Coming to Crime+Investigation on 5th February, Surviving R. Kelly has sent shockwaves across social media and beyond, since its screen debut this month. Sony has dropped the artist. Erykah Badu is embroiled in a bitter war of words on social media for defending him. Lady Gaga had led a string of artists now apologising for working with him, including Chance the Rapper and Celine Dion, since the docuseries aired.
Ne-Yo and John Legend have publicly condemned the R&B star (Legend was interviewed in the final episode). In direct response to the docuseries, Cook County’s State Attorney, Kim Foxx called for potential victims to come forward and her office and has reportedly been flooded with calls since.
After more than 30 years of unsavoury allegations, has one docuseries finally brought down the seemingly untouchable R Kelly? And if so, is this simply ‘trial by media’? Can we and should we separate the music from the man?
A blurred line
It may shock you to learn that talented musicians are sometimes horrendous people. And it’s not a new thing. In 1590, acclaimed composer Carlo Gesualdo brutally butchered his wife and her lover. He went on to abuse his second wife, and, following a complicated sequence of events, locked up two of his mistresses in his castle.
Wife beater Frank Sinatra nearly killed Ava Gardner by throwing a champagne bottle at her so hard it cracked the bathroom sink. Chuck Berry’s litany of offences included armed robbery, abducting a minor and an early case of upskirting (he also once punched Keith Richards in the face!). Elvis Presley had a taste for underage groupies. And David Bowie had sex with a 13-year-old.
With this sliding scale of offending musicians, through the ages, this clearly is a blurred line. While the Bluebeard-esque Gesualdo and antisemitic Wagner are long dead, leaving only their music behind, R. Kelly is very much alive and at large. If a fraction of the allegations against him are true, money spent on his music effectively funds abuse of women and children. His celebrity status, meanwhile, gives him both protection and opportunity.
Among the most chilling scandals surrounding any musician of recent times, was that of Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins, who is currently serving 35 years for a string of child sex offences, including the attempted rape of a baby. Watkins is right where he belongs. But should his music be ostracised?
He was one of six band members who made the music, five of whom, by all accounts, were completely innocent and unaware of his behaviour. Some fans say they still love the music and can separate it from the monster who made it. For others, this idea is unthinkable.
No more heroes anymore
Clearly, the horror of Watkin’s crimes is beyond most people’s comprehension. But many find it far easier to qualify the occasional underage groupie, or case of domestic violence, with phrases like ‘artistic temperament’ and ‘it was the 60s’. The adulation many musical legends inspire makes it far harder to stare morally questionable behaviour in the face.
Most of us would happily never listen to another Gary Glitter song ever again, even if he weren’t a serial paedophile predator. The case of Bowie, on the other hand, leaves many deeply conflicted. David Bowie wasn’t just a trailblazing musician, he was a cultural icon; an LGBT pioneer, with huge cross-generational appeal. It is understandable, therefore, that some fans struggle to acknowledge he committed statutory rape.
There is no comparison between Bowie and the likes of Glitter or (allegedly!) R. Kelly, and it certainly should not stop people enjoying his music. But it can be argued the Bowie blind spot sets a dangerous precedent. A more extreme version plays out in the rage and fervour of diehard Michael Jackson fans, in the face of multiple credible allegations of child abuse – many made during his lifetime. For some, fandom appears to override rational thinking.