Allegations of abuse have followed the musician R. Kelly for years. The question that the culture writer Hannah Giorgis brings today is, After a painstakingly detailed documentary series was released last week, can anyone still look away? In this issue of The Masthead, she walks through a moment that could be a sea change for the music industry. — Matt Peterson
What to Know: Can Surviving R. Kelly Exorcise the Music Industry?
By Hannah Giorgis
What we’re watching: Three days into the new year, Lifetime premiered Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries about the music megastar’s life and long history of alleged abuses. While the allegations about the 51-year-old singer have been widely known for years, the documentary is the first visual work that puts the numerous accusations into stark focus. Among other accounts, Surviving R. Kelly painstakingly traces the early-2000s child-pornography case revolving around a tape that appeared to show Kelly having sex with—and urinating on—someone who seemed to be a minor. (Kelly was found not guilty in 2008, after lawyers claimed that the man pictured was not him, and he has consistently denied all allegations against him, even in the puzzling 19-minute confessional track he released last year.) The series documents how the singer’s three decades of commercial success, bolstered by both raunchy hits like “Bump ‘N Grind” and near-gospel mainstays like “I Believe I Can Fly,” fueled his relative immunity from legal consequence. The testimonies from alleged victims are wrenching and immediate, their pain rendered all the more impactful when juxtaposed with the apathy of the many R. Kelly supporters who have enabled his behavior through the years.
Why it should matter: Even for those familiar with the accusations, Surviving R. Kelly is a devastating, urgent watch. The documentary, produced by the filmmaker Dream Hampton, has rendered visible the kinds of abuses that often gain the least media attention: those that target black girls and women. (As the music writer Jim DeRogatis, who has been covering Kelly’s alleged abuses for nearly 20 years, told The Village Voice in 2013, “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”) Over the three nights it aired, Surviving R. Kelly garnered an average of 2.1 million viewers.
Just as the reports of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged attacks were a watershed moment for discussions of sexual assault in the film and television industry, Surviving R. Kelly has forced an exorcism within the comparatively silent music industry. In the time since the docuseries began airing, many women have recounted their experiences of sexual misconduct at the hands of musicians from both Kelly’s native Chicago and beyond. The #SurvivingRKelly hashtag sparked intense online conversations about sexual assault, victim blaming, and the complicity of musicians who have collaborated with Kelly in recent years despite the highly publicized allegations against him. A handful of artists have publicly apologized for having worked with or otherwise enabled Kelly—and law-enforcement officials in two counties where he has lived have reportedly begun to investigate him. Kelly currently faces no criminal charges. Still, the burst of anger toward a man whose rumored predation has only fueled his legend reveals a tentative shift in cultural tolerance for musicians’ misbehavior.
Will it matter? I wish I had a clearer sense of the music industry’s response to the documentary and the new wave of pressure that the work has applied to Kelly’s supporters. Indeed, in the time since its airing, a few celebrities have spoken up against him (as some did at the start of the massive #MuteRKelly protest campaign in 2017). I suspect that public pressure has played a far more significant role than soul-searching in whatever small shift has started to occur regarding Kelly’s industry image. But do the people who have profited from his work see the allegations against Kelly as an inconvenience? How are record-label executives internalizing the response to this documentary? What might this documentary portend for the music industry’s willingness to simply hear survivors of sexual violence?
What’s next: It’s difficult to forecast the next step of the R. Kelly saga—the singer was, after all, cleared of charges in a case that hinged on what seemed to many to be definitive video proof of his misconduct—but there’s a chance that either of the two investigations will present authorities with enough evidence to pursue a case against him. If Kelly, who has called himself “the Pied Piper of R&B” for years, were charged for and convicted of the more recent allegations, he may conceivably see jail time. But whatever happens to the artist, the story is far more poised to shift the nebulous realm that is public opinion. As more celebrities apologize for their involvement with him, and mounting backlash potentially affects the record-industry executives who control his production, the aging superstar may find himself with far fewer allies. After decades of silence, even that would be progress.
