R. Kelly ex­posed for what he truly is

The singer has been pro­tected by his fame for decades, writes Chris Richards

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - SUNDAY MAGAZINE -

“Peo­ple pay for what they do, and still more for what they have al­lowed them­selves to be­come. And they pay for it very sim­ply; by the lives they lead.”

– JAMES BALD­WIN

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 – which aired on Life­time over the week­end – re­counts the ag­o­nis­ing 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.

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 left­turn suc­cess of Trapped in the Closet, a se­ri­alised slow-jam about sex­ual trans­gres­sion that some­how felt like high com­edy. If Amer­i­can 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 gave me my first real by­line at The Post – she came back with a big­ger ques­tion: Should we be do­ing this?

Mar­cia 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 video of Kelly al­legedly hav­ing sex with a mi­nor? Or his 1994 mar­riage to the singer Aaliyah? (And how, at the time, Kelly was 27 and Aaliyah was only 15?)

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.

Mar­cia 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 swop, that was that. The re­view was pub­lished the next day, and I re­mem­ber feel­ing zero qualms about prais­ing an al­leged pae­dophile for his strange and beau­ti­ful mu­sic in the news­pa­per I had grown up read­ing.

In the years that fol­lowed, Mar­cia 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”.

Mar­cia’s 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 Mar­cia’s edit, but I had fi­nally reached “no”. The last time I put Kelly’s name in print was in 2014.

But we can still hold plenty of mem­o­ries in our heads at once.

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.

MICELOTTA/IN­VI­SION AP | FRANK

R KELLY per­forms at the BET Awards at the Nokia Theatre in Los An­ge­les.

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