R. Kelly, who yesterday was sentenced to 30 years in prison following his conviction of sex trafficking, long used his astronomical success as a musician to cover for his crimes. He had another partner in that: memes.
To Black Americans, R. Kelly is a foundational figure in R&B music. This was a status that gave him an immense amount of power in the music industry, power that he used to repeatedly abuse young women and children. Outside of that community, and in particular to white people, R. Kelly’s music wasn’t the most important thing about him. Kelly was endlessly memeable, allowing him to have a career and legacy for far longer than he should have.
“Trapped in the Closet” was an early viral YouTube saga that had a second and third life as the subject of popular standup jokes, special comedy nights, college dorm drinking games—I even attended a screening of the series at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. “I Believe I Can Fly” was a longtime karaoke favorite of thousands of Space Jam fans, though it faded in relevance with the ascension of “Ignition (Remix)” as a meme. If you search on YouTube right now, you will find many, many covers of the song by white musicians, including some moderately successful bands like Young The Giant, as well as legitimate celebrities like Adam Levine and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The Mountain Goats cover of the song ended up on party playlists for a decade.
Like most memes, the remixing of R. Kelly stripped the songs of their context and allowed people to guiltlessly enjoy them, giving the works of a now-convicted sex trafficker cultural cachet for far longer than was reasonable. The act of stripping R. Kelly away and replacing him with a white person—a cover singer, a karaoke bro, a group of college kids drinking—became its own joke. It became a meme. This meant that his songs felt like they had no author, like it was this joke that bounced from artist to artist. Isn’t it so funny that this raunchy, black song sounds so sweet when it’s sung a capella? Isn’t it so funny when a white frat bro mimes “running her hands through my ‘fro” at karaoke while a room of drunk white people scream “it’s the freakin’ weekend baby I’m about to have me some fun?”
Not every R. Kelly meme was so racialized, but they did all have the same effect of stripping away the person who created the work. This is pretty typical for people who become a part of a meme, or create something that becomes a meme. After right wing political actors so thoroughly changed the meaning of the cartoon Pepe into a conservative meme, Matt Furie, the artist who created the comic where Pepe originally appeared, had to sue to stop people from selling merch with his work on it.
As Kelly’s work continued to be popular as memes—divorced from actually being associated with him—he was allowed to continue to prey on women and children in the open. Even his crimes became memes. After a tape surfaced of Kelly having sex with, and urinating on, a teenage girl, Dave Chapelle wrote a sketch where the R&B singer writes a song about peeing on women. In a concert in Ethiopia, Kelly openly asks the crowd if they have their passports and want to come home with him. It’s more than just the tendency in American culture to protect abusive people who are famous. Even as R. Kelly’s new work failed to find an audience, he retained cultural relevance by fading into the background. For an entire generation of people, R. Kelly was the butt of Aziz Ansari jokes, the creator of one of the most absurd music videos of all time, the guy nominally behind a few party anthems, not the man who illegally married Aaliyah when she was only 15 years old or sex trafficked minors.