Opinion

Surviving R. Kelly: The Issue With Separating Art And Artist

Chloe Meley discusses the ethical conundrum of separating art and artist and places it within the broader context of the political correctness debate.

By Chloe Meley

2016 began with the deaths of many beloved celebrities. 2017 began with the inauguration of Donald Trump. January 2018 began with Time’s Up and the trial of Larry Nassar, maybe setting the tone for years to come; at least for 2019. Indeed, we ushered in this year with MeToo still freshly imprinted in our minds, and as we were honing our New Year’s resolutions, we got yet another reminder of how gendered power imbalances are embedded in the fabric of society.

A six-part documentary called ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ was released Thursday January 3rd through Saturday January 5th on Lifetime, shedding light on the long-standing accusations of sexual misconduct against the R&B singer and providing a detailed account of the abuse he inflicted on underage girls throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

The documentary dives deep into the numerous allegations Robert Kelly faces, and features the testimony of several women who claim to have been sexually assaulted by the singer as teenagers. Over the course of the years, Mr. Kelly faced numerous lawsuits, including multiple accusations of having had sexual intercourse with a teenager and several child pornography charges. In 1994, when he was 27, he married 15-year-old Aaliyah Haughton, whose age was changed to 18 in the wedding certificate. The documentary also confirms that Mr. Kelly’s relatives and former associates knew of Mr. Kelly’s taste for young girls, protecting him or turning a blind eye as he actively sought them out during the height of his fame.

Mr. Kelly always escaped the law. Wealth can buy you your freedom in the American justice system, and America’s bias against young black girls only helped him. Racialised understandings of juvenile candor pervade American society, as the leniency normally afforded to the youngest members of society is not extended to black children. This results in young black boys being shot by police and young back girls being hypersexualized and held responsible for arousing the grown men around them. Stripping children of their innocence makes their victimhood less believable, and that played against the survivors’ favor in court. In the documentary, one juror who was asked about the victims and their statements during the trial said “I just didn’t believe them, the women”. He continued “I know it sounds ridiculous. The way they dress, the way they act – I didn’t like them.”

When the documentary aired, social media picked up on it quickly. Outrage spread and support for the victims was professed. A conversation about chronic sexual abuse was once again ignited, and racial dynamics were undeniably an essential part of the picture. But because it is social media, trolls and critics are never far behind, looming in the digital shadows. Rebuttals of Mr. Kelly’s guilt can be summarised in two major lines of defense. First, Robert Kelly is a victim himself. According to that argument, the R&B singer is at the heart of a public lynching campaign designed to bring down an important member of the black community. This in itself deserves to be analysed in more depth, but that goes beyond the scope of this article.

Another objection to the large-scale, all-encompassing condemnation (and “cancellation”) of R. Kelly, is that we should be separating the art from the artist. On the surface, this argument appears somewhat more reasonable and less rooted in bad faith than an outright denial of the allegations’ legitimacy. The argument’s proponents were offering a moderate, tepid alternative to full-fledged fury: enjoying an artist’s music does not mean condoning their personal failings, were they saying. And they probably thought that they were the ones making the most sense, that were standing out from the raging, clamorous cacophony that grew more deafening with every tweet. They were not.  

This does not need a convoluted analysis about navigating the moral quicksand and social retribution systems that are activated when one decides to support an artist regardless of their evildoing. The moral quandary and social punishment a person can be subjected to when they decide to profess their unwavering appreciation for their problematic fave does not truly matter. What matters is accountability. And when someone decides that it is possible to separate art from artist, they bypass accountability. Reconciling your love for an artist with your own moral convictions through creating that separation between their art and their person is a privilege that is only afforded to those who have not suffered at the hands of that particular abuser. The young girls that were sexually assaulted and psychologically damaged by R. Kelly do not only reluctantly bop to Ignition (Remix), they wish it would stop being played altogether. Woody Allen’s adoptive daughter wishes her alleged abuser would stop being praised, defended, idolized. Louis CK’s victims surely wish he would not be given the opportunity to perform again, without having ever offered any form of apology or having expressed any regret. The same goes for so many singers, directors, comedians that still bask in adulation, revel in their genius status, take advantage of the fact that people so readily draw a line between who they are and the art they produce. This kind of reasoning completely circumvents the problem of the abuse itself by centering the art instead.The fact that R. Kelly is a serial rapist and child abuser is relegated to a secondary issue. The argument essentially says: the art is good, and that should be the only thing that matters. It doesn’t say that survivors are lying, it just says that it’s not really the point whether they are or not, that we’re not listening anyway. Instead of blaming, it ignores, which might be even more pernicious, even more destructive.

But beyond the noxiousness of this reasoning, it’s also important to recognize how faulty it is at its core. Art and artist not only should not, but also cannot, be separated. Art and artist are entangled together in many interwoven ways. Art is the artist’s livelihood. It doesn’t matter if you feel a bit guilty while listening to R. Kelly’s music, the money from the streams will still go to him, ensuring him a financial safety net that will certainly prove useful as a shield against justice. Beyond the idea of financially supporting an abuser, it is also important to recognize the ways in which art never exists in a vacuum. Art is at its very core a product of the artist’s inner world. Art is suffused with the artist’s personal life, convictions, afflictions. Many of R. Kelly’s songs that described some kind of sexual act or attraction are likely to have been written about young girls, for instance. The art is therefore not separate from the artist, firstly because the art benefits the artist but also, and more insidiously so, because the artist infuses the art with his own self.

Moreover, this whole idea of separating the art from the artist is inscribed in a broader context of the debate regarding political correctness. Those who insist on making artistry and selfhood two distinct entities will also probably tell you that this outrage about R. Kelly, just like so many things in our supposedly oversensitive society, is a symptom of the disease that is political correctness. Last year, when Spotify decided to remove all R. Kelly songs from playlists on its platform, the move was considered by some to be the latest in a series of free speech violations engineered by the self-righteous whims of thin-skinned millennials. Kendrick Lamar even threatened to pull his own music from the platform if the removal was ever initiated. But the issue is not free speech, and never was. What people call political correctness with a tinge of disdain in their voice, they’re actually referring to a changing political and social system in which groups that were previously marginalised and silenced now have more power, visibility, and the possibility to socially sanction (i.e “call out”) those who try to negate the validity of their existence. Anti-PC crusaders’ arguments are never truly about free speech, they’re at their core about control, and the nostalgy of a control they’ve now lost.

Deciding not to separate the art from the artist is not about getting mad at people for enjoying the things they enjoy, whether it is a rape joke, sexist adverts, or music made by abusers. It is a conscious decision to hold accountable abusers and listen to the survivors, and to understand that entertainment is not apolitical, that your decisions are always made within a broader context, are never devoid of meaning, and will most certainly have ramifications.

Art should evolve. Artists should be held accountable. Art and artist are co-creating entities, and should never be separated for the sake of an argument that ultimately denies survivors respect and affords abusers protection. At the time of writing, Robert Kelly has just been arrested following the release of the Lifetime documentary. It is a good thing, but the issue is still there, deeply entrenched. As long as there are abusers who create subjectively good art, and as these abusers are denounced one after the other, there’s going to be a lot of people claiming that art should be separated from artist. They’re going to say that we should not be too sensitive, that we should learn how to appreciate a song, a comedy set, a film without associating it with the person who created it, that we should let people enjoy things. But the thing is, art cannot be separated from the artist. Not from a financial point of view, not from a moral one, not even from an artistic one. Honestly, it is as simple as that: the artist is the art, the art is the artist, survivors should not be ignored, Robert Kelly should be in jail, and your playlist could do with a little update anyway.

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