What to Expect
Notes on the news to come
As the U.S. government shutdown stretches into its third week, many federal employees are feeling the pinch. While most branches of the military remain funded through the Department of Defense, Coast Guard members, who serve under the unfunded Department of Homeland Security, are not guaranteed to receive their next paycheck, due on January 15. Communities have rallied around Coast Guard families, with local food banks and supermarkets distributing food, clothing, and diapers, but the shutdown has left some feeling abandoned. USAA, a banking company that traditionally serves military families, has been criticized for refusing loan requests from Coast Guard members. Meanwhile, Congress has yet to vote on a bipartisan bill introduced last week that aims to fund Coast Guard wages through any government shutdown.
Any journalist can tell you that no serious work gets done without a deadline attached. Next week, Prime Minister Theresa May will put her Brexit plan up for a vote. If it fails, there will be precious little time left before the country is automatically ejected from the EU in March. That looming deadline is May’s best argument for her plan. But recent legal advice indicated that May could unilaterally lift the March deadline by revoking Britain’s Article 50 notification that it is leaving the EU. The possibility that the debate could continue indefinitely takes some of the edge off May’s political argument for her deal. Limits work best when they’re externally imposed. Set an arbitrary deadline for yourself, and you’re just as likely to blow past it.
Elizabeth Holmes, once the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire, will appear in court Monday. She faces up to 20 years in prison on fraud and conspiracy charges. As a 19-year-old Stanford dropout, Holmes founded Theranos, a biotech start-up that promised unprecedentedly cheap, fast, and accurate blood tests with only a few drops shed. Lauded as the next Steve Jobs, the charismatic, black-turtleneck-wearing Holmes allegedly swindled an illustrious group of investors and board members with fake lab results. Thanks, in part, to reporting from The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, which turned into a best-selling book and is soon to be a Jennifer Lawrence–led film, Theranos is defunct and Holmes’s net worth has plummeted from an estimated $4.5 billion to zero. The bloodshed was supposed to be light; in court, expect the pain to be heavy.
At 10:33 p.m. EST on January 20, the year’s only total lunar eclipse will begin over the Western Hemisphere. While its name, the Super Blood Wolf Moon, sounds like a heavy-metal group, each word actually refers to a characteristic of the moon’s appearance. A supermoon occurs when the full moon is at the closest point of its orbit to Earth, also known as its perigee. That position makes the moon look (super) large. A blood moon is another name for a lunar eclipse: Although the moon enters Earth’s shadow during the event, it does not disappear from the sky as the sun does in a solar eclipse—instead, because some sunlight will still reach the moon, it will take on a reddish tinge. As for Wolf Moon, that’s just a nickname for a January full moon. Other nicknames include Moon After Yule and Old Moon, but Super Blood Moon After Yule and Super Old Blood Moon just don’t have the same ring to them, do they?
150 Years Ago
“If a boy is puny, he is made more puny by being allowed to study, instead of being urged into the open air and to athletic sports, or into the farmer’s field; and when he is of age to choose a profession, he becomes a dyspeptic clergyman, prepared to preach his own unwholesome vagaries, instead of healthful strong Christian doctrines, or we find him a nervous, irritable, one-sided professor, who, in his frantic efforts to govern the healthful impulses of students, forgets, if he ever had them, the dreams of his own youth; or perchance such a one will delve behind the accountant’s desk in comparative misery through life.” — H. I. Bowditch, January 1869
Items this week by Andrew Henry, Matt Peterson, Jack Segelstein, and Karen Yuan. Illustrations by Matt Chinworth.
Updates on your Masthead membership
One thing you should know: “The genius, maybe, of the early Saudi kings was that they let the oil business be the oil business,” the historian Ellen Wald told us on our latest podcast. Will the current generation of Saudi leaders display the same cautious strategy about their assets? [Learn more here.]
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