June 1994. On the way to Great America. The day after Morgan Park High School’s senior prom. My friend Nikki’s date rented a cobalt blue drop-top Mustang. I rode in the back seat. R. Kelly’s “Your Body’s Callin’” blasted through the speakers, jostling with the wind.
When I think about prom, I remember my gold showgirl dress, a muted (by today’s standards) prom send-off at my house, Nikki winning prom queen — and an R. Kelly soundtrack all weekend.
Nostalgia doesn’t mean more than the decades worth of harm Kelly has inflicted on Black girls and women. On Wednesday, Kelly was convicted on six counts of child pornography in federal court here in Chicago.
I don’t buy his music, never went to any of his concerts, and he’s not on my Spotify. Safe to say, I don’t support Kelly. I loved his music going back to my early high school years on the South Side, and memory is attached.
How do you solve a problem like R. Kelly? Do you erase personal memories? Erase his prolific catalog? Should he be erased from the R&B canon?
These are not unprecedented questions.
“This is something that we’ve had to think about with Miles Davis, who documented some of his abusive behavior himself. It’s something we’ve had to deal with in terms of the music of the adult Michael Jackson. The stories that circulated about Bill Withers, and his physical abuse of his wife, Denise Nicholas at the time. Patti LaBelle writing about Jackie Wilson attempting to rape her in her memoir. And even someone like Marvin Gaye, who clearly on multiple occasions had sex with women that were underage,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of Black popular culture at Duke University.
Neal and I have been talking about Kelly for decades. His scholarship puts Kelly into context as the archetype of the tortured Black male soul singer. From the names above to Wilson Pickett to Sam Cooke to Bobby Womack all struggling with lustful demons. What distinguishes the Kelly case is decades worth of behavior documented: his own lyrics hinting at rape, the upsetting documentary series “Suriving R. Kelly” that detailed just how extensive the abuse was, and the circulated bootleg video tape from the 1990s of him having sex with an underage girl — the focus of his 2008 state court trial and this year’s federal trial. We’re also in an age of reckoning that social media amplifies with #muteRKelly and #metoo.
I covered his 2008 child pornography trial at the Cook County criminal courthouse. His acquittal in that trial didn’t surprise me because the girl in the bootleg video didn’t testify. In this latest Chicago federal trial, “Jane” took the stand and recounted the sexual abuse and grooming that began for her as a teenager.
I hear Kelly less on urban radio than I did even a year ago. Outside of a few local courtroom sycophants, support toward Kelly has waned in a way that wasn’t the case back when he created the musical novel “Trapped in the Closet” or “Step in the Name of Love,” an ode to Chicago.
“He’s had so many different times over those 20 years to repent, to show penance. And not only did he not do that, he almost dared us to hold him accountable. And so, for me, it’s easy just to not listen to the music,” Neal said.
Neal admits that wasn’t easy, at first, “because he is someone who, musically, I thought made compelling music. And something that was indeed a contribution to this larger canon of Black music. I’m not so much talking about the hits but the B-side. He really connected to a kind of generation of soul men in the ‘60s and bluesmen before that.”
People make all sorts of choices about separating the music for [insert problematic artist here]. But the evidence against Kelly mounted and got harder for even die-hard “Bump N’ Grind” fans to ignore. Miles Davis’s jazz may be removed from day-to-day Black life. Kelly’s isn’t because his music connects to the fabric of a lot of Black working- and lower-middle class lives. “I Believe I Can Fly” — a bonafide standard — played in churches, graduations and weddings. His other songs played at cookouts, get-togethers and banquets. Memories are connected to those Black spaces.
“Folks now who were in their late 30s and 40s and 50s are grappling with what that music meant to their everyday lives. And how cutting out R. Kelly from that is to cut out a piece of that life,” Neal said.Cutting out Kelly doesn’t have to mean pulling the plug on memories. Last year, jurors in a federal court convicted Kelly in New York and sentenced him to 30 years in prison for racketeering and sex trafficking, a victory for survivors of gender-based violence. At the time, Englewood native Jada Thompson told me, over the years, she has had to convince friends to stop playing Kelly’s music and think of the pain of Black women and girls who accused him of abuse.
“The first thing that I could think of was the relief of another predator being taken off of the street,” Thompson said back then. “Kelly’s not the only predator out in the world doing these things to children and women — period.”
Neither last year’s nor this week’s convictions erase the body of work Kelly wrote, sang and produced. “If folks are honest about R. Kelly’s musical contributions, in the 90s, and the early 2000s, I don’t think he’ll be divorced from those achievements 50 or 100 years down the road,” Neal said.
And 100 years from now, Neal believes musicians will be covering “I Believe I Can Fly.” The song will survive the way classical music today isn’t separated from the racist and complicated lives of the men who created it.
That song might be Kelly’s most recognizable hit. It’s featured in Space Jam, and my 6-year-old loves that 1996 Looney Tunes movie featuring Michael Jordan. This summer I heard her singing “I Believe I Can Fly” around the house. I paused. But I didn’t stop her. She doesn’t even know who R. Kelly is.