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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Revisiting the art versus artist debate (again)

Fans give singer R. Kelly a rose, and cards, outside the Leighton Courthouse on March 22, 2019, in Chicago, Illinois. Photo Courtesy of Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images/TNS

Content Warning: This article has mentions of child abuse, child pornography and sex trafficking.


As if you needed another reason to stop listening to R. Kelly, on Sept. 14 the singer was found guilty of coercing minors into criminal sexual activity and producing videos of child sexual abuse. 

This newest conviction, from a federal trial in Chicago, could add to his ongoing 30-year sentence from his conviction on racketeering and sex trafficking charges in New York City last year. 

Robert Kelly’s legal battles trigger the question of whether we can separate the art from the artist, and I’m here to remind you that we can't. And we shouldn't. 

The origins of this legal battle goes back to 2002 when Kelly was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography. The case wasn’t brought to a jury until 2008, during which a lack of cohesion from the victims resulted in him being found not guilty. Though he and some of his associates were accused of obstructing the investigation that led to that outcome, they were later acquitted of those charges. 

The perverse escapades of R. Kelly have been talked around in popular culture for the past two decades. We all remember that 2005 episode of The Boondocks that mocked the first trial and emphasized his guilt. In 2019, his impassioned outburst during an interview with Gayle King became a meme. He was back in jail days later, invalidating his adamance about his innocence. 

Despite the public acknowledgement of his probable guilt, his supporters have remained faithful. In the Boondocks episode, the defense attorney and Kelly win over the jury through his music, distracting them from the facts of the case. Outside the courtroom, fans welcomed Kelly and continued dancing. 

Unfortunately, reality isn’t too far off. 

Rolling Stone reported that after Kelly’s 2021 guilty verdict, his streams jumped from 11.2 million to 13.4 million and his album sales were up 517 percent. 

Fans maintaining their support for him when there was mere speculation and rumors could be understood. There was no evidence presented in a court of law. But two federal convictions and mounting charges — Kelly may still face sex crime charges in Illinois and Minnesota — means it’s beyond time to let go. 

Although #MeToo brought heightened attention to sexual harassment and assault, there remains some imbalance in deciding whether to fully condemn or offer forgiveness to perpetrators – particularly celebrity ones. 

Take “America’s Dad” Bill Cosby, who was accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women. Being such a fixture of the television industry, especially as a successful Black comedian whose character on “The Cosby Show” was beloved and countered racial stereotypes, means that believing or accepting allegations against him are difficult. But they must be accepted. 

While Cosby received support from Clair Huxtable, AKA his co-star Phylicia Rashad, there was also a documentary made that detailed his creepy and predatory behavior behind-the-scenes of his growing career. A documentary series was also created about Kelly, called “Surviving R. Kelly.” Both offer insights from survivors, and showing our support of their bravery to come forward means not separating these men from the things that made them famous. It means considering their art alongside their crimes. 

Seeing the art as distinct from the artist does not account for the ways in which their art gave them access and status that they could then use against their victims. These men did not just make simple mistakes — they are criminals and shouldn’t receive special treatment because they are famous. 

There are other artists to lift up that do not come with the same baggage as Kelly or Cosby.

There are other television shows that are good representations of Blackness. My personal favorites include Living Single and Insecure (the former of which also became available to stream on HBO Max as of this month). While Cosby may have paved the way for these shows, we have to acknowledge the harm he was doing while in the limelight. 

We can also find a new song for our family reunions, graduations, and weddings. Step in the name of respecting the victims who suffer as we continue to embrace their abusers. The recent Beyonce album, for example, is great dancing music (and no, I’m not over it). 

Artists should be not only known for their art and the good that it can bring the world, but held accountable for the harm that they can bring as well. There’s no point in honoring someone’s legacy when they’ve done numerous things to taint it. 


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