Is it okay to like something even if the creator is problematic af?
by Dominic “CJ” Arenas
Staff Rhythm & Blues
On July 15, 2017 I tweeted: “Name a song that is as universally accepted as Ignition (Remix).” Two days later, Buzzfeed released an article claiming R&B icon, R. Kelly, has been holding women against their will in a “cult.” Before we dig into R. Kelly’s record of alleged actions and misconduct, let’s consider the impact of his music.
There are few songs that play at peak party hour that gets the DJ to stop the music and have the crowd sing back the lyrics. Bumping “Ignition (Remix)” is as common as seeing millennials snap pictures of their food, wear Thrasher shirts and Stan Smiths, and use the words “aesthetic” and “vibes.” “Ignition (Remix)” stands side by side with “No Scrubs” by TLC, “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, and “Ms. Jackson” by Outkast on the Mount Rushmore of songs no millennial hates. If the song doesn’t reside in your music library or if you haven’t sang “Toot Toot” and “Beep Beep” along with R. Kelly, are you really living?
As a child of the 90s, I remember watching Space Jam every night before sleeping. After pulling off a miraculous comeback with Bill Murray, Bugs Bunny, and the Looney Tunes against the Monstars, Michael Jordan arrives to his baseball game in a spaceship. As it lands, the hums of a gospel choir chime, and beams of light emerge from the spacecraft while R. Kelly sings, “I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky…” Cue the GOAT’s entrance, and you have the most 90s moment ever. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” is the cure to uneasiness before an exam, it’s the late night bite that cures hunger, and it’s the refreshing gulp of water at the peak of a mountain.
To hip hop head, friend, self-proclaimed “Early 2000s Music Jedi,” and graduate student, Dan Ablan, there’s room to separate art from artist. Ablan states, “It’s up to the listeners and consumers’ own morals on whether or not they can separate the artist from the music. Me personally, it’s tough to ignore his personal life, but I haven’t boycotted his music – I can still enjoy Ignition. For me, being aware of the allegations is enough and it does dampen my overall experience, but I still do it…He makes good music and there’s a space for me to enjoy it at least.”
- Kelly’s iconism is grounded in R&B but shaped with themes of sex. Aside from the more PG rated songs like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “The World’s Greatest,” R. Kelly’s discography includes, “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” “It Seems Like You’re Ready,” “Your Body’s Callin’, and “Bump and Grind.” Though R. Kelly has never been convicted of sexual misconduct, some of the stories of his mistreatment of women include secretly marrying the late R&B artist Aaliyah when she was 15 (Kelly was 28), urinating in an underage woman’s mouth, being indicted for child pornography charges, and most recently holding women against their will in a “cult.” Let’s not forget the time Kelly stated, “When you’re talking teenage girls, what age are we talking?”
Now here is where my mind is telling me, “No.” According to Jim DeRogatis who penned the Buzzfeed article on R. Kelly, “He seduces people with the promise of making them stars.” In addition to the false promise, these women must call R. Kelly “Daddy,” have him monitor their social media and phone usage, and wear jogging suits because Kelly doesn’t want their figure to be exposed. “This a pattern of behavior that’s two and a half decades long with dozens of women named in lawsuits or who have spoken off the record making similar heroin charges against R. Kelly,” DeRogatis added.
After going months without Kelly in my playlists, Dan showed me a video of R. Kelly singing an R&B version of the “Star Spangled Banner.” And after a long discussion with the 2000s Jedi and talking with another music lover and recent Fordham Grad, Leslie Sy, I came to a conclusion. Sy stated, “I put music on a level where it’s personal with me. If something makes me feel some type of way, I’ma feel it and take it in. I think any good music shouldn’t be lessened just by the person/people who made it. I like to separate the people and their art, and I like to enjoy the art itself.”
The same child that remembers Space Jam when listening to “I Believe I Can Fly” is now a man that cannot listen to “Bump and Grind” without feeling disgusted. But, I’ll stop listening to “Ignition (Remix)” whenever the next middle aged white male stops watching Woody Allen movies.