Photo by Terry Richardson, for Interview Magazine, 2011
After David Bowie died and in the midst of mass eulogizing stories began to resurface of the dead star’s predatory tryst with a teenage “baby groupie,” the immediate rush to silence these stories made it clear the cognitive dissonance caused by the competing narratives of David Bowie as hero and David Bowie as statutory rapist was unbearable. Because it was impossible to carry these two ideas simultaneously within the cramped chamber of the collective skull – of David Bowie the otherworldly luminary and of David Bowie the all-too earthly, child-fucking entitled male – one had to be evicted, and few fans were willing to betray their idol. They raced after ways to make it a non-issue that David Bowie as an adult man with every conceivable privilege had seduced and fucked a child: it was the ‘70s; the girl-child was expressing her agency when she had sex with David Bowie; all rock stars have sex with children, so what? Thus the predator was pardoned. Reflecting on the unwillingness to reckon with the dueling realities of “great artist” and “child rapist” in David Bowie’s case, another popular male musician came to mind for me, a man whose record of exploiting girl-children for sex is more recent than David Bowie’s, and more well-known, yet which fails to produce the same pang of dissonance in the cultural consciousness; a musician whose history of sexual predation does not detract from his public image but by contrast has been incorporated into it with ease.
I thought of R. Kelly.
The difference between how David Bowie and R. Kelly have been treated in the popular culture is striking. In David Bowie’s case, the public overwhelmingly felt the need to shield their sacred artist from the “predator” label in order that reverence for him be preserved. R. Kelly, however, has not been protected from the label by a devoted defensive public: it has become his emblem, a principal feature of his mythology in popular culture.
Q: Why is it hard to believe David Bowie was predator, but exceedingly easy to believe that R. Kelly is?
Q: Why in the case of David Bowie is child rape unmentionable, when in R. Kelly’s it’s a punchline?
David Bowie was a white man. R. Kelly is a black man. The popular culture within which both of these men exist as icons is white-dominated, suffused with the values and visions of white supremacy. And so we arrive at the inceptive beginnings of our answer to both questions: classic, enduring racism.
In 2002, the R&B singer R. Kelly, best known to me personally as the voice of Space Jam’s inspirational theme “I Believe I Can Fly,” hias charged on 21 counts of child pornography for a video that showed Kelly – or a man who looked exactly like him – having sex with a young girl – identified by multiple witnesses as Kelly’s goddaughter – in the wood-paneled basement of Kelly’s house (or a basement that looked exactly like Kelly’s basement). The man in the video urinates in the girl’s mouth and orders her to call him “Daddy.” When police searched R. Kelly’s home after receiving this video, they recovered photographs on a digital camera of Kelly involved in sexual interaction with the same girl as was in the video (these photographs could not be used at trial due to a technicality). The 2002 child pornography charges did not mark the first time R. Kelly was linked to the sexual exploitation of girls: a woman named Tiffany Hawkins sued him in 1996 claiming he’d had sex with her when she was 15, manipulated her into participating in group sex with him and other underage girls, and convinced her to drop out of school; in 2001 a second suit was filed by Tracy Sampson, whose account echoed Hawkins’, only she was 17 when Kelly “romanced” her and pressured her to have sex with other young girls, treating her as “his personal sex object”. Kelly settled both suits, as well as the seven that would follow the child pornography charges. He has maintained that he settled not because he did to the women what they accused him of doing but because extended legal battles were a hassle; it was more expedient to pay up. Kelly also denied and continues to deny ever being sexually involved with Aaliyah, who was 15 when he (illegally) married her in 1994 and produced her debut album, which he titled “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.” Aaliyah annulled the marriage soon afterward and reportedly never wanted anything to do with him again, though Kelly has insisted they were always best best best friends before, through, and after the marriage, which he is adamant involved no sex whatsoever.
Nine lawsuits filed by women detailing Kelly’s predacious sexual behavior. A widely circulated videotape of Kelly (or Kelly’s clone) carrying out the statutory rape of his goddaughter, peeing in her mouth, demanding she call him “Daddy.” Pornographic photographs of the same girl on a camera discovered in Kelly’s home. A second videotape of Kelly having sex with a different young girl, unusable in court because her age could not be definitively determined. An illegal marriage to then 15-year-old Aaliyah in 1994. And Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun-Times music critic who broke the story on Kelly’s case and made a crusade of covering it despite being dismissed as a “hater,” states in a 2013 Village Voice interview that over the course of his investigation two dozen young women came forward to him with stories abuse and exploitation perpetrated by Kelly.
