Sometimes the material for which an artist is known is also reflected in their personal life. If recent allegations prove true, this could be the case with R. Kelly.
Born Robert Kelly, the Chicago-based R&B superstar gained a great deal of respect and success in the music industry over the past 25 years as a singer, songwriter, and producer. With music ranging from the sexually charged “Bump and Grind” and “Sex Me” to emotional ballads like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “I Wish,” Kelly amassed a vast following of fans, sold over 60 million albums, and won numerous awards for his work. However, a recent allegation has threatened to derail the performer’s reputation and career.
In July, a bombshell investigation by Buzzfeed News revealed that three different families have come out against Kelly, with parents claiming that he has kept their daughters in an abusive cult where he controls what they eat, how they dress, when they can sleep, and most disturbingly, their sexual encounters. The women are allegedly forbidden from communicating with their families. “Breaking any of Kelly’s rules,” the article says, “results in physical and verbal abuse at the singer’s hands.”
On August 21 of this year, the accusations gained even more traction when one of his accusers went public with her story, breaking a non-disclosure agreement. Jerhonda Pace, a 24-year-old former defender of the singer during his child pornography trial, confessed that Kelly had bribed his female followers with money settlements to ensure their silence regarding his actions. Pace delved into detail about how Kelly forced her to engage in threesomes and how he had physically abused her. “I was slapped and I was choked and I was spit on,” she stated, noting that she decided to break the agreement because of her fear for women who remain in the “cult.”
These allegations are indeed disturbing, but upon examination of Kelly’s history with young women, perhaps not altogether surprising. In 1994, he secretly married the late singer Aaliyah when she was only 15 years old; at the time, he was helping to develop her then-budding music career. The marriage was annulled less than a year later by Aaliyah’s parents, but it did not hurt Kelly’s career.
In 2002, Kelly was arrested after a video circulated that reportedly depicted him in a sexual encounter with an underage girl. He was charged and tried on charges of child pornography but was acquitted in 2008.
Due to the disturbing information revealed by these investigations, as well as his history of inappropriate behaviour with minors, Kelly is in an even more precarious position now. We must ask ourselves how much deviant behaviour celebrities can engage in before the public puts its foot down.
Kelly is certainly not the first celebrity to deal with potentially career-derailing controversies. Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, Bill Cosby, Johnny Depp, and many others have engaged in acts that might result in jail time for ordinary people, yet they have managed to maintain their careers nonetheless. Allen, in particular, has been the subject of media scrutiny since his relationship with his adopted step-daughter, Soon Yi Previn, was revealed in 1992. His adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, has also repeatedly accused him of sexual abuse. Yet Allen has managed to continue making films that are both critically and commercially acclaimed. Recently, it was announced that he would be casting young actresses Selena Gomez and Elle Fanning in his next film. Cases like Allen’s require us to question why we are more forgiving of such allegations when the accused is a respected individual in the media.
By contrast, figures like Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks and Sinéad O’Connor have found their careers damaged, if not destroyed, by speaking their minds or making light of serious topics. O’Connor’s 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, during which she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II, did serious harm to her career. One decade later, Maines, a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, openly stated that she was ashamed that President George W. Bush was from Texas.
Both singers found themselves in hot water, even receiving death threats. Why is it that when religion or patriotism is involved, a career might be ended, yet instances of more sinister behaviour are overlooked?
Perhaps some of this can be attributed to sexism, but it is also possible that we are blinded by the prestige of certain celebrities to the point where any wrongdoing on their parts can be forgiven.
Perhaps we, as a society, are to blame for letting Kelly and people like him get away with their exploits and continue to further their careers. We have become so enraptured by their talents that we often refuse to let their personal scandals get in the way of their successes. However, in other instances, we judge those with beliefs different from ours more harshly. It is unclear why one is deemed more offensive than the other.
The warning signs were certainly there. In the Buzzfeed article, a parent of one of the girls, referred to as “J.,” claims she was happy with Kelly’s interest in her daughter’s musical career and willingness to help, despite knowing the singer’s history of sexual misconduct. J. explains that she was a fan of Kelly. Perhaps she should have properly investigated and considered the singer’s past instead of just seeing him as a pop culture icon.
What will become of Kelly’s career? Will he finally be brought to what some would consider long overdue justice? Or will he continue to have a successful career? It is difficult to predict precisely because Kelly has previously managed to escape similar public relations predicaments without much harm done.
It is possible that this will be the time when society finally deems Kelly guilty, and he will pay the price for his sins regardless of his talent and prior success. The sooner we can separate celebrities’ careers from their personal lives, the better off we will be.