After decades of sexual misconduct allegations, it seems that R&B singer R Kelly is finally facing the music. His recent arrest follows the release of a six-part documentary in which victims describe the emotional, mental and physical abuse they claim he's been inflicting on young girls as far back as the 1990s. Since airing in January, the docuseries has helped gain international support for the #MuteRKelly campaign, a grassroots movement which aims to end financial and commercial support for the 52 year-old's career.
As streaming services and radio stations across the world remove his music from their catalogues in solidarity with victims, it has sparked an interesting debate: is it possible to separate a person's professional genius from their personal actions in the age of #MeToo?
For many of us reflecting on R Kelly's music, it might be a little overreaching to call his body of work 'professional genius', but there are plenty of others who occupy important spaces in our cultural landscape with problematic personal lives. Take Michael Jackson, for example, or Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, James Brown, and don't even get me started on professional athletes.
If we take our cue from the #MuteRKelly campaign, are we also to mute 'Thriller'? Should I reevaluate my favourite films to ensure that none of them credit Weinstein as a producer? Is it acceptable to enjoy the work of these men as long as I don't defend their abuse, or does this make me a hypocrite?
The truth is, it's easy for me to boycott R Kelly's music because I never particularly cared for it. But if I woke up tomorrow and suddenly found that #BurnTSEliot was trending, I'd be a little more reluctant to lend my support. No one can tell me that T S Eliot is not one of the most, if not the
most, brilliant writers of the last century, but in addition to being a Nobel Prize-winning writer, I'm acutely aware that he was also an anti-Semite, a racist and a misogynist, with some very questionable religious beliefs.
But regardless of how abhorrent his personal views are to me, I don't think that combing through history and weeding out the flawed characters is conducive to this movement. Partly because T S Eliot is dead, and I don't imagine whether or not I find his poetry offensive bothers him at this point, but mostly because if we start chipping away at that colossal iceberg, there will be no one left to occupy our museum exhibits and library shelves.
We can't rewrite history based on our shifting values. That might sound like a flimsy justification for keeping my 'Collected Works of T S Eliot' or explaining away my guilt, and maybe it is, but men like Eliot, Hemingway, Picasso and others who are celebrated despite their moral compasses not exactly pointing due north were living in a different world. Our contemporaries are different. We live in a world of information and choice, and I don't believe that there is any excuse for failing to balance intelligence with integrity anymore.
Nor do I believe that this is an issue limited to the arts and entertainment industries. The more I think about it, the more I think the cultural boycott surrounding R Kelly is less to do with #MeToo, and more about ethical consumerism. It's challenging us to think about the people behind the product and consider whether or not we want to support them.
In the case of R Kelly, you could argue that a couple of extra downloads or hits on Spotify aren't going to make any noticeable impact on his income, but let's think about the message it sends to his victims. It says that, as a consumer, I hear
you, I might even believe
you, but I don't care. The same applies to subscribing to a fast fashion culture despite its environmental impact, or continuing to buy from high street retailers whose parent companies use slave labour to make and distribute their products. When we fail to at least try to make educated, conscious decisions as consumers, voters and global citizens, we succumb to a dangerous nihilistic belief that our individual actions don't matter.
Whether we like it or not, the decisions that we make, even absent-mindedly, are loaded with socio-political ramifications. Our individual choices determine whether we hold our contemporaries accountable or make ourselves complicit in helping them achieve the status that, until now, has bought their immunity. I feel like I've been standing on the edge of the rabbit hole for a while now with this one because I know that once I jump in, I won't be able to stop. Once I decide to #MuteRKelly it behoves me to apply the same ethical stance to all my consumer choices, and that sounds like a long, confusing journey. Oh well. Here it goes.