DeRogatis says: “There were girls who just told one simple story, and there were a lot of girls who told stories that lasted hours which still make me sick to my stomach. It never was one girl on one tape. Or one girl and Aaliyah.”
Considering this accretion of evidence accumulated over a decade, too consistent to be coincidental, too detailed to be dismissed, a distinct pattern comes into focus. We see that R. Kelly is a man with a taste for young girls. He picks them out from the high school choir classes he visits and buys them expensive sneakers as gifts and woos them, promising them stardom, so they “fall in love” and have sex with him and then he treats them as sexual objects, directing them to perform sexual acts with other young girls and recruit new girlfriends for him, controlling their lives. Unless all of the women who sued him and a secret network of others responsible for the sex tapes and the photographs on his camera were conspiring together against R. Kelly to dethrone him as the King of R&B and steal his money, out of vengeance or greed, or because they, like the journalists who reported on the story, were “haters,” we have sufficient cause to say with reasonable conviction that R. Kelly is a serial sexual abuser who used his money and power to prey upon vulnerable teenage girls. Calling his past merely “unsavory” or “sordid,” as music writers are apt to do, trivializes the seriousness of the harm he has caused. He exploited girls trust, used them sexually, made their lives harder to live, hurt them. He is a victimizer and a predator.
After six years of delays, Kelly’s case went to trial in the spring of 2008. He pleaded not guilty. His lawyers suggested that their client’s head had been edited onto another man’s body to make it look as though it was Kelly having sex with the girl for the duration of 26 ½ – minute video, a feat which would have required considerable expertise and taken hours and hours of tedious effort. Their second defense was to remind the jury that, since the girl in the video said she was not the girl in the video (and why would she want to say it was her, to mark herself forever that girl who R. Kelly peed on, and why would she want to especially after Kelly paid her family for her silence?), despite being identified by family members and friends as the girl in the video and being addressed by her name by Kelly in the video, there was no way to be certain of the identity of the girl in the video and thus it was impossible to say how old she was, meaning that regardless of how old she looked, there was reasonable doubt that the video constituted child pornography at all. After a three-week trial and less than a day of deliberations the jury acquitted Kelly on all charges. He wept and prayed in the courtroom, thanked Jesus, and walked out a free man.
Jokes were made: a skit on Chapelle’s Show featuring the comedian dressed as R. Kelly performing a song called “I Wanna Pee on You” while he sprays women with a hose, an episode of the animated television series The Boondocks about Kelly’s trial that included a comedic re-enactment of the sex tape in which R. Kelly is shown spouting a yellow stream down the schoolgirl uniform of his young victim. The gratified amusement with which the public received the fact that R. Kelly (“allegedly,” as writers are wont to emphasize) peed on a girl was such that he is now permanently associated with sexualized urination. For an extensive documented history of sexual exploitation and abuse, R. Kelly has been sentenced to a life of piss jokes.
Kelly’s mild, mirthful roasting on the spit of popular culture cannot be apprehended as justice for the girls he victimized, for whom scarcely anyone spared a thought as they vanished into billows of laughter, reduced to props in the hilarious spectacle of the R. Kelly Sex Show. There have been no substantive repercussions for R. Kelly. Whatever embarrassment the kink-laced toilet humor trailing him like a sour smell may have caused R. Kelly personally, it did nothing to slow his career. Nor did it stanch his celebrity.
Between 2002, when he was arrested for the production of child pornography, and 2008, when he was acquitted, R. Kelly released four albums. Three of these debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart (the fourth, 2004’s gospel-tinged self-exonerating attempt at wholesomeness Happy People / U Saved Me, only made it to #2). Each album sold hundreds of thousands of copies within the first weeks of their release. Clearly R. Kelly’s “legal troubles” – i.e. a widely circulated video of him abusing his 14-year-old goddaughter and a slew of lawsuits filed by women claiming he exploited them he quietly settled to sweep out of sight – had scant negative effect on his musical success. His fans remained loyal, unswayed by the “scandal”; his albums were well-reviewed and sold by the millions; his singles played on the radio. If anything, as author and scholar of black popular culture Mark Anthony Neal points out, R. Kelly was more popular after the indictments than at any other point in his career 1.
