R. Kelly is one of the most successful R&B singers of all time. He’s sold 75 million albums and singles and won numerous honors including Billboard, BET, and NAACP awards, Grammys, and even the key to the city of Baton Rouge. But he’s also been hounded by decades of serious allegations: sexual abuse, child pornography, pedophilia, and imprisoning women in a cult.
We crave simplicity, even moreso in a social media dominated world of memes and hot takes. We want to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how we should feel about this or that artist.All of this came to a head in January when the Lifetime network aired Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries about the allegations against Kelly that included interviews with musicians like John Legend and Chance the Rapper, activists, and former partners.
If you spend any time delving into the morass of issues surrounding Kelly, one thing becomes immediately clear: not only do the charges against him go back decades, but they’ve never really been that much of a secret. Read any article by or interview with critic and journalist Jim DeRogatis — who’s been covering Kelly for nearly 20 years — and you’ll see that none of the allegations are new.
Indeed, everyone seemed to know about Kelly’s lifestyle, but nobody did anything to hold him accountable for it (for a number of reasons). As a result, Kelly enjoyed a long, lucrative career, collaborating with some of the biggest names in pop music, including Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Chance the Rapper, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, and Pharrell. (Some of those artists, like Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper, have since apologized for these collaborations.)
Sadly but not surprisingly, R. Kelly isn’t the only beloved artist who has been embroiled in controversy. Michael Jackson, Jimmy Page, David Bowie, Tupac Shakur, to name a few — all celebrated for their artistic genius, and all accused of crimes ranging from molestation to rape. And if you move beyond the realm of music, the list of artists and important figures with skeletons in their closet grows even longer, with names like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Tom Brokaw, and Donald Trump on the roll.
Whenever new allegations like these emerge, we’re faced with yet another instance of that age-old quandary: can we separate art from the artist? Can artists who are moral failures create meaningful art? Or put another way, can we continue to find beauty and truth in art created by human beings who’ve done terrible things, and if so, how? And if we do, what are the consequences of that?
This is the moral reality that we now face: it’s increasingly harder to claim ignorance about the ramifications of our choices, including something as seemingly innocuous as the music we listen to. Our never-ending and boundless access to a worldwide network of news and information prevents us from doing so. Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s never been easier to learn the details of an artist’s sordid and controversial activities — and where does that leave us?
Pitchfork‘s Jayson Greene made an interesting observation about music in particular that further muddies the water:
[M]usic doesn’t happen to us. We choose to take it in. Music is a consumer choice even when it doesn’t feel like one — even though it perhaps uniquely doesn’t feel like one — and it is best-suited to the subterfuge of implication-free engagement. You are listening to trapped air, rendered into code and recreated in your brain. Home listening feels so private; how could listening to this song have any ramifications for anyone, anywhere else?
Later, he expands on the complexities introduced by both the economics of the music industry and the inherently private nature of music (emphasis mine):
When you choose to expose yourself to the songs of an abuser, you are also subjecting yourself to a sustained whisper campaign for their inherent virtuousness, for the empathy, the tortured humanity, lying within them. Seeing humanity in all humans, even murderers and abusers, can be a powerful and clear-eyed practice. It might be what some have called “radical empathy.” It may even be music’s highest function, if we allow it to happen — permitting the existence of beauty within deep ugliness, persuading us to remember that all humans share the mystic and strange impulse to make music, or to partake in it.
And yet, passively accepting abusers’ songs about themselves when their victims are given no voice at all — and more, when their victims usually disappear into the cracks of society, often hounded by death threats from the artist’s massive fanbase — might also be a form of enabling, or even empowering, toxic behavior. We cast votes for artists with the invisible flow of our attention spans, and their implications are nearly impossible to track. Deciding where to draw or redraw our lines is always messy, retconned, and incomplete. It is murky right up until the point it suddenly seems crystal-clear and undeniable.
It’s easy to say that we’ll never listen to that song, watch that movie, or read that book ever again — that we’ll delete them from our computer or toss them in the trash. When I heard my son singing (for some reason) R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” it was a no-brainer to tell him that song was written by somebody who’s done terrible things to women, and to stop singing it. But decisions that seem black-and-white at the personal level grow incredibly complicated at scale, as Spotify discovered when they announced actions against the music of R. Kelly and XXXTentacion.
For starters, what criteria should we even use to make such a decision? Throughout the history of art, terrible people have created transcendent works, which is one of the perplexing conundrums in art as well as evidence that art can be a conduit of common grace. So perhaps a good starting point would be to ask whether said art was created in spite of the artist’s failings, or in accordance with them? Does the art reveal the artist wrestling with, confessing, and/or critiquing their sins and failings, or celebrating and affirming them?
It’s never been easier to find possible answers to those questions or evidence to help us decide one way or the other. The very same nigh-unlimited access to information that prevents us from feigning ignorance can be the very same thing that helps us understand the consequences of our actions, and make more informed decisions.
Even then, it’s still complicated, if only because of art’s subjective nature. Put simply, different art and artists strike people differently. It’s entirely possible for someone to find something deeply valuable and meaningful in a song, book, movie, or other cultural artifact created by the worst offender, the most noxious individual. It’s just as possible for someone else to be so offended by that same artist that all of their works are forever tainted and ruined. There are also infinite gradations of allowance and offense between those two poles. And all of these reactions can be equally legitimate.
We know all this to be true, but we don’t want complexity. We crave simplicity, even moreso in a social media dominated world of memes and hot takes. We want to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how we should feel about this or that artist. Furthermore, even though we should desire to be responsible and moral consumers of culture, that same desire can create a sort of paralysis as we become aware of the ever-growing number of unintended consequences to our decisions — of the increasing tangle of brokenness and corruption that can accompany even the most seemingly trivial of preferences (like who we add to a Spotify playlist).
Regardless of who we’re talking about, it has become increasingly difficult in the #MeToo era to continue pleading ignorance about those who use their power, privilege, and prestige to take advantage of others. This is a good thing, but it can make it hard to know what we should enjoy — sometimes it seems like every artist is problematic in some way, shape, or form.
In the end, we’re left with two truths: it ultimately becomes a matter of personal conscience and there needs to be some measure of grace. Grace first for the artists (along with justice and accountability for those who have wronged others, and understanding, compassion, and healing for their victims) and second, for our fellow consumers, who are as limited, irrational, and flawed as we are. Just as different people have different convictions when it comes to types of music, different people have different convictions when it comes to problematic artists. Any such convictions should be well-informed and not just knee-jerk reactions, but at the same time, should be understood and respected even when challenged.
This approach may seem wishy-washy, especially when it’s so easy to profess our condemnation and outrage online. And it may seem dismissive of the awful crimes perpetrated by some of our culture’s biggest icons. Without trying to dismiss any one person’s individual convictions or derail the pursuit of justice, I believe that navigating the ambiguity and brokenness that exists everywhere in our culture — and so obviously within our culture’s entertainment — with grace, patience, and compassion is the only way to do so in a manner that both honors God’s own displays of grace and contributes to a greater flourishing.