R. Kelly Trial Brings Up Broader Issues

May 9, 2008

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R. Kelly upon his initial arrest in 2002. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Today, the R. Kelly child pornography trial finally gets underway. Six years ago police arrested the R&B star after a videotape surfaced of a man having sex with a girl, allegedly underage girl. Prosecutors say that man is Kelly. Kelly is pleading not guilty. Despite his legal travails, Kelly remains a multi-platinum-selling artist. And there will undoubtedly be a lot of hoopla as the case unfolds. But it's more than mere celebrity obsession. For some, Kelly's trial raises complicated issues around race and gender.

Since the early 1990s, R. Kelly has churned out consistent club hits. He produces, collaborates and tours. In a fickle music industry, Kelly keeps steadfast. Here's an excerpt from Kelly posted on YouTube.

KELLY: I am music. Wherever I go, music is being written. Even if I haven't heard the melody yet.

And the child pornography charges have done little to wreck his “keeping it real” image. The centerpiece of the trial is a video that prosecutors say is Kelly having sex and urinating on a teenage girl. It's been a DVD bootleg staple on the streets for years, fodder for comedians and a hot commodity for the nosy.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of popular culture at Duke University. Neal has followed Kelly's career and legal troubles. Neal was in town recently on a panel about violence against women in art and brought up Kelly. We later met up at a hotel bar where Neal insisted this trial would be something else entirely in another racial context.

NEAL: The coverage of the trial would've been absolutely different if we were talking about R. Kelly and a 13-year-old white female or if we were talking about Justin Timberlake and a 13-year-old black female. In those cases neither Kelly or Justin Timberlake would've been given a pass. In the case because it's a black on black crime very often the black community treats those things as wanting to hide from the mainstream, not wanting white folk to know how dysfunctional we can be at times.

Kelly hypes himself as the "King of R&B." Neal says Kelly fits into the archetype of the tortured black male soul singer. Wilson Pickett to Sam Cooke to Marvin Gaye have also had their demons. Several of them struggled with the tug of lust and the pull of the church.

NEAL: Marvin Gaye who was quintessential tortured artist in which he was always trying to speak back to the church he left and speaking about sexuality. A singer like Bobby Womack who was mentored by Sam Cooke. And a month after Sam Cooke was murdered married Sam Cooke's widow. We hear stories like that and it helps put an R. Kelly in perspective.

Kelly and these other artists have used art to grapple with their internal conflicts. For Kelly, those contradictions visibly play out in gospel and sex. He's probably one of the few pop artists to pen a standard for his generation. The inspirational “I Believe I Can Fly” will likely still be played at weddings, graduations and karaoke bars 50 years from now. But he also has songs like “I Like the Crotch On You.”

In many lyrics, Kelly's happy to show off his libido.
Chorus: I don't see nothing wrong...ooh…with a little bump, and grind, with a little bump, and grind...I don't see nothing wrong

But in “I Wish,” Kelly's angst is transparent.

music:
I wish, I wish Ever since this money come It's been nothing but stress Sometimes I wish that I could just trade in my success Y
'all look at me and say Boy, you've been blessed
But y'all don't see the inside of my unhappiness


Kelly's fans may love him for his struggles, and they seem willing to either ignore or forgive his sexual transgressions. But this is a child pornography trial in which Kelly's alleged victim is a teenage black girl, and that should give us pause, according to child psychologist June Parks.

Parks works at La Rabida Children's Hospital. Many of her African-American patients suffer from sexual abuse. She says that trauma raises complicated issues for girls.

PARKS: For African-American girls those issues are even more confounded by legacy of slavery and aftermath. Racism, oppression, Jim Crow. These aren't things that are perhaps going on a conscious level for girls for African-American girls but it exists on a subconscious level.

Parks says those girls lose their power. She says they are often reluctant to come forward because black America tends to buffer support around black men. And that's how she sees the Kelly child pornography trial playing out in the black community.

The girl in the video is often maligned as too sexually experienced for her age. There's not overwhelming sympathy for her. But Parks says the spotlight on Kelly might prompt needed conversations.

PARKS: My hope is that we begin to look at some of the issues that I think are larger than the case but need to be discussed. It's in those moments of speaking that we restore power, and we restore importance and value in people.

So much time has passed since the charges were brought against Kelly, that former DJ Kevin Jaxon says fans are no longer debating these issues. Plus, Kelly keeps putting out hits, which Jaxon says enhances the singer's reputation. Despite the lingering child porn charges.

JAXON: There aren't a whole lot of R&B guys out there. And he's kind of mixed that rap and R&B genre in a way that nobody has.

One of the reasons fans love Kelly is for songs like “Step in the Name of Love.” On any day of the week there's a Stepper's Set like this one on a Saturday at Bernice's Twilight Zone on 79th and Exchange. Kelly has put this partner dance, which originated in Chicago black communities, on the national radar.

Here in Chicago, he's especially loved as a hometown boy. But as the trial gets underway, and the details once again come to the forefront, the question may be whether Kelly's fans are likely to continue to step in the name of love and overlook the troubles of yet another tormented black male artist.