White media outlets were particularly infatuated with R. Kelly subsequent to the filing of the child pornography charges. His 33-installment Trapped in the Closet “hip-hopera,” introduced on 2005’s TP.3 Reloaded album, was a mega-phenomenon that earned the singer not only mainstream acclaim but also a new, incongruous cult following among left-of-mainstream, high-minded white musical audiences, who were fascinated by the overblown oversexed absurdist melodrama of Trapped in the Closet. The series was acclaimed as a mystifying postmodern surrealist opus, its creator extolled as an outsider artist, a true American kitsch genius. Chapters of Trapped in the Closet were “screened” on the Independent Film Channel and boosted by Pitchfork; Will Oldham (of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) has a cameo in one installment; writers compared the series to the works of “respectable” (white, male) artists like Stendhal and John Ashberry. With Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly incited his own renaissance and effectively swept his real-life sexual exploitation of young girls under the hip-hopera’s mantle of sex-and-violence-slathered hyperbole. If anyone had felt any inclination toward problematizing that R. Kelly was a child sexual predator before his opus debuted, the bizareness of Trapped in the Closet snuffed out whatever nascent twinges of conscience there might have been. The cheeky unconcern typical of white journalists’ response to Kelly’s record is clear in a 2007 review of the series for Slate, in which the author writes:
Kelly will stand trial this September on child pornography charges, stemming from a videotaped encounter in which Kelly allegedly is shown urinating on an underaged paramour. Who can doubt that the outrageous stew of sex, guilt, and violence in Trapped in the Closet reflects its creator’s own outrageous legal troubles. R. Kelly knows as well as anyone that eros can be a farce, and a trap.
Yes, the sexual exploitation and degradation of teenage girls is pretty “outrageous,” isn’t it? And a “farce” at that. Fortunately for R. Kelly he managed to elude the trap, by capitalizing on his past “improprieties,” as his abusive relationships with teenage girls have been repeatedly termed, to re-brand himself as a self-parodying unrepentant “sex freak” and in thereby de-realize his history as a victimizer. The press ate it up, celebrating his resurgence from the swamp of “legal troubles” as a triumphant comeback. The “freakier” Kelly got, the happier markedly white media outlets like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone were with him. He played festivals: Pitchfork Music Festival, Coachella, Free Press Festival. He collaborated with Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. His twelfth album, Black Panties, offering one track comparing the female genitals to Oreos (“Cookie”) and another proposing matrimony to a disembodied vagina (“Marry the Pussy”), with a photograph of R. Kelly holding a bow over the curled body of a naked petite young faceless woman naked save for the eponymous undergarment as if he is about to play her like a cello as its cover art, was received with droll enthusiasm by a Pitchfork reviewer, who called R. Kelly “gleefully absurd” and mused:
It is not ridiculous that [Kelly] wants to marry a pussy—that level of carnality exists within all of us, male or female. His brilliance is in routinely bringing out into the open the things that – with good reason! – stay in the darkest corners of our minds. In disrupting the social order, maybe his music helps preserve it as well.
Busy with his smug pensiveness the reviewer neglects to mention that R. Kelly raped girl-children; there is not even the vaguest allusion to those “alleged” “improprieties” tucked away in Kelly’s infamous closet. The popular “feminist” site Jezebel, for its part, declared Black Panties a “magnificent ode to pussy” and also omitted reference to Kelly’s record of predation, until a tide of commenters enraged that a supposedly feminist forum would endorse a known abuser of young girls compelled the editor to apologize.
Thanks primarily to the 2013 publication of a Village Voice interview with DeRogatis in which he details R. Kelly’s crimes against girls and demands that other writers take them seriously and cease giggling over the sex jams of a man he called a “monster,” public opinion has started to shift away from uncritical embrace of R. Kelly, freaky Casanova. The child pornography charges and the lawsuits filed against him are at last beginning to attract the negative attention they deserve, more than a decade later. Reflecting on Kelly’s record, music journalists have started asking: “Is it Okay to Listen to R. Kelly?” This year in interviews with Kelly they have posed questions about his “alleged” history, although no one has pressed him too hard – the interviewers are proud enough of themselves as moral agents just for bringing it up – and although the writers voice solicitous sympathy for Kelly’s victims, their real interest reveals itself to be the psychology of the man they view as a curiosity, a specimen to dissect—“if we could only get inside his mind…” This quest to traverse interior landscapes of R. Kelly’s psyche has brought to the surface a subtler tact than total apathy by which to absolve Kelly of his sins, made much ado of in a January 2016 GQ interview with Kelly: he was sexually abused as a child. Here the cycle of violence is employed to excuse Kelly’s own abusiveness. We are asked to feel sympathy for him. He was molested, by a woman. He never learned how to read. He grew up without a father, without money. How could he have grown up to be anything but a serial abuser of teenage girls? While the narrative of R. Kelly as victim draws buzz, the reality of the perhaps dozens of girls he victimized continue to fade out of view.
