Millennial Musings - RHYTHM AND BLUES AND SHAME
January 1, 2019 | View PDF
I stopped listening to R. Kelly’s music a few years ago after being introduced to his monstrousness when the abuse at his Atlanta-maximum-security-McMansion first made headlines; I simply didn’t know and hadn't bothered to learn about the shade around him until then, despite its ubiquity in the popular consciousness (highlighted by the famous Chappelle Show sketch). What the new 6-part docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly”—produced by Lifetime and over a year in the making before premiering its first two hours on January 3rd—does instantly is convey the depravity of Kelly’s ho-hum, day-to-day abuses which have destroyed the lives of a seemingly never-ending stream of young women of color. Now, in the face of his reign of terror, it simply feels wrong to continue giving any sort of support to him that could lend itself to distracting from his reprehensible abuses.
What the series also did, however, was give me cause to remind myself (not on Spotify so he would not earn even a cent) how incredibly talented of a singer and performer he was (and by all accounts still is). He was nothing less than a superstar, and he deserved to be in prison the entirety of his tenure as purveyor of R&B smashes. His talents are wasted. To be sure, his wasted gift is nowhere near as shameful as either the horrors he has inflicted on so many real, living-and-breathing human beings or our all-too-familiar willingness to simply ignore the suffering of women of color. Shani Jackson, in her excellent recent piece in Rolling Stone, succinctly captured our shared moral failing with her musing that “[o]ne can’t help but wonder if Kelly would be in jail now if his alleged victims had been white and therefore viewed as valuable.” It remains to be seen which will ultimately prove more disgraceful, but I would suggest that we can recognize our mutual failure to treat women of color with fundamental dignity without minimizing the suffering of his victims. In either case, we wear a collective albatross heavy with the weight of our treatment of so many of our fellow human beings.
Still, though, piled on top of all that abuse and all our collective shame in ignoring the suffering of others, and only further putrefying our present moment, it is also a shameful disgrace that such a powerful gift was tainted and fundamentally squandered by his very existential vileness, and we are all worse off for it. The capacity to inspire passion and joy in one another—to do good despite the ease of doing bad (or ignoring the difference altogether)—is one of humanity's most affirming and redeeming qualities, and the fact that he wasted his ability to do so is a profound loss that detracts from our shared decency.
R. Kelly deserves to be in prison, and the fact that he's not is a shame.