Love the Art and Hate the Artist, or, Is There Something Wrong with a little “Bump and Grind?”
I’m going to get this out of the way: I love R. Kelly’s music.
The first time I heard “I Believe I can Fly,” was in Space Jam. You know the scene. Michael Jordan, having just returned on a cartoon spaceship after a brief stint in Looney Tune land, steps out onto the field of Regions stadium. His arrival is heralded by none other than Stan Podolak, the Baron’s new publicist. Cue giant wind machine blowing the pristine hair of Michael’s skeptical wife; cue frantic head turning, jaw drops, and shock/awe from the crowd; Cue R. Kelly song and huge standing ovation.
My childhood heart swelled with hope at the idea that I, too, could be shitty at baseball, befriend a vivacious group of woodland creatures, and learn the true importance of having Michael Jordan on your team. I mean, in your movie. Shit, I meant teamwork. Sorry, I’m drunk. The point is, I loved it. And that R. Kelly song cemented the experience for me as a 6 year old with hoop dreams and a fear of fastballs. In short, I was hooked on Kellz.
Fast forward to 2002. I’m 12, love Toaster Strudels and the Ruff Ryders’ Anthem, and am struggling to download porn on KaZaA without infecting my family’s computer with malware. Music journalist Jim Derogatis breaks the story in the Chicago Sun Times of Kelly’s sex scandal with a 15-year-old. The world goes crazy. The next year, Dave Chapelle makes this hilarious skit highlighting Kelly’s alleged urination on the minor. It was everywhere, from actual news outlets to MTV, a writer for whom actually wrote an article titled, “Can R. Kelly Fly Again Following Sex Scandal?” (as if R. Kelly were a majestic bird, hampered by the plastic 6-pack rings I always clip when my girlfriend tells me to). As the years went by, one thing became certain: Kelly certainly would ‘Fly again.’ But the real question is, should he have been allowed to?
What if one of your favorite artists does something terrible. Can (and should) you still support and enjoy their work?
At least once a week at my job, I play R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest” at a high volume. When asked why, I usually say, “just to keep everything in perspective,” or “I’m practicing my Karaoke catalogue.” One time recently, though, I gave a coworker my standard response, and he replied, “Even though he’s been accused of having sex with a bunch of minors? You know he married Aaliyah when she was 15.” I paused before responding. Not for effect, but because I had no idea how to justify my love for his music (also because I didn’t know he married Aaliyah). And worse, if I did try and justify his actions, what type of person did that make me? I ended up saying something like, “Oh, man that’s…yeah, that’s tough. Yeah, I really, hmm..yeah. I just..really like this song?” He raised his eyebrows and nodded, dismissively. I panicked. “I mean, I don’t agree with anything that he does, but c’mon, his songs are good…right?” My own lack of conviction startled me. He shrugged his shoulders, and (praise be) the moment passed. But the question lingered in my mind: if this artist is guilty of something I am actively against, why would I willingly consume his art?
Musicians have always had plenty of problems: Jerry Lee Lewis had an affair with his 13-year-old second cousin; Chuck Berry transported a 14-year-old across state lines (think: kidnap); Michael Jackson allegedly molested a dozen young boys (see: Katt Williams); Rick Ross condoned rape via unsolicited drink additions; A$AP Rocky’s had a shitty, homophobic attitude when presenting next to openly gay NBA player Jason Collins; There are loads more, involving rape, homophobia, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug abuse, etc.
Overwhelmingly, our culture has proven that as long as these individuals continue to create “valuable,” “culturally relevant” output, we’ll give them a pass (don’t even get me started on athletes). Sure, their careers might take a hit — Rick Ross doesn’t get free Reeboks anymore :’( — but they breeze through the situation, unharmed.
The people consuming the art, however, do not.
Consumers internalize the social politics and lack of consequences their favorite artists’ face after doing something negative. Those negative actions become normalized to them, as does their escape from the resulting social and legal hurdles. How are we supposed to judge artists, then? If we don’t also hold their art accountable for their actions, then aren’t we condoning the behavior that supports the creation of that art? Can we ever separate the two?
I have an English degree. I don’t say this to be condescending — I’m actually pretty stupid. I say this because in my classes, my teachers spent a good chunk of time talking about “authorial persona,” which is the invention of a character used as a narrator or otherwise central figure who moves the story along. Even if an author’s life mirrors their character’s life heavily, that character can’t be assumed to speak for the author. I was always frustrated with this idea in school, because it seemed like a lot of authors said shitty, misogynistic, and/or racist things via their characters, and got a free pass because those were fictional creations and not autobiographical ones. Even if there were other accounts of them being shitty, misogynistic, and/or racist in their real lives. I can’t help thinking about this in relation to the music that I love, and the art I willingly consume.