For a public condemnation a decade-and-a-half overdue, even if it is at last dimming his star, the current backlash is underwhelming. Asking “Is it Okay to Listen to R. Kelly?” is not exactly a forceful denunciation, so it’s hard for me to swell with pride at the steeling moral spine of U.S. culture exposed in our newfound quivery piddling trepidations re: R. Kelly being “allegedly” “reportedly” not simply a “sex freak” but in fact a serial sexual abuser. Instead of asking ourselves, “Is it Okay to Listen to R. Kelly?”, there are other questions that seem more critical for us to ask. Namely: “Why, Honestly, Were We Ever Listening to R. Kelly?” // “Why Were We Never Listening to R. Kelly’s Victims?” // “Why Did It Take Us 10+ Years to Wobble Toward Even Nominally Giving a Shit?”
Because R. Kelly’s victims are black girls.
“The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.” — Jim DeRogatis
The girl in the video that is now a joke who R. Kelly violates and desecrates, the girls who grew up to file lawsuits against him, the other girls who have come forward with accounts of R. Kelly’s predatory behavior: each one was black. As far as we know, R. Kelly has never set a single sleazy finger on a white-skinned girl-child. A savvy move on his part. Had R. Kelly pursued young white women instead of young black women, most likely it would not have taken a child pornography case, numerous lawsuits alleging sexual manipulation and abuse, and a period of more than a decade to mull it over for white observers of popular culture and white music journalists to commence to wonder if R. Kelly might actually be kind of a bad guy. Had any one of R. Kelly’s victims been a white girl, it’s not hard to imagine he’d be in prison right now, his career would have bottomed out before album #13; at the very least the public uproar to public hilarity ratio would’ve been tipped toward uproar from the first day the charges were announced. In our culture, a white girl would’ve had the privilege of being potentially recognizable as a victim in a way that a black girl cannot be. When the target of sexual violence is a black girl, victimization becomes invisible 2. Her invisibility and illegibility as a victim is a modern reverberation of black women’s situation as slaves: when black women were enslaved, it was not a crime for a man, be he black or white, to rape a black woman 3. Sex was never against a black woman’s will because she was understood to be devoid of will. If she was raped, she had no recourse. The black female body was for centuries “unrapeable” by law and though today it is technically outside the law to rape any woman no matter the color of her skin, black women and girls remain “impossible victims” in this culture, their bodies rendered unrapeable ideologically. The body of a black girl cannot be violated, as in defiled, because her body was never pure, or as in invaded, because she has no claim to boundaries. Or her body cannot be violated, because her body is the aggressor.
The 14-year-old black girl known to the world as that girl R. Kelly peed on (cue the laugh track) has not been viewed as a victim. Not innocent. She has not even been recognized as 14 years old, her body deemed “too developed” in its shape to belong to a girl recently graduated from the eighth grade. “Oh, I seen that girl. She ain’t little.” 4 Not a child but, by virtue of her “developed” (thick, they hiss) black body, a sexually mature woman at 14 the girl in the video was judged lecherous, fast, raunchy, unchaste—a ready-and-willing participant in the action on tape. She knew what she was doing. She got what she deserved. The watching public and the jurors in the R. Kelly trial found the girl unbelievable as victim, and it is true of jurors in general that they perceive black victims of sexual assault to be more “unreliable” than white victims. They say black girls are more promiscuous. Promiscuous girls don’t get raped; they get fucked, and they like it. The supposed promiscuity of the black girl becomes the explanation for whatever has been done to her: she was a whore, she wanted it 5. This is true for every woman – we are all perceived as sexual creatures who provoke men to attack us because we’re plagued by a constitutional need to get fucked – but it is more unremittingly, grimly true for non-white women, and in the U.S., as the result of being for the first half of our nation’s history expressly chattels, for black women and girls most of all.
Male supremacy places all women below men in the social order, as a derogated sex class. White supremacy stratifies the class of women into subcategories according to race. The white woman, though still contemptible, is the best a woman can hope to be. A white woman, if she behaves herself, can be “good,” in the sense of being submissive and pretty and gentle and sweet and refined and pleasant and a good cook and a good mother and a good wife and a good lay. The black woman is the worst; blackness codes her body BAD (the blacker she is, the badder). Her badness is generalized – oftener than her white counterpart the black woman is represented as the bitchy woman, the ugly woman, the grotesque woman, the conniving woman, the castrating woman – but has at its core a specific unifying quality: hers is the badness of carnality. White culture has projected the sexuality it rejects as corruptive, uncontrollable, bestial onto the black female body, and so forced the black girl or woman to move through the social world as obscenity incarnate 6.
