When R. Kelly’s music plays, I change the station
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One persistent question in the #MeToo movement is whether to reject high-profile men who’ve committed a range of abusive acts toward women and dump their accompanying work.
I often separate the art from the artist. Not always, though. As books are pulled from shelves and music curbed from radio, censorship isn’t my preference. Let consumers choose.
But we are at a moment when everyone’s favorite is trash.
Pulitzer-winning author Junot Diaz wrote a new children’s book celebrating Black Girl Magic in the diaspora. A friend mailed the Spanish version to my toddler. Recent allegations portray Diaz as a patron saint of toxic masculinity. Yet, I still read the book to her.
Hip-hop artist Nas’ ex-wife alleges mental and physical abuse. A DJ played one of his songs at a party last week. I wasn’t sure if I should nod my head to the music or be disgusted that his song was played. Disgraced journalist Charlie Rose should not get a comeback #MeToo television show after the bombshell allegations against him.
Everyone’s moral compass differs. Certain violations and crimes carry more weight. Bringing attention to accused men’s artistry during these raw times seems inappropriate, but it is a necessary piece.
Society has a lot to do toward dismantling sexism and patriarchy. I suspect the conversations will remain arduous as more #MeToo stories surface. The difficult part isn’t just about believing women. It’s the aftermath of deciding who’s worth rehabilitation, casting aside or forgiveness. We’ve ignored women and protected men for so long that we’ll continue to struggle.
Honestly, problematic artists are nothing new. Marvin Gaye is my favorite singer, and he had a troubling pattern with young girls. Miles Davis reportedly abused his wives. I listen to him on Pandora. Has anyone actually stopped loving on Michael Jackson?
Cue R. Kelly.
Ten years ago, I covered the trial of the Chicago R&B singer. He beat the child pornography charges in the Cook County Criminal Court that stemmed from a grainy home VHS sex tape. A jury finding him not guilty didn’t surprise me because the girl in the video didn’t testify.
For decades, Kelly, who has revealed like Diaz that he was sexually abused as a child, eluded jail time while rumors swirled about his predatory ways. If you’re a black woman of a certain age like me, you have a story about him hitting on a teenage girl you knew from the 1990s. Probably in the McDonald’s parking lot near his alma mater Kenwood Academy — long after he finished school.
Columnist Mary Mitchell and music critic Jim DeRogatis on these very pages have consistently called out Kelly in the name of protecting black girls. And so have black feminists. His career never derailed as he kept bumpin’ and grindin’. Fans blamed black girls in his clutches for being “fast.”
Now it’s different. The #MeToo movement caught up with him via a #muterkelly campaign led by local activists from groups like the West Side-based nonprofit A Long Walk Home. His appearance at a concert earlier this month at the University of Illinois-Chicago was canceled.
We should listen to black feminists more. After all, a black woman, Tarana Burke, created #MeToo. After Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction, Burke and a group of black feminists weighed in at Colorlines.
What Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who’s done a documentary on rape, said has stayed with me because it shifts the discourse beyond punitive measures.
She said: “I also know that prison sentencing will not eradicate rape culture, nor does it equate accountability and transformative justice. In an ideal world, Cosby should be required to be in daily counseling with a Black feminist licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual trauma. I am unwavering that Cosby should donate a significant amount of his remaining resources to organizations that have a demonstrated track record of working to end sexual violence in holistic ways that emphasize community accountability, restorative justice and transformative justice.”
I like R. Kelly’s music. Not all of it, but quite a bit. He’s a modern-day blues artist. He’s shown no repentance, asked for no forgiveness. The only hat trick left is to invoke the nonstop allegations against him are a public lynching. Shameful. Kelly’s seems to surround himself with enablers. He’s apparently dealt with trauma and inflicted trauma on others.
Simmons’ words apply to him as well if we’re inventing bold ideas around restorative justice. It’s hard to imagine Kelly’s music not played on Chicago urban radio. In fact, I heard “Step in the Name of Love” the other day. I turned to another station.
Sun-Times columnist Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
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