Surviving R. Kelly is not just an apt title to describe the harrowing accounts of the women and families who came forward to detail their experiences with Robert Sylvester Kelly. It’s also (to a much lesser extent) an accurate description of the experience viewers had after engaging all six hours of footage detailing R.Kelly’s alleged depravity.
After it aired, many people were left asking “Now what?” What followed was a palpable desire to dismantle the ecosystem of complicity Kelly created with the assistance of his employees and music industry peers. Consumers are now having very public discussions on what it means for an artist to have supported R. Kelly, especially in recent years. Liner notes and song credits are being scoured, music videos and photo ops are being examined, the public is looking for an overhaul and a moment of reckoning.
Instinctively many celebrities are aware of this atmosphere and are now moved to make public repudiations. Some like Tank and NeYo took to IG to express their condemnation of Kelly’s actions and competently apologize for their part in heralding his music over his alleged atrocities, while others have taken to the much-abused iPhone notes app to post long-winded apologies and clumsy clarifications.
Chance the Rapper tried to take a more preemptive approach. In part 3 of the docuseries, we see footage of a glassy-eyed and demonstrably reflective Chancelor sitting across from columnist and cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux in a never-aired interview for Cassiuslife.com. After elaborating why his affinity towards R. Kelly and decision to work with him on “Somewhere In Paradise” could be explained by a knee-jerk reaction to protect black men from unjust persecution, he then concedes that general socialization may have influenced him to devalue the accusers’ stories because they were black women.
Similarly, Lady Gaga posted a message across all her social media platforms to express unwavering support for Kelly’s victims and apologize for her decision to collaborate with him for her provocative song and American Music Awards performance of “Do What U Want” in 2013.
Even Dame Dash decided to interject on his own behalf and claim his loyalty for Aaliyah compelled him to take an ethical stand against participating in the recording of the Best Of Both Worlds album with former friend and business partner Shawn Jay-Z Carter.
Skepticism surrounding these apologies are well earned. Kelly is currently at his most vulnerable and is much more of a liability than a surefire hit-maker who’s worth the risk. While his court cases, videos and behavior have been notoriously scandalous lore in pop culture for years, it didn’t become objectionable for most in the biz until now. That being said, it’s only fair to note that Kelly’s songwriting and production contributions run the gamut of the music industry’s heavy hitters—from Celine Dion and Michael Jackson to Britney Spears and Bryson Tiller. The celebrities who have come forward to publicly distance themselves are only a fraction of artists he’s worked with. Nonetheless, the mea culpas offered do seem to invite more questions than they answer. This is especially the case for Chance and Gaga—who went a step further than their peers who were content with keeping Kelly’s presence limited to the credits and/or vocal features on deep album cuts. Both employed an almost defiant public showing of support for Kelly via the spectacle of performance.
In Gaga’s written statement she attributes her decision to collaborate with Kelly to her younger, twisted and traumatized self, who was seeking to be provocative as a means of processing her own anger and trauma as a victim of sexual assault. However, when looking at her response to criticisms back in 2013, she defended the song by asserting “R. Kelly and I have sometimes very untrue things written about us, so in a way this was a bond between us.” Her apology doesn’t clarify these statements. (What exactly was being written about her that was comparable to court cases and allegations of rape and child sex exploitation? And why she was so willing to discount his alleged victims?)
Nor does she explain who exactly she was trying to provoke; the video for the song displayed incapacitated female patients being treated by Dr. R. Kelly and a harem of sexy nurses; her AMA performance centered her in Marilyn Monroe cosplay—a standard representation of white female desirability, being coyly titillated and violated by President R. Kelly—whom she almost paternalistically characterized as a misunderstood soul that she shared a “natural” almost primal connection with. The symbolism was ham-fisted as it was callous. She, the blonde milky-skinned object of desire, him, the representation of the black male threat of animistic sexuality ready to defile her. And they both reveled in their assigned roles. It’s negligent for Gaga to ignore the primary targets of this provocation, which was not the “unjust” media smears but victims. Specifically, the black girls and women R. Kelly had allegedly viciously abused and humiliated and the families he destroyed in the process.
Likewise, Chance’s concession fails to hold up to reasonable scrutiny even after he took to social media to implore people to read the entire context of his discussion. In the interview, Chance, a Chicago native, claims he was unfamiliar with Kelly’s allegations and rumored behavior outside of the trial and didn’t realize that people would be uncomfortable with Kelly appearing on his track, two years after a very public backlash compelled Gaga to rerecord “Do What U Want” with Christina Aguilera. His claim that “Usually, niggas that get in trouble for shit like this on their magnitude of celebrity, it’s light-skinned women or white women. That’s when it’s a big story” is equally puzzling. There have been no comparable trials for any black male celebrity. Nor does Chance comment on his 2014 Lollapalooza appearance where he ceremoniously brought out Kelly, introducing him as the “Pied Piper of R&B,” only citing his 2015 song with Kelly as an isolated “mistake.”
Even Dame Dash’s claim of taking an ethical stand against Best of Both Worlds is mired in inconsistency when it was pointed out he was seen dancing prominently in the “Fiesta” video; to which he defended himself by noting the scenes were shot separately from Kelly’s. While some of these may be genuine attempts at catharsis or transparency, what all the celeb capitulations fail to do is admit to an even more damning likelihood: It’s not about disbelieving or devaluing the accusations of Kelly’s victims; it was about not caring even if their accusations were true.