Although all women carry the stain of the reviled sexual body, in the context of white supremacist society white women are elevated a platform heel’s height from the muck of womanhood by fact of our affiliation with the white men to whom we belong. So our souls can be saved enough to make us nice wives we are granted the opportunity to atone for our intrinsic filthiness through adherence to the laws of femininity. Performing perpetual tidy servility to white men and white male-dominated culture, white women can keep our monster-bodies masked and scour ourselves of female dirt until we are almost bleached virtuous. Black women and girls lack the white woman’s access to the instruments of atonement and expurgation, held remote from civilization; the color of their skin marking their femaleness more “animal” (body, nature) than “human” (mind, culture) its prurience cannot be tempered through any extremity of feminine mincing. By function of her racialized Otherness, the black woman exists outside the limits of femininity, defined as: idealized female conduct. In a white supremacy, where the female ideal inheres whiteness, however hard the black woman strives at femininity she will forever fall below the standard. Her potential for virtue is thereby negated. Excluded from femininity the black woman is cast in the white supremacist patriarchal fantasy as the female body in its crudest form, beyond control and redemption: a destructively hypersexed animal-object.
In order for a woman to be readable as a victim when a man rapes her, she must be able to disclaim her bad body, to proffer credible evidence of her dedication to feminine virtue to prove she did not provoke the man to rape her. Rendered by this culture that is ours into the living symbol of the body at its baddest, both black and female, the black woman cannot dissociate herself from the ruinous corporeality that is her cultural identity, nothing she could do would be enough to prove her virtue, she cannot apologize enough. The black girl is unrecognizable as a victim because her body is the ultimate criminal.
For her crime, which is her body, we deem the black girl unworthy of our concern and ostracize her to the outmost marginal territories of our hearts, where no one need think nor care about her. The men who find her there and hurt her do not care about her – release from the pretense of care is half the fun of the hurting – and they know no one else will care so when they hurt her, there will be no consequences. It is this unbounded unconcern of our culture for the black girl as a base “bad” body to be punished with contempt, roughly handled and scrapped as eminently expendable 7, that expresses itself in the image of R. Kelly peeing into the mouth of his 14-year-old victim. It is the trash-status of the black girl that we sanction and perpetuate when we respond to that image of sadistic degradation without horror, without ire, with only a laugh. 8.
Because R. Kelly is a black man.
“When their mouths are fixed for some R. Kelly, they want the freaky stuff.” – R. Kelly
The “freaky stuff” that R. Kelly has inflicted upon listeners as a black male artist operating within white U.S. popular culture includes his record of child sexual abuse, nestled between songs like “I Like the Crotch on You” and the extended interval of cunnilingus-simulating slurping sounds that punctuates the spoken-word prologue to his latest album, The Buffet (2015). A proclivity for girl-children – or, in the glib phrasing of one Pitchfork writer, “his weakness for underage chicas” – and coded “deviant” sexual practices, such as urinating on said “chicas,” hardly shatters white culture’s perception of Kelly, since their original perception is that he is a “sex freak.” The first clue to this deduction is that he is a black man. He need not take measures to conceal that he preys on young girls because his blackness establishes him as a sexual villain in the mind of white culture, regardless of his actions. As long as the girls he uses are black girls, we are disinclined to intervene. The general understanding is that as a black man Kelly inevitably tends toward sexual freakiness, because black men, as white audiences know well by now having seeded the myths centuries ago, are sexual savages. Black men are equipped with larger penises and insatiable appetites; they stay harder longer, they can fuck all night. If a black man sees a woman he wants he will have her; he cannot be stopped. White people are awed by the black man’s animalistic virtuosity as fucker. Through the priapistic excesses of his music and persona, R. Kelly confirms white cultural assumptions about black men’s sexuality, and in thanks for this confirmation grateful white people treasure him. He is generously rewarded for his service to white culture: he is able to sell millions of albums and rape as many young black girls as he wants and the world keeps watching, laughing.
