#MuteRKelly: It's the Remix to Conviction

Last week, the Lifetime network aired a six-part documentary series called Surviving R. Kelly. The series carefully documents the many sexual abuse, child pornography and kidnapping allegations against Kelly over the past three decades. Though I was familiar with a lot of the information from reading past media reports, it was even more heartbreaking to hear the gruesome details, directly, from the courageous survivors themselves. As the documentary asserts, the reason why Kelly has been able to get away with his actions for so long is because his victims were/are primarily black girls. If these girls had been white, there is absolutely no way Kelly would be a free man today. This is not an opinion or a theory—it’s the terrifying reality of Western society and its justice system.

I’ve been an R. Kelly fan since the first time I heard 12 Play back in grade eight. As an inexperienced, yet dangerously hormonal teen fully absorbed in the sounds of R&B and hip hop, songs like “Bump N’ Grind” and “Your Body’s Callin” felt like the forbidden sex tales of another world. It was the musical counterpart to Penthouse Forum and the Drambuie Showcase Review, all rolled into one. The following year, Kells released “You Remind Me of Something”, a slow-jam in which he compares a woman to a jeep. That’s right, a jeep. The sheer absurdity of these lyrics made me ponder whether this man was the world’s most inept poet or a comical genius. Either way, I was hooked.

He went on to produce protégé Aaliyah’s not-so-cryptically-titled Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number debut album. She would become one of the greatest R&B artists of all time, and sadly, one of his first victims. Over the next decade, Kells would drop a plethora of hits ranging from the anthemic (“Ignition (Remix)”, “Home Alone”), to the inspirational (“I Believe I Can Fly”, “I Wish”), to the ludicrous (the “Trapped in the Closet” anthology, “Sex Planet”). He would go on to sell millions of records, work with the top talents of any genre and win a roomful of awards, and thus, solidifying himself as one most powerful artists in the music industry.

Kelly would wield this power over dozens of young black women (primarily aged 13 to 17), imprisoning them and forcing them to engage--on camera--in the most heinous sex acts you could ever imagine. When the sexual abuse and child pornography allegations first surfaced in 2002, I was somewhat concerned. But like many others, I brushed them off as nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors. And when Kelly was acquitted of all charges six years later, I went right back to enjoying his music without a guilty conscience. When I found out he would be performing in Buffalo in December 2012, I quickly snatched up a couple of tickets and drove 90 minutes with a good female friend to see the show. Now, I say this without any hyperbole: It was one of the best shows I had ever seen. It was the most bizarre, engaging and memorable two-hour spectacles I have ever seen.

When the Village Voice published a series of reports in late 2013 through early 2014 which included comprehensive details from the original 2008 court documents, I learned about the specifics of Kelly’s alleged actions for the first time. Not only did I feel incredibly disgusted, I was also conflicted about my newfound relationship to his music. On one hand, I knew I could no longer support Kelly or his career, but it was hard to let go of the songs that had been a huge part of my teenage and early adult years. In Surviving R. Kelly, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke perfectly sums up this conflict: "We don't want to let go of R. Kelly because it means letting go of all of that catalog of music and the memories that go along with it. Whether you sang "I Believe I Can Fly" at your graduation, or "Step in the Name of Love" at your wedding, people don't want to let that go.”

It was around this time I began DJing regularly at bars and events, and I would quite often throw in an R. Kelly song or two during my sets. It felt innocuous and the overwhelmingly positive response I got from the crowd every time I played “Ignition {Remix)” or “Step in the Name of Love” ensured that I never second-guessed myself. But as more allegations against Kelly rolled in over the coming years, I began feeling more uncomfortable with playing his music during sets. I chose to rationalize this inner-conflict by promising myself that I would only occasionally play “Ignition (Remix)”, particularly Giraffage’s excellent remix of the song (and yes, that would make it the remix to the remix to Ignition). Despite the song killing 100% of the time, I knew it was wrong of me to play it. I could argue that I was simply playing to the crowd, but that’s an absolute cop-out.

Earlier this week, Pitchfork published Jayson's Greene op-ed “How Do We Live with Music Made by Problematic Artists”. It tackles this extremely nuanced dilemma with the insight and thoughtfulness of a music appreciator. He writes, “Any yet, passively accepting abusers' songs about themselves when their victims are given no voice at all... might also be a form of enabling, or even empowering, toxic behavior… Deciding whether 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.”

I deeply apologize to all of Kelly’s survivors for continuing to give Kelly a voice when they were unable to speak for themselves. It is now abundantly clear that I can no longer enable and empower problematic artists like Kelly by playing their music during my DJ sets. Does this mean that I need to stop playing the music of deceased legends like James Brown, Michael Jackson, John Lennon and others who were also publicly condemned for their indiscretions? Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that, and it will take some time to come to a concrete decision. All I know for now is that I will do everything I can to support the #MuteRKelly and #MeToo movements.

Justin Lee