Through nearly a quarter of a century as a professional music journalist and critic, I have spent more time listening to, thinking about, and wrestling with the music of R. Kelly than with any other artist—and not only because he is the most important voice in R&B of his generation and one of the most successful artists Chicago ever has produced.
My role in Kelly’s story is well-known: After a series of investigative reports about what The Chicago Sun-Times called Kelly’s pattern of abusing his wealth and fame to pursue illegal sexual relationships with underage women, an anonymous source left a nearly 30-minute videotape in my mailbox that resulted in Kelly being indicted on charges of making child pornography.
Kelly ultimately was acquitted of those charges. But the Sun-Times’ reporting never was challenged, and it detailed accusations from numerous victims, some of whom filed civil lawsuits against the star that he silenced with cash settlements.
Despite my familiarity with the artist and his music, and contrary to what some might think, I am left with more questions than answers, the biggest of which resonate beyond the specifics of this musician and his work, striking at the very nature of the relationship between art and admirer:
- When an artist has been accused in their personal life of crimes that caused serious harm to others, is it possible to separate the artist and those acts from the art? And should we?
- What is the responsibility of the listener, the viewer, the fan?
- In other words: What if the crimes are part of the appeal of the art?
- Most people would scoff at the notion of holding an artist up to some moral standard before consuming the art. On the other hand, is the person who collects the jailhouse art of John Wayne Gacy undeserving of scorn, or is he somehow complicit in the crimes of that creator?
- Finally, and most pressingly, what does it say when an artist who’s been accused of hurting numerous young women is celebrated by IFC, the Independent Film Channel, and music festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Pitchfork? Over the last eight years, the Pitchfork Music Festival has been recognized worldwide as one of the best-curated annual showcases of cutting-edge music, as well as an undeniable celebration of Chicago’s independent music scene. Kelly will close the festival a week from Sunday, on July 21, performing on the main stage in Union Park a mile or two away from where some of his alleged victims lived.
- Will this fact cross the minds of music lovers during Kelly’s performance? And again: Should it?
As noted earlier, I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I know that they need to be addressed.
To that end, and with the help of my WBEZ colleagues Andrew Gill, Tricia Bobeda, Tim Akimoff, and Alyssa Edes, I set out to conduct a series of interviews with passionate thinkers about music and culture representing a variety of viewpoints, personal and professional. These include:
- Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies with a specialty in black popular culture.
- Lorriane Ali and Bill Wyman, two of my favorite rock-critic peers.
- Charmaine Jake-Matthews, a professor of psychology who has counseled troubled teens and who attended Kenwood Academy with Kelly.
- Simon Vozick-Levinson and David Greenwald, two of my favorite “Pitchfork Generation” rock critics.
- Annmarie van Altena, a professor of sociology, a former riot grrrl, and a volunteer with Rape Victim Advocates.
- Jenny Benevento and Jake Austen, two of the smartest and most articulate Kelly fans I know.
After all of these chats, Bobeda and Gill still had questions of their own about my role in the Kelly story, so I submitted to the same sort of video interview with them.
Unfortunately, Pitchfork Webzine founder and owner Ryan Schreiber and Pitchfork Music Festival promoter Mike Reed have declined to grant an interview, or to issue any comment on why the festival has booked Kelly.
The invitation to Pitchfork’s powers that be to join this conversation remains an open one.
And what’s more, we want to extend it to you: What do you think about the questions posed above and about R. Kelly headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival?
Join the conversation by leaving comments here and listen to an on-air conversation with Jim DeRogatis on The Morning Shift on July 16 and The Afternoon Shift on July 18. WBEZ will host a live Google Hangout with Jim DeRogatis immediately following The Afternoon Shift conversation that you can join too.