The same culturally disclaimed carnality that is projected onto black women and transmutes them into hypersexualized animal-objects to be roughly used in low places and disposed of is also projected onto the black male body. Consistent with the polar sex roles ascribed to male and female bodies, while the black woman becomes a hypersexual object, the black man is constructed as the hypersexual subject. His blackness means his primal male sexuality has not been “tamed” by the civilizing forces of white culture; his fuck is the unadulterated violent act of sex released from “human” civility, his lust uncooled by “human” affection or gentleness. His desire is purely physical and devoid of the spiritual element that can salvage (white, human, male) love from the consuming mire of the flesh. This representation maps onto the “black buck” stereotype, the creation of white slave owners, which characterized black men as only partially domesticated “beasts,” unintelligent, naturally violent and oversexed 9. The mythology of “black buck” masculinity functioned within a white slave-owning society as justification for the domination and exploitation of black men by white men, whose duty it was to protect the social order – and especially their fragile wholesome white women – from the threat of black male wildness. Use of the “black buck” stereotype persisted into the later 19th and 20th centuries, propagated in promotion of segregation and disenfranchisement. It persists today, updated in form and fashion but not in theory, as the image of the black male “freak” that R. Kelly has made a career of embodying.
bell hooks asks us: “Should we not be suspicious of the way in which white culture’s fascination with black masculinity manifests itself?” 10
The purpose of the projection of carnality onto black bodies is not simply to protect whiteness (humanity) from sexual contamination. It also enables white audiences to “watch” the sexuality that repulses and rivets them in action, as performed by black people. It is a source of titillation. Pornography. White audiences, as if on touristic adventure to the tenements, look to black culture for “refreshingly honest” visions of “primal” sexuality, understood as normative patriarchal sexuality stripped of its pretenses: brutishly phallocentric, misogynistic, physically violent (“rough”), and loveless. The white observer assumes that black people are more primitive, and noting the brute form their sexuality takes on display in the cultural market, concludes this brutality is what sex is at base, when “left to nature.” Black culture has been colonized and reconstructed, black bodies instrumentalized, within the context of white-male-dominated society to affirm the naturalness, therefore the inexorability, no matter how odious, of the male supremacist sexual standard.
Operating within the colonized zone of “black culture,” R. Kelly peddles white supremacist fantasies of black masculinity and black sexuality as commodity, in the form of sex songs and sex crimes. He has been successful on the cultural market because he knows what his paying audience wants to consume, and he supplies it with flair, in heaps, to excess. Like the black minstrels of the 19th century, R. Kelly plays on anti-black stereotypes and naturalizes them for white audiences, who celebrate him for it, crowning him a “sex genius” and sneering over news of his “antics,” including child rape, because it is a comfort to white people to have solid proof in the figure of R. Kelly that, yes, black men really are the brainlessly oversexed predatory primitive beings we have constructed them to be. R. Kelly’s self-awareness of his persona as caricature allows white music journalists and audiences feel free to laugh at the parody of black manhood he performs, which is the product of the systematic denigration of black men within the white-male-supremacist United States of America. How hilarious R. Kelly’s “poverty kitsch” lyrical references to Oreos and IHOP (because black people are poor: haha, get it?), his guileless grandiosity, his childish explicitness, the cornball sentimentality of “I Believe I Can Fly” as counterpoint to the clumsy raunch of “Sex Planet,” that indomitable deviant black male sex drive that induces him to (“allegedly”) get his freak on with girl-children.
What lurks as lower snarl beneath white culture’s giddily condescending snickering at the R. Kelly Spectacle is scorn for the black man, for blackness itself, which our society has never ceased to loathe and exploit. When white culture rewards R. Kelly for his minstrel-esque performance of black masculinity, the message broadcast to black boys and men in this country is that, to be visible and successful in this system, their best option is to play the role allotted to them, to portray black masculinity as conceived in the white cultural imagination. The wealth and fame and impunity to injure that R. Kelly has been granted as a pop cultural icon of white-male-manufactured black masculinity is a consolation prize for the continued subjection of all black people and the colonization of black life.
Because R. Kelly and his victims are black.
I’ve noticed among my white culturally literate artistic and socially conscious peers substantial an acute reluctance to criticize the unreserved misogyny, regressive sexual politics, and masculinist violence against the other and the self (by means of recreational alcoholism as body-antagonism) permeating so-called “black culture,” especially in hip hop, as if to express unease with the anti-woman phallocentric themes and images characteristic of these zones of production would equate to racist rejection of black people. Black people are the creators of this material so any challenge posed to it is a deprecation of black people as creators, cultural agents; for a white person to discommend the creative agency of black people is necessarily racist, hence unacceptable. To be supportive and not racist, and also cool, or less white-bread bland, our duty as the white audience is to celebrate black culture as it is presented to us, ostensibly by black people. We are called to champion R. Kelly, and men like him, who exploit women in their real lives and through their panegyrics to beating pussies until they’re blue or call truce, shoving money into strippers’ G-strings, gun violence, drug sales, twerking, expensive cars, et cetera.
