One of the more difficult moments of “Surviving R. Kelly” comes at the very end, when you’re left wondering if you somehow played a part.
The six-part documentary — which aired on Lifetime over the weekend — recounts the agonizing stories of abuse from Kelly’s numerous accusers, and how the 51-year-old singer’s fame has shielded him from accountability for decades. And by “fame,” I mean “our collective complicity.” Whether you’re a casual fan who paid 99 cents for “Bump n’ Grind” on iTunes, or an industry mogul who made your fortune on Kelly’s name, you’re holding a piece of the singer’s devastating legacy in your hand. Big or small, now is a good time to open your palm and look at it.
As a music critic, here’s my piece. I was freelancing for The Washington Post in 2007 when I pitched a review of Kelly’s album, “Double Up,” an extravagantly lewd assortment of R&B songs that could have easily been titled “Double Down.” Kelly was still basking in the left-turn success of “Trapped in the Closet,” a serialized slow-jam about sexual transgression that somehow felt like high comedy. If American soul music was about truth-telling, here was a singer willing to tell us something extraordinary about the absurdity of sex — so, in the thrall of Kelly’s hyperbolic music, I had written a hyperbolic review.
When I filed the piece to Marcia Davis — an assignment editor who championed young writers and gave me my first real byline at The Post a few years earlier — she came back with a bigger question that I hadn’t anticipated: Should we be doing this?
Controversies were swirling around Kelly at the time, but my review had only mentioned them in passing. Marcia wasn’t ready to greenlight my excessive praise for a superstar who had allegedly hurt so many. Shouldn’t we mention the charges of child pornography Kelly was facing? Or the infamous videotape of Kelly allegedly having sex with a minor? Or his 1994 marriage to the singer Aaliyah? (And how, at the time, Kelly was 27 and Aaliyah was only 15?)
I was relatively new to music criticism, confident in my tastes but insecure in my abilities, and I remember not wanting to muddle my fragile copy with all of that ugly information. So I defended my position with a weak line of logic I had heard others use: Whatever this guy may or may not have done, it doesn’t change the quality of his music.
Marcia wasn’t satisfied with that, but she graciously met me halfway. We would mention the charges against Kelly early in the review. She also suggested that I change the word “genius” to “uniqueness” — and after I warily consented to the swap, that was that. The review was published the next day, and I remember feeling zero qualms about praising an alleged pedophile for his strange and beautiful music in the newspaper I had grown up reading.
In the years that followed, Marcia appeared on my shoulder every time I wrote about R. Kelly, even when she wasn’t editing me. She was in my head during a concert review I wrote in 2009 — but unfortunately, I was only half-listening to her. Kelly had since been acquitted of those child pornography charges, and that was good enough for me to call the concert a “wonderful” showing from the man behind “one of the greatest songbooks in the history of R&B.”
But Marcia’s voice never went away. By 2010, I had stopped attending Kelly’s concerts and I refrained from reviewing his albums. I slowly stopped citing his influence on other music in my writing, and I eventually stopped typing his name altogether. Should we be doing this? It had been seven years since Marcia’s edit, but I had finally reached “no.” The last time I put Kelly’s name in print was in 2014.
Why had it been so hard for me to give up on this music? I kept coming back to the word that Marcia had plugged into my review. “Uniqueness.” That had to be it, right? It wasn’t that R. Kelly was great. It was that R. Kelly was singular. And after he entered his raunchy-absurdist phase in the mid-aughts, even his most studious imitators — The-Dream, Trey Songz — only seemed to prove that there would never be another singer as odd, agile or funny as R. Kelly.
The culture critics interviewed on screen in “Surviving R. Kelly” shed a lot more light on this. First, Ann Powers explains how Kelly’s over-the-top prurience became a weird smokescreen for him — an almost winking ownership of his predatory behavior. Meantime, the critic Nelson George points to the uplifting end of Kelly’s lyrical spectrum, noting how we’ve danced to “Step in the Name of Love” at countless weddings, how we’ve sung “I Believe I Can Fly” at countless high school graduations. To give up these songs is to give up our own memories.
But we can still hold plenty of memories in our heads at once. The next time I hear “Ignition (Remix),” I’ll probably hear my friends singing it at a house party in 2003. I’ll hear Marcia’s voice, too, reminding me that how we talk about this world shapes how others see it. (I don’t want to overestimate the impact of a few R. Kelly reviews, but I don’t want to underestimate them, either.)
And now, after watching “Surviving R. Kelly,” I’ll hear voices I hadn’t truly listened to before — the voices of Kelly’s survivors, reminding me to turn the radio off, reminding me to leave the dance floor, reminding me that it shouldn’t have taken so long.