new single “Somewhere In Paradise,” featuring Jeremih and R. Kelly. Making history the night before as the first independent act ever on SNL, Chance debuted the record to wild acclaim. Had I not taken my sweet time waking up, I would have given it a listen without a second thought, but by the time I grabbed my phone at noon, a heated discussion was already in the works. The conversation had centered around a couple points, all of which stressed the controversial nature of R. Kelly as an individual, and the fact that Chance gave him a feature on the single. In the past, R. Kelly has had several women speak out against him, claiming to have been the victims of his sexual abuse in their early teens and onwards. Given this information, the question that arose was whether or not it is acceptable for Chance to separate personal and professional life to ultimately make money off of R. Kelly, whether it be for his name or talent. The answer is a simple “no”; doing so means that we’re falling in the same trap of us adhering to our desires for entertainment over the detriment of others. Doing so means that we’re ignoring a difficult truth, and we’re willing to ignore a truth for the legacy of a celebrity that we look up to to remain untarnished. It’s not just our fault as listeners either, as Chance didn’t just co-sign a morally improper individual, he co-signed willful ignorance and our nature of choosing talent over morals.

Michael Jackson’s victims still listen to Michael Jackson. And they should, because they’ve been through a lot, and they need something beautiful and inspiring like his music.

The general lack of serious media coverage and public outrage that R. Kelly has faced in response to his actions stems from a collective reluctancy to admit that the person who created such widely loved songs like “Ignition (Remix)” is the same person that has over twenty allegations of rape against him. As a consequence, R. Kelly continues to coast down a relative path of success, and this is because we tend to separate the art from the artist to satisfy our own greed as listeners.

We have a much bigger tendency to turn a blind eye when the negative impacts of our consumeristic habits are social.

There are several problems with this kind of attitude. In this case, by turning a blind eye to the litany of allegations against R. Kelly and continuing to actively listen to his music, we are prioritising the release of more R&B music over the women who were victims of his abuse. The music industry capitalises on the fact that our priorities are out of wack and gives us single after single, album after album, show after show – perpetuating a culture that willingly accepts its own ignorance as long as we continue to separate the art from the artist. When the two are made mutually exclusive, the mindset that we take on is one that implies that as long as our consumerist needs are satisfied, we are practically indifferent to an artist’s personal history. Music journalist Jim DeRogatis broke the story on the R. Kelly accusations and continues to pursue the case. After Pitchfork announced that R. Kelly would be headlining their 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival, Derogatis commented that “They do journalism and they do criticism. And then when they are making money to present an act — that’s a cosign, that’s an endorsement.”

You could argue that this is the media’s fault. It’s more than that. There’s an interesting feedback loop that goes on between the voice of the media and the desire of the people versus the actual truth. Jerrod Carmichael describes it eloquently asking us if we

know how much Woody Allen is worth to the film industry? Apparently one daughter.

Around the 1:55 time signature in Carmichael’s standup segment, he reminds us why we still listen to R. Kelly.  “Do you know why they play [R. Kelly]?” Carmichael says, “Because he’s fuckin’ amazing.” Who cares about what he did? It’s okay if he peed on a kid just as long as he makes good music, right? Just as long as you’re talented, it’s perfectly okay to be a monster. Carmichael goes on to provide other examples of how we as a society have forgiven artists for their inhumane actions just because of their spectacular talent. Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Chris Brown, Kobe Bryant, Ray Lewis, OJ Simpson, Justin Bieber, Bill Cosby, and Mike Tyson just to name a few, have all “allegedly” committed crimes. Like watching a great basketball game or a spectacular boxing match, we as listeners would rather have more music than having to recognize the truth and injustice behind artists that we support.

People of celebrity status have a huge platform of influence over the audiences that admire their work

In the same way that Pitchfork “endorsed” R. Kelly, Chance the Rapper endorsed him by giving him a feature on his single. Whether or not it was for his artistry, the continued demand that his music, despite his history of being a child predator, was taken advantage of. As a Chance fan, my heart sank when “Somewhere In Paradise” was released. In so many ways I value Chance as a musician and generally as a person- given what little I know about his personal life. To have him choose R. Kelly, of all R&B singers he could have chosen to feature, ultimately changed my perspective on him as an artist. It made me believe that he cares more about what R. Kelly’s name in the music industry can do for his career, than how he himself would be contributing to the continuation of the specific branch of rape culture that passively accepts violence against women. Whether Chance was aware of the full scale of allegations against R. Kelly, or not, is unclear. Perhaps the extent of his knowledge of R. Kelly’s sexually abusive history is limited to the best-known allegation of him urinating in the mouth of a fifteen-year-old girl. Even if it was parodied by entertainment media time and time again, the knowledge of just the one allegation should be enough for Chance to realize that putting R. Kelly on a record is contributing to the pre-existing negligence that people have towards this one incident alone, not to mention the several other accounts of rape he was tried for.

This is not to say that Chance, or anyone else who decides to align themselves with R. Kelly, are “promoting” rape culture. To say that would be a stretch beyond all means. Yet, does allowing R. Kelly to jump on Chance’s track implicitly say it’s okay to ignore his actions outright? People of celebrity status have a huge platform of influence over the audiences that admire their work, and when they make a conscious decision to work with someone that has a history of violent treatment of young women, it adds to the air of nonchalance that these serious allegations are already treated with. I couldn’t look you in the eyes and tell you that I’ve never sang and danced along to “Bump and Grind,” or sat through the majority of “Trapped in the Closet.” On the other hand, knowing what I know about R. Kelly and the girls that were subject to his abuse, I do feel extremely guilty that I have played a contributing role in a society that chooses to want rather than listen. It can be easy for us to ignore. Humanity has ignored before, and adhering to our own ignorance for the simplicity of our own motives is easier and more enticing than digging within ourselves for a muddy truth.