I have often heard my white peers opt-out of objecting to the misogynist, male supremacist, pro-capitalist ethos of mainstream hip hop by raising the false claim that rap is no more saturated with toxic scum than other genres of music or subcultures not associated with blackness, e.g. mainstream pop, and that rap only has a reputation for being nasty because it is made by black people. This is partially true but it cannot be mistaken for the whole truth. Pop music is idiotic and noisome in its vapidity and a vehicle for patriarchal values to be sure, but I have listened to both pop and rap radio in my car for countless enough hours of my life to know which station to tune to if I care to hear the greater portion of references to bitches // pussy // strippers // fucking // interpersonal violence. I also know that hip hop is being made today by black artists that is better than an abrasive regressive stew of sexualized aggression and conspicuous consumption, but we do not hear it on the radio; it is not what is profitable on the white male supremacist cultural market. The genre’s “bad reputation” is not entirely the effect of racist maligning based on its association with blackness but instead has been built into it, by means of the selection and promotion of the form’s ugliest strains. As an artifact of colonized black culture, mainstream hip hop has been engineered to stimulate white people’s aversion, in furtherance of the defamation of blackness.
Sidestepping acknowledgment of the possibility that hip hop as a musical form and cultural institution has been consciously molded by the social and economic forces of a white-dominated culture to perpetuate a particular destructive image of black people, in maintenance of the white supremacist social order, white people with their refusal to challenge mainstream rap’s crassness and cruelty, simply because it’s coded black, imply that what rap offers is a credible vision of blackness, beyond critique: black people just are that way. By this logic what stars like R. Kelly perform is understood as the ontological reality of the black man. He just is that way. Who are we to judge? It’s a different culture. As white people we cannot understand that culture because it belongs to black people, who are different than we are. What is the essential difference to be identified in a conceptualization of mainstream hip hop as a window into “authentic” black culture? If R. Kelly as played on the radio, and if R. Kelly as a pop cultural figure testify to the true nature of the difference between black and white people, then black people must be, in essence, markedly more sexual. In essence, rougher, coarser, more prone to physical aggression. In essence, materialistic, afflicted by an avaricious craving for gold chains, red Cadillacs. In essence, ridiculous. Obnoxious. Freaky//Freakish. The difference discovered denotes inferiority. It is false. Black people are not “just that way” in any of the ways just listed, though they are impelled to be in this society, and they are paid to be. The design is that white audiences will swallow the difference visible in the character of R. Kelly as true, when in truth it is the yield of white power forcing into reality its own cruel delusions.
White people fortify delusory ideas of blackness when we refuse to be critical consumers of “black culture” as packaged and passed off to us under white dominion. Or when we defer judgment on a man like R. Kelly, a known sexual predator, never saying but believing really that black men just do those things. Accepted as normal relative to standards of black masculinity R. Kelly’s sexual violence is framed as a “native cultural practice” of the black male, to which the appropriate response is the rapt neutrality cultural relativism prescribes. We default to the fallacy that black people are essentially different creatures then we are, and though we can observe their behaviors and rituals, study them, amuse ourselves with their strange antics, since our civilized moral etiquette cannot be applied to such an alien population, we must not cast aspersions; certainly we do not intervene. The result of the “native cultural practices” conceit has been that white media outlets milked hilarity from R. Kelly’s black-coded freakiness for years after he became known as a serial sexual abuser of black girls. In the criminal justice system, the theory manifests in the presumption that black communities are inherently more violent, and especially more sexually violent, with the effect being the normalization of black men’s violence against black women leading to “reduced system response”: judges and juries do not take these crimes seriously 11. The assumed inferior moral status of the subordinated, stigmatized community is asserted to exculpate the accused: he was just doing what those people do 12. As a culture we forgive R. Kelly finally because we never expected anything other than depravity from him, as we except nothing more of any black man. Equally tacit in the exoneration is the patriarchal promise that, however low a man’s status in the social hierarchy, he is due an unbounded right to use as he pleases the bodies of “his” women. (Once again we recall how differently things might have gone for R. Kelly had he raped white girls.)
