Saturday, December 26, 2015

R. Kelly and Scapegoating Black Men

Ok. There are a couple of things which I should point out before this short little post. (1) I am not an R. Kelly fan. I don't like or listen to R. Kelly's music. I know at most just two songs of his.

There is very little modern R&B that I listen to as on balance I find the genre in its current incarnation to be about as soulful as Pat Boone and Lawrence Welk eating spam and mayonnaise sandwiches while riverdancing to Muzak. (2) Although in some states, including my own, the age of consent is 16, I don't have much respect for any grown man (i.e. over 21) who is doing anything with someone who is under 18. I think such action is distasteful when it's not outright criminal. Apparently R. Kelly has a new release and like any other musician in his position he wants to drum up interest. For some reason he or his oh so skilled top notch management/marketing team thought that it would be worthwhile for him to appear on Huffington Post Live with feminist Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani to discuss this release and other things. The interviewer wanted to get into the accusations of sexual misconduct. R. Kelly didn't want to discuss those allegations. So this interview went about as well as you might expect. You can watch it here

Basically R. Kelly lost his cool, made an ill-fated attempt to compliment Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani and then left the premises in a huff. R. Kelly knows his history. And he's old enough to know how America works. He must have been deluded to think this interviewer would not have asked questions about the past accusations against him. Let me reiterate that I don't give a flying fig newton about R. Kelly, his music, his pocketbook or his well being. He's meaningless to me. What I do care about though, is the ease with which the American media (both white AND black) can so easily and consistently make a black man the face of a larger public issue- in this case pedophilia/teenage groupies- and the self-righteousness which some people bring to bear on anyone who doesn't accept faulty logical premises about what makes good art.

I wrote about some of this before in the larger framework of good and evil in art but even if we further limit the question to illegal or questionable sexual behavior you will find a sobering number of celebrated and revered artists who have pretty scummy pasts. For example, and this is by no means any sort of exhaustive list, consider the following:
  • Led Zeppelin bandmates Jimmy Page and Robert Plant wrote this song, which was a pretty accurate description of their lifestyle at the time as Page was trying to hide his 14 year old girlfriend Lori Maddox from the media.
  • Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham was accused of attempted rape. 
  • Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) married an 18 year old with whom he had had relations since her 14th birthday.
  • Sable Star was a 13 year old groupie who was familiar with Robert Plant, Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Rod Stewart and many more rock stars.
  • Ted Nugent became legal guardian of a 17 yr old to avoid statutory rape charges. Courtney Love claims to have been 12 when she attracted Nugent's attention.
  • Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler did the same thing with a 14 year old.
  • Don Johnson began dating Melanie Griffith when she was 14.
  • Don Henley (Eagles) got some heat when a 16 year old prostitute overdosed in his home.
  • Pamela Des Barres started as a groupie in high school and "became familiar" with just about every famous rock band in the sixties and seventies.
  • Dennis Wilson started up with his cousin's daughter when she was 16.
  • Elvis started with Priscilla when she was 14.
  • Sonny started with Cher when she was 16.
  • Paul Walker started with his girlfriend when she was 16.
  • At 38, Jerry Seinfeld was dating a 17 year old high school girl.
Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
AFAIK just about everyone involved in the above list was white. Does that mean that society doesn't value white females? Of course not. It means that most people are able to separate their appreciation of whatever music or art they like from the crappy things that some artists do. Do you really think that if 
Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani or anybody else were interviewing Jimmy Page about the new Led Zeppelin remastered releases they would insist upon asking about his past breaches of decorum and outright crimes? Well of course they wouldn't. Would bloggers be in high dudgeon claiming that Don Johnson's actions prove white men don't respect or protect white girls and women? Heck no! Again I don't like R. Kelly's music and don't listen to it. But I don't find fault with those who do any more than I would be upset with someone listening to Marvin Gaye's music. 

Gaye started with his wife Janis Hunter when she was either 16 or 17. Some of the people frothing at the mouth and claiming that R. Kelly's actions prove society doesn't value black girls are defenders of Michael Jackson. How does that work? So sleeping with little white boys is just fine but sleeping with little black girls is wrong? People should know by now that the value of someone's work stands apart from who they are. For example, Werner Heisenberg made critical contributions to physics. He also worked, reluctantly or not, for Nazi Germany during WW2. Should we reject quantum physics because Heisenberg furthered our knowledge of it? If people are going to reject art based on the artist's morals they should be prepared not to enjoy much art at all. Talent and morality don't necessarily go hand in hand. 

That someone likes R. Kelly's music says nothing at all about what they think of black women or girls. If you're going to insist that R. Kelly be "held accountable" then fine. All I say is that he should have a LOT of company. Let's stop making black men the boogeyman or scapegoat for every societal ill. There are artists I don't like because of things that have nothing to do with their art. But I wouldn't be so arrogant as to argue that if you like their work this means you're a bad person. I don't think it's right to start a neo-Stalinist purge of "bad art" or to have media show trials where bad art supporters are accused of racism, sexism, patriarchy, or being unsympathetic to this or that social group. Sometimes problematic or despicable people make great advances in art, science or other human endeavors. Deal with it.
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