The Kelly Conversations: Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture

‘There’s no way to think about Kelly and not think about these charges’

July 11, 2013

Where does R. Kelly fit in the spectrum of black popular music? Can or should his music be separated from the acts that he’s been accused of? Does he mean different things to different audiences—his African-American following vs. the young, mostly white fans who will see him live at the Pitchfork Music Festival after being struck by Trapped in the Closet on IFC?

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. He has lectured far and wide, founded the blog NewBlackMan, and written extensively about Kelly, including a chapter in his latest book Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (Postmillennial Pop) (NYU Press).

Here are some of the highlights of Neal’s interview:

"In some ways, R. Kelly is damaged goods. I don’t think, particularly my generation of folks who have grown up listening to his music, there’s no way to think about him and not think about these charges… It’s really hard to disconnect R. Kelly the musical person from the R. Kelly that we know is so capable of this kind of problematic behavior."

[On Trapped in the Closet] "I think there’s an admission there. I think there are more than a few accusations. I think what he puts on the table is really how messy and funky black life can be."

"Folks have very short cultural memories… R. Kelly might be [for my students] the creepy old guy, but they don’t think about him as a sex offender. They might know him from the [Dave] Chappelle skit. But for a Pitchfork audience, who really doesn’t have an investment in R. Kelly’s meaning to the black community musically, but also in terms of his persona as this predator, they have no investment in that. For them, it’s a headlining artist who’s done some really interesting retro-soul music, that on the one hand makes them look good because it articulates a kind of diversity that they have in terms of genre and obviously in terms of race, but at the same time they don’t have to be accountable to a black community that is still working through all these kinds of messy issues in which R. Kelly of course is a symbol. They don’t have to make those kinds of choices. Who holds Pitchfork accountable?"

"I’m sure R. Kelly is savvy enough as a performer and as a businessman at this point to know how to play up those antics for this particular audience. I won’t say that it’s almost on the level of cooning, the way that we would think about how folks talked about Louis Armstrong when he stopped playing the trumpet and it all became about the singing; I wouldn’t quite describe it that way. But he clearly is playing up the affect of these certain kind of antics in terms of who he is, what we know of him, and what the audience wants to consume… I’m sure the show that we see at Pitchfork is not the show that R. Kelly would do for a largely black audience in Chicago, or Detroit, or Atlanta."

[On the promoters’ responsibility] "I think we always have to hold people accountable for the kinds of choices that they make. I’m sure their official response would be that the truth of the matter was he was acquitted… Even though it’s almost common knowledge, particularly around Chicago, what his pattern of behavior was for a 20-year period."

Ahead of R. Kelly headlining Pitchfork Music Festival, WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis conducts a series of conversations with smart, passionate cultural critics. Videos have been edited for length and clarity.