When the docuseries Surviving R Kelly aired on Lifetime over the first weekend of the year, many viewers were appalled that the three-time Grammy Award-winning singer could have maintained a hugely successful career in the face of several women’s allegations of sexual and physical abuse. Allegations and lawsuits against the R&B artist date as far back as the mid-90s, at the start of his 25-year career. Activists Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Barnes founded the #MuteRKelly movement to boycott Kelly’s music in 2017. And yet, Spotify confirmed that streams of R Kelly’s music on the service increased by 16 percent after the first of the series’ six episodes aired in the US on 3 January. Since Surviving's release, the Chicago Sun-Times reports that two more women have approached the police with fresh allegations against Kelly.
But we're talking about the music here. You might’ve seen Jada Pinkett Smith’s reaction to that streaming spike news. On Sunday she posted an Instagram video posing a question that many people may have wondering about, too: why? “I just want to understand what I’m missing,” she said. “I really don’t want to believe that it’s because black girls don’t matter enough.” And neither do we, so we spoke to the people who clicked on his music after the Surviving R Kelly debut.
Ricky Lee, 27
I watched the docuseries and I was shocked to find out about the things the women on the show say was doing, and how everyone seemingly knew. At the end of the day he did make really good, touching music – I believe we all can agree on that. But I feel as if he needs help, serious help, and I don’t respect or appreciate him as a person.
I was lying there watching the documentary and it suddenly clicked. I jumped up and was like, wait a minute: “My mind is telling me no / but my body, my body is telling me yes / baby I don’t wanna hurt nobody / but there is something that I must confess.” You could interpret that he was talking about the situations with the young girls. He spoke through his music.
It all comes down to power and using that power to manipulate a situation to your favour. In this case, underage girls later allege they were being manipulated to do sexual acts and I wholeheartedly believe that’s just wrong, no matter how you see it.
I’m not going to say I’m completely done with listening to his music. If it comes on while I’m driving or in the club or whatever I’m not going to be like “oh change it, fuck that guy” but I personally won’t have him on my iPod or phone.
Zoe Kord, 26
Don't get my wrong, R Kelly – when it comes to music – is a genius. But what these women allege was going on behind closed doors is scary. I feel it's the same for everyone: we heard about it years ago, but we didn't take any notice of it. It wasn't in the media the way it is, now this documentary has come out.
I heard R Kelly wrote Aaliyah's “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.” I went to play the song and when you take in the lyrics, you realise he’s written about a young girl who wants an older man, and the older man shouldn't be afraid to pursue the young female. It's scary because he married her, when the docuseries says she was a 15-year-old girl. I have younger sisters and I'm the eldest, and I feel like if anything happened to them like that, it would hurt me. One of my sisters just turned 13. She’s a child. I'm not being funny, but if a 24- or 25-year-old man were to think it's OK to have sex with someone her age, I'd think there was something seriously wrong.
According to Surviving R Kelly, he released “I Believe I Can Fly” when allegations against him were being made. I personally think it means, ‘I can get away with this because no-one's going to take notice of what I'm doing. I'm just going to bring out a song that really gets to people's emotions, for them to just forget about what's being said.’ He brought out that spiritual music to capture people's hearts. That's why I feel like R Kelly has got more plays: everyone has sat down and watched this show and thought to listen to his music for a hidden message.
I think if you're able to separate his music from what he has done, you can separate it, but for me, I don't think I can. After everything I've watched, everything I’ve heard, the research and newspaper articles I’ve read, even hearing his voice makes me cringe.
Sara Repanich, 27
I heard about the R. Kelly’s docuseries from friends and read snippets about it on social media. I’ve watched all six episodes – I was always interested in how he’s gone this long without overwhelming public condemnation of his alleged acts. I was three or four years old when he married Aaliyah. At the time, I obviously couldn’t grasp the situation, but as I got older that never sat well with me. I always thought that that alone should have been enough for the public to turn their back on him.
At the end of the docuseries, they mention his 19-minute song talking about “admitting it”. To be honest, I had never heard the song, so I decided to listen to it on YouTube. I was shocked that 1) his lawyers let him release the song, and 2) that some of the viewing public would listen to it and still take his side. I have not listened to any song of his after the docuseries except “I Admit”. I think this song was very similar to his previous songs and graphics throughout his career. He always seemed to hide in plain sight. For example, calling himself the Pied Piper or singing lyrics that essentially talked about what he was doing. The song really didn’t admit to anything, although the chorus says “I admit it, I did it.”
His music glorifies a predation of young women. Now that I know the specifics of the allegations (which he denies), I can’t listen to the music. I can’t make choices for others, but I would hope they follow the same line of logic.
Jasari Diaz, 29
I’ve only watched the first part of the series and I was not surprised by it. I’d already heard about his alleged sexual behaviour towards minors and it had changed my feelings towards him as a person.
I know R Kelly as a musical genius. As an artist he inspired me in many ways growing up because I also make music. Certain songs bring out certain feelings from my past life. I don't envision the artist or the melody, just the feeling.
I listened to “I Believe I Can Fly”, “Ignition (Remix)”, “Slow Wind”, “The World’s Greatest”, even songs he wrote for other artists. These songs make me think of a past girlfriend, barbecues with friends and family, dancing in a house party, etc. However, I feel that we should look into who and what these songs represent. I feel that some of R Kelly's songs were made with a malice intention. He pictures a whole different story to what the audience does.
I’m not sure if I will continue listening to him. I’ve reached a part of my life that is full of positivity and maturity. If listening to his songs brings a negative emotion then I will pass on it.
J Stephens, 29
I’ve not watched Surviving R Kelly. I don't have TV actually. But, everyone on Twitter, Instagram and at work have been talking about the documentary. I actually never stopped listening to him, but the recent trending topic on social media, was started by the documentary, made me listen to my favourite albums.
I listened R., TP-2.com, TP.3 Reloaded, Chocolate Factory, and Untitled. I didn't plan on listening to all of that, but I work a day job at a desk, doing analytics. So I have time – and good luck turning off those albums once you've let, like, ten to 15 seconds play. After that, you're down the rabbit hole of memory lane on YouTube.
My opinion of R Kelly remains the same because the news from the documentary is pretty old. Everybody has always known he's a pervert. The allegations about him that have been circling around all these years are horrendous and I wholeheartedly believe the victims. But try to hit skip when you hear that lil guitar go.
I don’t feel like listening to his songs may be in some way supporting him. Not monetarily. It's pretty well-known that his lack of an ability to read well landed him in some horrible contracts. As far as attention, the man has classics. People are gonna be listening to those records forever. The attention paid to his music isn't going anywhere.
In the UK, ‘Surviving R Kelly’ is due to air on Crime+Investigation on 5 February at 10PM.
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