When I was nineteen, I made a solemn promise to myself: I would play R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” at any and every house party that I attended. And for years I kept this vow.
Ignition (Remix) is one of the most delightfully schmaltzy pop-R&B confections ever put forth by humankind. Written and produced by Kelly, It’s darn near perfect–those smirking funk guitar lines, the exquisitely sing-along-able “toot toot, beep beep” hook, and lines like, “It’s the freakin’ weekend baby/ I’m about to have me some fun.” Based on my own experience, I’d say that playing this song at a party (or small work-related get-together, or, hell, probably even the DOL) has a 98-percent chance of inciting drunken grinding.
I planned on inflicting (or bestowing, depending on how you look at it) this song on unsuspecting party-goers for years, until I read something I saw on Twitter.
Specifically, I read this interview in the Village Voice. The interview, between Jessica Hopper and Jim DeRogatis, two of my personal favorite music critics and writers, re-visits DeRogatis’ role in uncovering a staggering number of sexual assault charges filed against R. Kelly. DeRogatis was the guy responsible for uncovering the infamous video (for which Kelly was eventually indicted and acquitted on charges of child pornography) of the R&B superstar allegedly urinating on an underage girl. However he also reported on over two-dozen other cases filed against Kelly by underage girls who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by him.
Reading the interview, the attached court documents and DeRogatis’ earlier reporting completely shifted my views on R. Kelly and his work. Songs like I Like The Crotch on You or Marry the P***y, which at one point seemed gleefully irreverent, started to sound downright icky. And a Pitchfork review of his 2013 release Black Panties, in which the author wrote “The Pied Piper of R&B finds himself head over heels in love with pussy” made me feel physically nauseous.
So I haven’t listed to R. Kelly since. I don’t playIgnition (Remix) at parties now (I’ve since switched to OutKast’s B.O.B.) and I avoid his music as much as possible. But while cutting R. Kelly out of my diet was relatively painless, it posed a pretty difficult question for me to contend with.
How should we, as consumers and fans, react to art created by morally dubious people? I don’t mean “morally dubious” in the puritanical sense of right-wing journalism. I mean real, reprehensibly shitty behavior, like John Lennon beating his wives, or Jimmy Page sleeping with a fourteen-year-old girl, or Eric Clapton going on a drunken, racist rant where he yelled “keep Britain white!” Or even alleged shittiness, like hip-hop pioneer Afrikaa Bambaataa being accused of molesting several young men.
It’s an incredibly difficult question to answer, particularly as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about both music and social justice. I really don’t feel like giving up The Beatles, Led Zepplin or Clapton, but I also don’t want to contribute to a system which rewards “brilliant” men and disenfranchises the people or groups whom they’ve hurt.
This isn’t just a problem we have to confront in music. Recently, in this same vein, much has been made of The Cannes Film Festival and Woody Allen. Ronan Farrow, Allen’s estranged son, penned an essay in The Hollywood Reporter in support of his sister Dylan and the sexual abuse that she has long maintained that she experienced at the hands of their famous father.
When questioned about the essay, Allen responded that he hadn’t read it, and he “never think[s] about it.” Does Woody Allen’s alleged sexual abuse and über-gross blasé attitude mean that I can’t watch Annie Hall anymore? But if I know he’s a despicable human who’s been shielded by the media because he’s famous, white and “quirky,” can I still enjoy his movies?
If we love someone’s art, if it speaks to us, nourishes us, helps us find structure and meaning within our own lives, are we co-signing their actions as a person?
It seems extreme, if not outright impossible, to avoid all art made by not-so-great people. For one, everyone is a crummy person sometimes. No matter how brilliant and otherworldly an artist’s work may be, they’re human beings and sometimes they’re going to suck. For another, the work of great artists often has little to do with their particular brand of terrible-ness. As DeRogatis notes, that’s perhaps the hardest thing about R. Kelly. Unlike Lennon or Clapton, his music is eerily intertwined with his predatory behavior. It becomes even more difficult to take a stance when you consider collaborations. A few months ago, I posted Tinashe’s Player to my friend’s Facebook wall. The song features human trash bag Chris Brown, and a commenter quickly pointed out that he’s a quantifiable awful person who unrepentantly assaults people. Obviously I can’t stand Chris Brown, but I love Tinashe, and I love that song. It seems unnecessary to blacklist a female artist whom I quite like, because she made a god-awful choice in collaborators.
However, despite all of that, we should remain critical of our own complicity in the transgressions of famous artists, particularly when–as in the case of Kelly–those transgressions are aided and abetted by structural violence against marginalized communities. As consumers we have economic, and therefore cultural and political, power. Refusing to critically examine the content that you consume, simply because it’s uncomfortable, is, at the very least, irresponsible.
Look, I’m not saying there’s an easy answer. And I’m definitely not saying that the answer is going to be the same for every person. Maybe you decide that you can always separate the art from the artist. Great! Maybe you’re cutting out art created by straight, white cis-men in order to more fully focus on marginalized voices. Also great! But whatever you do, whatever you watch or listen to, think critically about what it means in a larger context.
Even if it means that you have to change up your party playlist.