I absolutely don’t condone violence (sexual, domestic, etc.) anywhere in my personal life. But sometimes I think that if I enjoy art made by artists who are guilty of these actions in their personal lives, then by extension, I kind of…do.
Let’s use Rick Ross to illustrate this point. Born William Leonard Roberts II, Ross took his name from an actual kingpin, Miami drug Czar “Freeway” Rick Ross. He crafted his identity on boasts of fortune accrued from cocaine sales and mob deals, referring to himself as “The Boss.” Rap fans ate it up. Even once his background as a corrections officer surfaced and was confirmed by Ross himself, his fame only grew. Rap fans willingly bought into the bravado and machismo of his persona, the suspension of disbelief which accompanies it. From Slate: “What ultimately makes Rick Ross… [an] interesting artist is that he illustrates the fictiveness and wild fungibility of hip-hop identity precisely as he makes the case for his rock-hard authenticity” (just Googled fungibility; still not sure what it means). The point is, can we even judge Ross as a human based on his dual existence as William Leonard Roberts II? At what point can WLR, the man, pass the buck to Rozay, the persona, and pull a Shaggy (hint: It wasn’t me)? When are artists allowed to divorce themselves from their artistic creations, and when do they have to take responsibility? When should we as a culture take a stand against the art that they create?
More examples: in 2013, English artist Graham Ovenden was convicted of six counts of indecency with underage girls. His art was summarily removed from the gallery that held it, and he was given a suspended sentence. Many felt the punishment was too lenient. In an article for the Telegraph, Sean Thomas draws a parallel to another well-known, artistically-inclined pedophile: Caravaggio. Again, I’m confronted with the question, is it possible to appreciate art when the artist is a scumbag?
What about renowned playwright Oscar Wilde, imprisoned for soliciting sex from very poor, underage boys? I definitely read and saw a performance of The Important of Being Earnest in high school. A play written by a man who abused young men who were the age that I was when I was reading his play. Importance isn’t on any banned books list, because the actual book doesn’t have any nefarious happenings (except when Algernon eats all the goddamn cucumber sandwiches). Lolita, however, is always going to be on that list. Why? because the humble narrator is a horrible, horrible pedophile. But what if Nabokov were legitimately a pedophile? His art, then, would be judged as a reflection of his lifestyle, instead of a fictional story.
Are Nabokov’s, Wilde’s, and Caravaggio’s art somehow more valuable than R. Kelly’s? Maybe. But that feels pretty classist to me. High art by the educated versus gospel/R&B music by a man who purportedly can’t read? Lord, help us.
Okay, you got me. I don’t actually care about Caravaggio. If you gained anything from my intro, it’s that I love 90's R&B and live action basketball blockbusters, not 17th century oil nudes of young boys. But it falls into the same category of scrutiny: People love and respect the art, separate from the artists’ personal life. So, can I still reasonably and responsibly enjoy slow jams and top 40 hits without actively contributing to the culture of violence, negligence, abuse, silencing, and erasure it creates?
At the end of the day, as much as I love these artists, and as tied to my memories as these super erotic beats and soulful lyrics are, they contribute to a culture that gives hall passes to artists who steamroll over criticism, controversy, and sexual politics. Artists who attempt to justify their behavior are always pilloried. Michael Jackson, for example, never recovered — physically, emotionally, or artistically. He created Neverland to extend the feeling of childhood ad infinitum, to interact and inappropriately nurture young boys, in an effort to attain a permanent state of boyhood. That’s really sad, but no less illegal. He died a shell of a man, ravaged by years of inner turmoil and media scrutiny.
In stark contrast, A$AP Rocky said, “But I love fashion! I have many gay friends!” Rick Ross issued some Twitter apologies, switched his Reebok’s for Jordan 3's, and dropped a new album. The world kept turning, and we as a culture seemed to say, “so what? Mastermind was dope.”
I’m not saying Rick Ross is innocent because he’s a caricature of a rapper and R. Kelly is guilty because he has literally peed on someone. Or that Caravaggio and Wilde were from different times so their boy love is acceptable. But all are involved in the same intersectional narrative of persona, performance, and art. Obviously, when someone is convicted of a crime and sent to prison, their art isn’t sent with them. But do we really treat their art that much differently because of what’s happening in the artist’s life? What is the cost of consuming art without considering the effect that its creator’s have on the consumer?