Critic re­views his com­pli­cated com­plic­ity

New R. Kelly doc­u­men­tary in­spires writer to re­flect on how long it took to re­con­sider sto­ries


One of the more dif­fi­cult mo­ments of Sur­viv­ing R. Kelly comes at the very end when you’re left won­der­ing if you some­how played a part.

The six-part doc­u­men­tary, now air­ing on Life­time Canada, re­counts the ag­o­niz­ing sto­ries of abuse from Kelly’s numer­ous ac­cusers, and how the 51-year-old singer’s fame has shielded him from ac­count­abil­ity for decades.

And by “fame,” I mean “our col­lec­tive com­plic­ity.”

Whether you’re a ca­sual fan who paid 99 cents for Bump n’ Grind on iTunes, or an in­dus­try mogul who made your for­tune on Kelly’s name, you’re hold­ing a piece of the singer’s dev­as­tat­ing legacy in your hand. Big or small, now is a good time to open your palm and look at it.

As a mu­sic critic, here’s my piece: I was free­lanc­ing for The Wash­ing­ton Post in 2007 when I pitched a re­view of Kelly’s al­bum, Dou­ble Up, an ex­trav­a­gantly lewd as­sort­ment of R&B songs that could have eas­ily been ti­tled Dou­ble Down.

Kelly was still bask­ing in the left-turn suc­cess of Trapped in the Closet, a se­ri­al­ized slow jam about sex­ual trans­gres­sion that some­how felt like high com­edy. If U.S. soul mu­sic was about truth-telling, here was a singer will­ing to tell us some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary about the ab­sur­dity of sex. So, in the thrall of Kelly’s hy­per­bolic mu­sic, I had writ­ten a hy­per­bolic re­view.

When I filed the piece to Mar­cia Davis, an as­sign­ment ed­i­tor who cham­pi­oned young writ­ers and had given me my first real by­line at The Post a few years ear­lier, she came back with a big­ger ques­tion that I hadn’t an­tic­i­pated: Should we be do­ing this?

Con­tro­ver­sies were swirling around Kelly at the time, but my re­view had only men­tioned them in pass­ing. Davis wasn’t ready to green light my ex­ces­sive praise for a su­per­star who had al­legedly hurt so many. Shouldn’t we men­tion the charges of child pornog­ra­phy Kelly was fac­ing? Or the in­fa­mous video­tape of Kelly al­legedly hav­ing sex with a mi­nor? Or his 1994 mar­riage to singer Aaliyah? And how, at the time, Kelly was 27 and Aaliyah was only 15? That mar­riage, ruled il­le­gal, was an­nulled in 1995. Aaliyah died in 2001 in a plane crash at age 22.

I was rel­a­tively new to mu­sic crit­i­cism, con­fi­dent in my tastes, but inse­cure in my abil­i­ties, and I re­mem­ber not want­ing to mud­dle my frag­ile copy with all of that ugly in­for­ma­tion. So I de­fended my po­si­tion with a weak line of logic I had heard oth­ers use: What­ever this guy may or may not have done, it doesn’t change the qual­ity of his mu­sic.

Davis wasn’t sat­is­fied with that, but she gra­ciously met me half­way. We would men­tion the charges against Kelly early in the re­view. She also suggested I change the word “ge­nius” to “unique­ness,” and af­ter I war­ily con­sented to the swap, that was that. The re­view was pub­lished the next day, and I re­mem­ber feel­ing zero qualms about prais­ing an al­leged pe­dophile for his strange and beau­ti­ful mu­sic.

In the years that fol­lowed, Davis ap­peared on my shoul­der ev­ery time I wrote about R. Kelly, even when she wasn’t edit­ing me. She was in my head dur­ing a con­cert re­view I wrote in 2009 but, un­for­tu­nately, I was only half lis­ten­ing to her. Kelly had since been ac­quit­ted of those child pornog­ra­phy charges, and that was good enough for me to call the con­cert a “won­der­ful” show­ing from the man be­hind “one of the great­est song­books in the his­tory of R&B.”

But her voice never went away. By 2010, I had stopped at­tend­ing Kelly’s con­certs and I re­frained from re­view­ing his al­bums. I slowly stopped cit­ing his in­flu­ence on other mu­sic in my writ­ing, and I even­tu­ally stopped typ­ing his name al­to­gether. Should we be do­ing this? It had been seven years since her first edit, but I had fi­nally reached “no.” The last time I put Kelly’s name in print was in 2014.

Why had it been so hard for me to give up on this mu­sic? I kept com­ing back to the word that Davis had plugged into my re­view: “unique­ness.” That had to be it, right? It wasn’t that R. Kelly was great. It was that R. Kelly was sin­gu­lar. And once he en­tered his raunchy-ab­sur­dist phase in the mid-aughts, even his most stu­dious im­i­ta­tors (The Dream, Trey Songz) only seemed to prove that there would never be an­other singer as odd, ag­ile or funny as R. Kelly.

The cul­ture crit­ics in­ter­viewed on screen in Sur­viv­ing R. Kelly shed a lot more light on this. First, Ann Pow­ers ex­plains how Kelly’s over-thetop pruri­ence be­came a weird smoke­screen for him, an al­most wink­ing own­er­ship of his preda­tory be­hav­iour. Mean­while, critic Nel­son Ge­orge points to the up­lift­ing end of Kelly’s lyri­cal spec­trum, not­ing how we’ve danced to Step in the Name of Love at count­less wed­dings and how we’ve sung I Be­lieve I Can Fly at count­less high school grad­u­a­tions. To give up these songs is to give up our own mem­o­ries.

But we can still hold plenty of mem­o­ries in our heads at once. The next time I hear Ig­ni­tion (Remix), I’ll prob­a­bly re­mem­ber my friends singing it at a house party in 2003. I’ll hear Davis’s voice, too, re­mind­ing me that how we talk about this world shapes how oth­ers see it. I don’t want to over­es­ti­mate the im­pact of a few R. Kelly re­views, but I don’t want to un­der­es­ti­mate them ei­ther.

And now, af­ter watch­ing Sur­viv­ing R. Kelly, I’ll hear voices I hadn’t truly lis­tened to be­fore: the voices of Kelly’s sur­vivors, re­mind­ing me to turn the ra­dio off, re­mind­ing me to leave the dance floor, re­mind­ing me that it shouldn’t have taken so long.


Con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing R. Kelly are out­lined in a new doc­u­men­tary se­ries.



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