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The R. Kelly Problem

“Why haven’t we reached a Cosby-style tipping point with him?” asks DeRogatis from his office at Chicago’s Columbia College, where he teaches cultural criticism. “R. Kelly had the good sense never to go after a white girl from Winnetka. He didn’t go after Janice Dickinson. He was [allegedly] targeting inner-city black girls. The white world, with some exceptions, did not give a fuck. Certainly not in the way they did about Cosby, who was an actual crossover artist.”

R. Kelly is, of course, not the first popular musician to allegedly be turned on by minors. Elvis began courting Priscilla Beaulieu when she was 14. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old second cousin. Marvin Gaye impregnated a 16-year-old. But none of them did so under the watchful eyes of the internet and social media. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page never had to discuss having a 14-year-old girlfriend during his band’s bacchanalian heyday. Kelly, the scope of whose alleged behavior is far beyond that of the aforementioned musicians, had an #askRKelly Twitter Q&A in 2013 that quickly turned disastrous. (Sample question: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how old is your girlfriend?”) His reckoning keeps on rolling but at seemingly no tangible harm to his career.

As best I can tell, many of R. Kelly’s fans don’t care about his alleged past, insofar as they’re even aware of it. And even if they do have some ambivalence, they can stream “Ignition (Remix)” on, say, Spotify, and enjoy Kelly’s music without worrying about putting much money in his pocket. So what, then, is someone like DeRogatis looking for? How should we hear R. Kelly? “People need to be aware of, given the subject matter of his art, what he is really about,” DeRogatis says. “You can despise the individual and appreciate the art, fine, but you need to be aware that you’re making a conscious decision to overlook some very, very bad behavior. You’re either ignorant of what he’s been charged of, or you’ve thought it through and said, ‘That all matters less to me than his cool grooves.’ What I want is for people to at least think about it.”

Kelly isn’t overly concerned with what people think. “You never know who they gonna get next,” he says nonchalantly when I ask if he feels hounded by the press. “I haven’t heard anything negative about me in I don’t know how damn long.” His assistant, who’s fallen asleep on the couch, jerks awake and asks permission to go for a smoke, clutching the duffel bag as he gets up. Kelly makes him relight his cigar first and says, “I choose my circle and keep all the squares out.” I ask if he thinks the media misrepresents him, and he gives a typically oblique answer. “If I take a Tylenol right now in your face, and you don’t know what it is, you might start wondering, am I popping pills? Next I’ll be hearing, ‘I saw him popping pills, he on that shit, girl!’ ” Throughout our conversation, the multiple phones Kelly keeps in the pocket of his hoodie vibrate every few minutes. “Who the fuck,” he mutters incredulously during one FaceTime call with a woman, “goes to bed wearing makeup?” When his assistant returns, trailed by a bodyguard carrying platters of shrimp, Kelly immediately digs in. It’s good, but not as good as his favorite. “The McRib,” he says dreamily. “I have people tell me when McDonald’s is offering its limited-time-only menu so I can get one.” Moved by his reminiscence, he starts humming “Mac Tonight,” a jingle set to the tune of “Mack the Knife” from a late-’80s McDonald’s commercial. “Shit,” he says, “I should remix that.” Before he can, he pivots to address a frequent criticism. “People say my lyrics are offensive,” he says. “If that’s offensive, then movies about babies getting snatched up and people getting shot in the head should be called offensive. It’s all entertainment.” He turns to the engineer and says, “Play ‘Sex Time.’ ”

Kelly swears that he’s not intentionally tweaking listeners by releasing music that evokes his alleged real-life deviance. He’s just giving people what they want. Or, as he puts it, “When someone orders a sausage-and-cheese pizza, you don’t give them pepperoni. When their mouths are fixed for some R. Kelly, they want the freaky stuff.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at once. That, for example, a horrible person might make a wonderful song. That John Lennon, who expressed regret for being “a hitter” in his early relationships, can also be responsible for a song as beautiful as “If I Fell,” or that whatever Michael Jackson did or did not do with underage boys doesn’t turn “Human Nature” into a lie. Songs are better than people. And R. Kelly, in a weird way, through his sex obsession, makes that truth most obvious. The fact that his career hasn’t cratered, despite all the damning allegations, makes it clear that when people are listening to music, they’re not thinking about how powerful men often take terrible advantage of less powerful women. Or about how those men are surrounded by enablers for as long as they remain bankable. Or how the media is not responsive enough when troubling things happen to young black women. Or how legal settlements and NDAs are effective tools for suppressing damaging information. Or that part of the fun for some listeners is in how far a singer might be willing to go, lawyers and good taste be damned. Or how looking for rectitude from coddled celebrities is like looking for rainbows under rocks. Or how at the other end of our quotidian consumer pleasures is often another human being’s pain. So the answer to the question “How do you listen to songs by a singer who may be a bad person?” is devastatingly simple and sad. You just do.