Less explicitly we reinforce oppressive constructions of blackness when as white artists we use elements or fragments of “black” art in our works to signify those “essential qualities” white culture has assigned to black bodies: hypersexuality, carnality, physical aggression, voracious materialism, phallocentric masculinity, pussy-power aggro-sexual femininity. In the contemporary musical underground white (usually male) artists have grown attached to sampling black women’s vocals to infuse their work with heady sensuality, such that a black woman becomes the representative for these men’s otherwise restrained eroticism; rap or hip hop or ghetto house, etc., tracks are injected strategically into white artists’ DJ mixes as a cue for (predominantly white) audiences to release inhibitions and get physical. A popular rap song comes on between sets at a show and all the white people shriek with amused glee, commence to writhe around. Appropriations of this kind are often posed as celebrations of black culture, a means by which white artists can demonstrate their respect for black life and black art. Maybe they are sometimes intended sincerely as celebrations, but in practice they reinscribe the white supremacist image of black people as sexual primitives, and of blackness as a sexualized commodity for white people’s consumption. I do not mean to say that we, as white people, are barred from appreciating music or art black people have created, that we are to repudiate it wholesale and only engage with the work of other white people. Critical consciousness does not constrain one to sweeping renunciation. What is necessary is that we be vigilant that we are not using a co-opted and objectified blackness as a signifier for personal expression. Mobilizing blackness as a signifier for sensuality, or carnality, or aggression upholds as right and true the meanings that white culture has ascribed to it. But these are neither right nor true, and white culture has not given blackness these meanings to ennoble it. Point: we need to stop affiliating ourselves with codified “blackness” to make our white selves appear sexier.
White music writers have responded to the recent increase in attention to R. Kelly’s abuse of black girls by asking themselves, “Is It Okay to Listen to R. Kelly?” I said it was the wrong question. It’s also the wrong question to ask, “Can I in Good Conscience Writhe Around to Radio Hip Hop with My White Friends?” The answer to both is probably no, but that these are even the questions we’re asking is evidence of the solipsism instilled in us by our white-male-supremacist culture. We cannot be more concerned with our own listening habits and writhing diversions than with white culture’s colonization of black life and commercialization of blackness as an instrument of social control and derogation, of black culture as a site to propagandize male supremacist sexuality and sexual politics. We do not get to laugh at R. Kelly, all the while accepting it as unsurprising and amusing that he has preyed on black girls, when beneath our laughter and acceptance is a deeply engrained belief that black men are 1) ridiculous, as in stupid, and 2) born sexual predators. We cannot ignore sexual violence when the victims are black, when our willful blindness abandons black girls and women, who are not trash, to degradation and abuse. As the white audience we are not entitled to carry on enjoying the white supremacist cartoon that is the R. Kelly Spectacle, when its fundamental purpose is stigmatize blackness. The image of black life created for and circulated by popular culture to amuse white people is destructive in design and as we are its intended audience we have a responsibility to challenge it. Black people do not exist for white people’s consumption. A more concrete effort than ponderous reflections over whether or not it’s “ok” to listen to R. Kelly is required; we owe black men and black women more than self-aggrandizing ethical strutting. Boycotting R. Kelly is a paltry crusade. Rather, our entire relation to blackness, as white people participating in an undeniably white-dominated culture, must be reassessed, and shifted, so that another man like R. Kelly cannot do what R. Kelly has done to girls and capitalize on it, because he is a black man and the girls he wrongs are black, and he’s playing to a crowd of white-male supremacists.
- Neal, Mark Anthony. (2013). R. Kelly’s Closet: Shame, Desire, and the Confessions of a (Postmodern) Soul Man. From Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. New York: NYU Press. ↵
- Dagbovie-Millins, S.A. (2013). Pigtails, Ponytails, and Getting Tail: The Infantilization and Hyper-Sexualization of African American Females in Popular Culture. The Journal of Popular Culture, 46(4):745-770. ↵
- Cossins, A. (2003). Saints, sluts, and sexual assault: Rethinking the relationship between sex, race, and gender. Social & Legal Studies, 12(1), 77-103. ↵
- Dagbovie-Millins, 2013. ↵
- Dagbovie-Millins, 2013. ↵
- hooks, bell. (1992). Selling hot pussy: representations of black female sexuality in the cultural marketplace. From Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press. ↵
- hooks, 1992. ↵
- Dagbovie-Millins, 2013. ↵
- Hill Collins, Patricia. (2005). Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge. ↵
- hooks, bell. (1992). Reconstructing black masculinity. From Black Looks: Representations and Race. Boston: South End Press. ↵
- Pietsch, N. (2009/2010). “I’m not that kind of girl”: White femininity, the Other, and the Legal/Social Sanctioning of Sexual Violence against racialized women. Canadian Woman Studies, 28(1), 136-140. ↵
- Cossins, 2003. ↵