I Muted R. Kelly

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Why did I continue to listen to R. Kelly’s songs long after supporting his music became a problem? It took my own experience with sexual assault to finally recognize the truth.
Aliya S. King Nov, 14, 2018

In the summer of 1984, I was sexually assaulted by a 17-year-old camp counselor. I was 12 years old. The counselor was from my hometown and I saw him every day at camp and then every day in school for the next year until he graduated.

Like many young girls, I couldn’t quite figure out how the incident made me feel. In many ways I still can’t. I didn’t want to tell anyone, because I was sure that it was somehow my fault. I just took a deep breath and went to school each day. The assault was awful on its own. But then I had to walk by him in the halls and see him at football games or in the cafeteria. He never said a word to me. He didn’t have to. I continued to feel abused by him every time I encountered him. I never saw him after he graduated, but I heard his name from my friends. I knew he had gone to college and become a pastor.

He eventually popped up on my Facebook feed, commenting on a post from a mutual friend. I clicked on his profile and fell down the rabbit hole of seeing his entire life. He had married, had children, bought a house, led a church. I had hot tears on my face as I saw how normal he seemed. I think I wanted him to be a clear idea of a monster. I wanted to see a mug shot—not a Christmas photo of a cheery family in matching pajamas; not an apparently decent man, loving husband and doting dad whose church members appeared to be faithful acolytes.

If I saw this man on the street today, would I say a word to him? Absolutely not. Would I visit his church? Never. For me, this man is canceled. Forever. Since 1984. I wouldn’t say I hate him, but I would never want anything to do with him, his family, his friends. I know exactly what canceling someone looks like and when it came to my abuser, I had no problem doing so.

I was lucky. My attacker wasn’t a relative. He wasn’t someone I had to see every day for years. He also wasn’t a beloved public figure who was consistently in the media. If my attacker had been R. Kelly, would I listen to his music? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t be able to stomach a single note. I wouldn’t be able to watch his videos or see him perform. He would be canceled. Instead, I was able to compartmentalize my own situation and heal from it in silence and peace.

When social justice activist Kenyette Tisha Barnes and arts administrator Oronike Odeleye launched the #MuteRKelly movement in July 2017, their goal was simple—keep him off airwaves and streaming services and shut down his live performances. Considering my own experiences, one would think I would have decided to #MuteRKelly back in the nineties. But I didn’t.

As a reporter and journalist, I’ve long known about R. Kelly’s alleged marriage to the late singer Aaliyah in 1994, when she was just 15. And in the early 2000’s, the office where I worked received a copy of the alleged videotape at the center of his child pornography trial. I saw the tape with my own eyes. After more allegations that now span decades, including a 2008 acquittal in the child pornography case, it’s clear that R. Kelly has been problematic for his entire career.

And yet I still listened to his music. Why wouldn’t I? The man has been called a musical genius, serving as a bridge from classic soul artists like Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder. Of course, celebrity worship has always been a tricky game. And one could argue that R. Kelly was no different from so many others. We can run down a list of musicians with problematic personal lives from the beginning of time and continue to present day. I grew up loving Marvin Gaye. Then I read about his relationships with women and was appalled—but I didn’t mute him. I separated the artist from the art.

Then I got married and had a daughter. As she grew and I began to hone my mama bear instincts, I had to have uncomfortable but necessary conversations with my child to protect her from sexual predators. By then, when R. Kelly’s music came across my playlists, I would feel uncomfortable. But my daughter loved to sing “I Believe I Can Fly,” which she’d learned in Pre-K, so I continued to separate the artist from the art.

In 2004 I got press tickets for R. Kelly and Jay-Z’s concert for their Best of Both Worlds tour. They were two of my favorite acts. Seeing them together doing joint and separate sets would be a dream come true. I got a date and a date-night outfit and headed to New York City’s Madison Square Garden. On my way into the show, I remember thinking, briefly, about everything I had heard about R. Kelly, all the way back to the Aaliyah rumors. When my date and I walked past the marquee, I looked up, saw the signage and felt a twinge of something at the sight of R. Kelly’s name.

I now know it was a twinge of guilt. But I packed it away and went to the show. I had a good time. We all did. Most of us in the invited audience of elected officials, celebrities and journalists knew what had been said about R. Kelly. Many of us had even reported on it. But we didn’t walk away from him as an artist. My own reasoning went something like this: I hadn’t paid money to see him, so I wasn’t really supporting him. In hindsight I realize it was a lame excuse, but at the time my cognitive dissonance allowed me to feel as if it had made sense.

I am now 44 and in my twentieth year as a journalist. As the mother of two young daughters, I am protective to a fault. As a music consumer and a writer, I’m also more discerning about whom and what I choose to report on and in what context. That’s because as the #MeToo movement took hold, I could not make excuses anymore. R. Kelly wasn’t my abuser. But how would I feel if my abuser were the pastor of a megachurch my family attended? Or if he were an author whose work was read and praised by many? Would I separate the minister from the message? Would I separate the writer from his words? And what if my abuser had continued to abuse other women for years and it was an open secret that my entire community just shrugged off. I would be devastated.

I finally understand, this is exactly what’s happening to scores of Black women who have reported that R. Kelly abused them in various ways. These women live in a world that simply doesn’t seem to care about their allegations. A world that separates the artist  from the art. A world in which people shrug off their accusations and blame them for being “fast” and inviting their own abuse.

These days I’m firmly on the #MuteRKelly train. Yes, that means not stepping in the name of love at the family reunion. It also means asking the Uber driver to change the station when R. Kelly comes on the radio. It doesn’t take money out of his pocket, but it keeps us aware. When my Uber driver asked me why I wanted to change the station, I told him. He was quiet for a moment and then asked more questions. This is how change happens. The next time, maybe he’ll turn it off on his own.

It’s not that difficult to #MuteRKelly and to make my position known. Skipping his performances and concerts is simple. So is deleting his songs from my iTunes library and streaming playlists. This matters. The music I play in my home and when my daughters are listening matters. It makes me think about why I’m not playing his songs—and about other artists who need to be canceled too.

Right is right and wrong is wrong, and I’m way late to this campaign. But better late than never, because power in numbers has always been the source of our progress—from slave revolts to civil rights sit-ins to the #MeToo movement. Though I finally hit the #MuteRKelly button, it should have been sooner; I think many will say the same as the movement continues to grow. There is no room for nuance anymore. The truth is, there never was. So, for my daughters’ sake and for women everywhere, I will no longer separate the artist from his art. º

Aliya S. King is a New York Times best-selling author and a freelance journalist in New Jersey.