Back then, it was fun. Today, I am ashamed to remember R. Kelly headlined the very first stadium/arena megaconcert I attended in my life.
In the mid-nineties, one of my best friends drove a few of us from our small Illinois town up to Chicago for the performance everyone back home was so excited we were going to. We kids navigated through the unfamiliar traffic and parking gridlocks, our first experiences with the big city events we would come to know well in adulthood. We figured out the maze of ticket booths, concession stands and twenty thousand seats- all in total contrast to our reality of our hometown’s welcoming little cultural center. We found out it was prudent to ration liquids in these situations, as the concert started late; I was gone peeing (ironically) the moment R. Kelly finally stepped onstage, the audience applause nearly rattling the toilet stall’s door.
I had missed the moment of highest hysteria, to see whom we all came for. Kelly and Aaliyah were the first celebrities, or people from the TV, I saw up close in real life. It is so sad to think of all we did not know at the time we spent that much money, traveled that far, waited that long and made that much effort for Robert Sylvester Kelly.
At the time, Kelly’s debut 12 Play album had joined Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411 and Janet Jackson’s Control as my girlhood’s definitive symphonies. These albums and CDs became scratched, their cassette tape raveled into a crunchy tangle… that is just how much I replayed these artists’ seminal works, back when albums could occupy almost two hours of the night. I once dressed up as Jackson for Halloween (obviously, my all-black ensemble and key in a big hoop earring had to do a lot of work to pull that off).
These titles were the soundtrack of my homework and chores at home, the background to my first licensed drives in my very own car. I hunted down sheet music of their songs to try out along with the classical, show tunes and jazz standards I learned the piano on. I went to college and finally found hip-hop that made me understand what all the fuss was about, as well as jazz to get me through grueling meditative work of a literary life course. Still, those three albums were the standbys my discoveries of Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu could not replace.
Right after college, I was corresponding for the Chicago edition of Rolling Out‘s former print newspaper. One of my first assignments was to pin down interviews with Black male celebrities at a charity basketball game Kelly organized. It’s funny to look at things in hindsight. One, Morris Chestnut was the only kind and polite man willing to greet me and talk to me like I was an equal human, and he is the only one of these men who still has a respected career today. Two, R. Kelly had a grim gray energy around him that went beyond just the quick brush-off and frowning annoyance he gave me, as I stood before him in my jeans and big sweater and bandana drawing my “nappy” natural hair: clearly not the look of a groupie he could expect to proposition or exploit.
It makes my blood cold to know I was that close to a pedophile and gives me even more belief in all the horrible stories women have to tell of trauma just from doing our jobs. I thank God this event was at a local high school with hundreds of fans in the stands, not an assignment to go solo to the private space of the predator we can no longer doubt Kelly is.
Today, I am still proud to see Mary and Janet reinvent themselves tirelessly as Black American artists of integrity, philanthropy and mentorship for new artists. They are one-name icons I am still a fanatic and fan of. I still play What’s the 411 and Control a few times a year, just for a refresher on my carefree days. I still buy their new projects.
However, since my first year in New York City, when my Harlem roommate brought home a grainy bootleg DVD passed on to her at work, apparently of R. Kelly engaged in sex acts with minor Black girls, I was complicit in a crime each time I put in one of his albums or let his songs play on the radio. Shortly after or at the same time as this disputed tape came out, Kelly’s The Chocolate Factory came out as well. Even after seeing the sex tape and shaking my head with people about his trial back in Chicago, I praised The Chocolate Factory as one of my generation’s best R & B albums: a classic of arrangements, style, variety, sound, instrumentals, lyrics and that gospel-tinged drawl and soul scarce singers can capture without Black blood in the veins. I let a friend take my copy I played for guests at a dinner I gave. I went out to buy another.
Why I did this, and how I overlooked what was being said (and shown), I do not know. I can’t recall the moment I could not do it anymore. I don’t remember exactly when I just stopped bobbing along to “Bump and Grind,” just outgrown from my young days when I did not even have experience in what this man conditioned a generation of Black youth to imagine about love, starting always with sex. I don’t know when I started to lose the mood at a party or event once the DJ spun “Step in the Name of Love.” I’m even mad at myself right now, to be promoting the titles of his albums and songs, but I can’t tell my own personal story without doing so; that is just how much R. Kelly is part of the fabric of Black life in America, and many other cultures in America as well (“I Believe I Can Fly” is a nondiscriminating anthem I’ve watched toddlers of diverse races sing along to).
But the ultimate power of evil is diversion, devouring, annihilation and blacking out of what is good. This is all our faults, not Kelly’s. How many more men are out here for us to listen to, most of them much better vocalists than Kelly, and more romantic lyricists as well?
Why does anybody of sound mind need to hang on to a voice with a body behind it that has used its male member, fists and checkbook for a lifelong lifestyle of prurient interests and acts? Who is still in a crisis of maturity blocking out all the grown folks’ music we have far beyond this man, whose stuff was kinda juvenile then and has become more so with age?
How many talented and genius Black men who treat Black women and daughters right stopped getting record deals and touring because we did not notice or buy their efforts? How many local acts perform tirelessly every week in our nearby lounges, bars and festivals without a crowd while Mr. Kelly remains a daily airplay and party standard?
I can take some solace that The Chocolate Factory was my last R. Kelly purchase of any kind- no more albums, concert tickets, streaming credits, downloads or publications with him on the cover. But it took me too long. I was in my mid-20’s, old enough to know better than to be influenced by pop culture machines and money-making behemoths who could care less about Black women and girls when it comes to the almighty dollar bottom line. They include the same record companies, stations and executives who made billions and careers off content promoting global obsessions with Black women’s big butts or visual standards that turned Black music video stations into near soft porn channels.
Many Black women got the ball rolling to stop this on a wider scale than one lost fan every now and again: veteran Black culture worker Dream Hampton, #MeToo Movement originator Tarana Burke and the #MuteRKelly team among so many others, have done their parts. So no one has any more excuses to claim ignorance or denial.
If I devoted a rare blog piece to the name, songs and albums of this serial victimizer of Black women like I am and girls like I was once was, I must compensate and balance that darkness by naming better spiritual uplifts. I definitely must disclaim I do not know these artists’ personal lives but I am certain, at this time, they are cleaner than one who shouldn’t be around anymore. I hope you discover some of these other Black men who have not had either the megafame or the scandals for as many people to know their names as now know R. Kelly’s. Start streaming them. Start acclimating your children, boys more than girls, to their musical approach to male-female relationships. Turn their music up to turn down an abuser’s name and fame so the proper authorities can work.
20 Black Men to Stream Besides R. Kelly
Gary Clark, Jr.