The Kelly Paradox
R. Kelly is the most successful R&B recording artist of the past 25 years, selling 40 million albums. That’s a long time and a lot of albums. Based on that alone, it’s a safe bet that you have some relationship with the ‘King of R&B.’ The only question is the degree of complication in that relationship.
I was in elementary school when “I Believe I Can Fly” debuted in 1996. With me as the host, my kindergarten performed what I’m sure was an adorably terrible version of it. “I Believe I Can Fly” was both touching and ubiquitous, and accompanied one of the cinematic touchstones of my childhood; Space Jam. As corny as it sounds now, it will always transport me back to a warm, safe, cherished place.
Thank you, R. Kelly!
I was in high school when Kellz dropped the atomic bomb- “Ignition (Remix)” in 2002. My friends and I were a bunch of asexual white and Asian nerds who spent our free time playing video games in each others’ basements. We wouldn’t have known ‘cool’ if it beat us in Super Smash Bros using Jigglypuff, but we knew “Ignition (Remix)” was cool. It touched some universal part of us. We just felt it in our bones (specifically, our hip bones). You could play it right now in almost any setting, in almost any culture, and people would know… its time to get funky. 5,000 years from now, nuclear waste, styrofoam, and “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly will be all that remains of human civilization. With this one song, R. Kelly attained immortality, and helped a bunch of awkward teens from New Jersey find ‘cool.’
Thank you, R. Kelly!
In my early and mid-20s, R. Kelly graced us with his epic hip-hopera opus “Trapped In A Closet” between 2007 and 2012. “TIAC” walked that razor-thin line between ‘self-absorbed genius’ and ‘self-aware self-parody’ that strikes a cord with every snarky, ironic millenial. It raised so many questions for me; ‘Is it racist if I find this hilarious?’ ‘Is R. Kelly playing some sort of Kaufmanesque mindfuck on us?’ Most importantly, just… ‘Why?’ To this day, I still find it hard to believe that “Trapped In A Closet” is a thing that exists in the universe- but boy am I glad it does. Even though most singers, especially R&B singers, will sing until the day they die, this presaged the beginning of what might be perceived as a late-career ‘Fuck It’ era.
When you start dressing like a Telenovella villain:
Introducing us to the definition of ‘Real Talk’
Or whatever this is:
Misunderstood genius? Lunatic weirdo? Once-in-a-lifetime talent? Yes.
The last piece of the R. Kelly puzzle is his long history of sexual predation. It was there throughout all the high points, and I had been at least vaguely aware of it, but it’s taken me damn near 20 years to sort out my feelings about it (and race/class/gender dynamics are kind of my thing!).
My relationship with R. Kelly is complicated.
Joel wrote a very thought-provoking piece about his feelings regarding Kelly from his privileged positions as an artist, a fan, a father, and black man.
“I love R. Kelly. I hate R. Kelly. I’m as conflicted about Kellz as Hulk Hogan is about Black people. The dude is a walking paradox in the truest sense of the word.”
I wanted to expand on his piece not only because of my life-long relationship with Kelly and because Joel’s work always inspires me- but because I feel there are important lessons about our values and identity as Americans nestled in this thorny, silky-smooth-sounding mess.
1. R. KELLY IS DEFINITELY AN UNREPENTANT SEX CRIMINAL.
-He married Aaliyah when she was 15.
-A ‘kiddie porn dungeon’ was found in his Florida home, but the case was throne out on a procedural error.
-The video. You know what I’m talking about.
-The number of out-of-court settlements with women who all claim to have had sex with Kelly as minors.
Denying all of this evidence is like denying climate change at this point. There are two main types of denier-
The willfully ignorant denier; ‘I just love his music, bro.’ (more on them later)
And the vested interest denier; those who think they’re defending a black success story. I get it. There is a very clear historical precedent for tearing successful black men down. Why contribute to it? It’s not like there are a whole lot of R. Kellys out there. I mean, we aren’t talking about Future, here.
Now for the willfully ignorant…
True- it’s a time-honored American tradition to love the Hero and compartmentalize their ‘shortcomings,’
JFK and MLK were philanderers.
The Founding Fathers owned slaves.
Bear Bryant didn’t recruit a single black football player till the 70s.
Every musician you like used illicit drugs.
Led Zepplin had that weird ‘sand shark’ incident (while using illicit drugs, no doubt!).
It’s a subtle, internal calculus that every individual must figure out for themselves. Everyone’s variables are different, therefore everyone’s conclusions are slightly different. In most cases, the things we celebrate about our heroes are entirely separate from their crimes. I don’t recall any Led Zepplin songs exhaulting the joys of shark-related gang rape. Maybe I just don’t take the right kind of illicit drugs.
This leads me to introduce a new term… The Kelly Paradox.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO SEPARATE R. KELLY’S CRIMES FROM HIS SUCCESS.
Think about it.
As producer of Aaliyah’s debut album, he chose to call it ‘Age Ain’t Nothin But A Number.’ R. Kelly sings about his on-going criminal behavior, thus reaping huge monetary gain off the exploitation of his underage sexual prey. You can’t celebrate R. Kelly or his music without tacitly approving of his (mis)conduct.
So that’s the negotiation you must make with yourself. That’s the subtle calculus. I’ve arrived at my conclusion- which is mine, alone.
But really- if we’re looking at the broader social benefits of some kind of public good or institution, my answer doesn’t matter at all. There are certainly stakeholders with much more at stake. What would the calculus be like for the victims and their families? Would they feel their pain and suffering was a fair price to pay for all the joy R. Kelly has brought the world? I can’t say for sure- but I have my doubts. My father put it best when he said that instead of being a public figure who got into trouble, R. Kelly is more like a Death Row inmate who is really talented at finger painting.
So now that I’ve figured this out about myself, I can’t force my values on anyone else- but I CAN apply the Kelly Paradox to other parts of my life. What else do I have a relationship with whose inherent public value doesn’t outweigh my own values?
I didn’t grow up a football fan and my college didn’t have a football program, so I followed it to the extent that ESPN told me to and my social circles required me to. The first issue that gave me pause was the whole concussion cover-up (the original Frontline documentary is way better than any movie). Then, it was the huge sham ‘student athletics’ turned out to be. Of course, there was also the ever-present influence of capacious corporations. But the final straw was the fact that so many football players just can’t stop beating up their spouses.
At some point over the past several years, football became a spectacle of men destroying their own well-being while we celebrate their savagery on the field but scold them for it off the field. We cultivate this savagery from a very young age, pay them amorally large sums of money for it, further reduce them by harshly criticizing any unique talents or interests they might possess apart from their savagery, then act shocked when that savagery shows up somewhere we don’t want to see it.
You can’t celebrate football without tacitly approving of it’s savagery where ever it may show up.
And don’t even get me started on the whole Native American mascot thing…
I could talk myself into eventually dropping the Kelly Paradox on other aspects of my life; eating meat has obvious personal health and global climate ramifications, certain threads of rap are overtly misogynistic, the Olympics are a human rights nightmare, the New York Yankees- but it’s a long road (and Popeyes tastes so good…)
Not enough people today really put in the time to quantify their values. Once you do that, you can measure them against other known quantities in your life. It’s harder to be fooled and led astray when your values are already set than to make a decision in the moment while listening to a super-talented singer or watching athletic spectacle.
As my father so succinctly put it, “So fuck that guy to death.” (And football)