Just two days after the new year, my family and I rang in the holiday by gathering around our television and watching a show about the age-old tale of the American R&B singer-turned-pedophile and sex offender. You know, the way all families do.
Shortly after it aired, "Surviving R. Kelly," a documentary mini-series following the titular Grammy award-winning artist throughout his controversial career, was already dominating the internet and enraging fans (especially black women) from all over the country. His family members, coworkers, and victims all unite in this six-part Lifetime program to highlight the abhorrent allegations that plague him today. Although the singer continues to deny everything, the series is nauseating and blood-curdling in that “what-if-it-was-me” sort of way, drawing you in until the very last episode. The trailer alone displays woman after woman crying on-screen, unable to endure the mental trauma it takes just to share her story. So, like many others, I made the promise to rebuke every R. Kelly song from now on. The only problem is that I love “Ignition (Remix).” But of course, that doesn’t matter. Kelly and his music were a package deal, and to take a stand against him meant to take a stand against all of him.
By nature, art—in any medium—is supposed to be a tiny keyhole through which we get a peek into the artist and his or her life. However, time and time again, consumers have deliberately ignored the human being behind our society’s most cherished works. Unconsciously, we have fallen into a habit of separating the art from the artist. All artists are troubled; the process is part of the genius. Even Coco Chanel, inarguably one of the most influential designers of modern history, was a homophobic and anti-semitic Nazi Intelligence Operative. She was simultaneously repulsive and sophisticated, vile and brilliant. Despite all of this, the industry still reserves her name for the utmost elite as a hallmark of elegance. Of course, that’s great for Chanel, but today the mindset is shifting and people are becoming increasingly less forgiving.
So, what’s changing? Why do we suddenly care? My theory: Social Justice Warriors. As social media becomes more transparent and as our younger generations become more “woke,” artists are now facing backlash as their fans call them out on every accusation. Our tolerance levels for misogyny, racism, and homophobia have fallen drastically; either you progress with us, or you’re cut. But in Chanel’s case, how do we as a society just “cancel” one of the most powerful names in fashion? More importantly, is it our job to do so?
My answer? Yes. Chanel may have escaped our wrath, but many popular artists have already come forward and apologized for their collaboration with R. Kelly in response to the documentary series. His record label dropped him, and the authorities opened a new criminal investigation against him. We, the mere consumers, are conquering the evil. By refusing to support Kelly, I am taking a stand with and for all the young black women whom he abused, as well as with those who continue to be abused by men like him everyday. In some small way, by protesting “Ignition,” I am standing for my 11 year-old baby sister. I am empowering the voice of Jerhonda Pace, Kitti Jones, Asante McGee, and countless other brave survivors.
I admit that human beings and art are two inherently complicated things that when bundled together become even more convoluted and incomprehensible. But before you ask whether it is fair to bind someone’s accomplishments to their history, I implore you to look at the pain and the vulnerability in these women’s faces. It is enough to steal the air from your very lungs; it is shattering in every possible way. The issue is that sometimes, bad people are incredibly talented. In fact, some of the greatest artistic minds aren’t really people I would call up for a Sunday brunch. It is unreasonable to demand that only good people—whatever that may mean—make enjoyable works of art. At the same time, however, our job is to remember that they are not two separate entities and to do our part in bringing justice to the victims of violence and bigotry.
Fabre is an Undeclared Freshman.
PC: Anne Fontaine.