Make no mistake, R. Kelly’s name is being dragged this month…and appropriately so. Even if just a fraction of what’s being alleged about him is true regarding sexual misconduct, mental and physical abuse and pedophilia, then… well, fuck him. He should’ve already been rotting in somebody’s jail cell.
Yet the same people – some in the same industry – who are hanging R&B’s one-time king seem to have forgotten about the long line of musicians – some bigger and far more celebrated than Kelly – with well-documented histories involving statutory rape, incest, sexual assault, kidnapping, adultery and physical or mental abuse of women.
In other words, the music industry is filled with stories about powerful men who’ve taken advantage of vulnerable girls and women – many at illegal ages – that have not had a spotlight as intense as the one Lifetime and social media have shone on Kelly this past week.
Kelly’s crimes are indeed heinous – assuming he’s guilty – and there’s little doubt in this writer’s mind that at least some of the many women whose accounts we heard on Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly are credible. And if Kelly’s image is forever marred by this, then that retribution pales in comparison to the physical and mental anguish that the young women (and girls) involved have suffered for decades.
But one need only go back to the earliest days of rock and roll to get a sense for how misogyny and inappropriate relationships between rockers and women have always littered the music industry. In fact, if you look at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of 1986, no fewer than half of the ten inductees had well-documented but sordid histories involving either underage girls, sexual assault, adultery, polygamy, or violence against women.
Take 1950s rockabilly legend Jerry Lee Lewis, for example. Lewis’s pop career took a major hit in the 1960s when news of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, became public. It wasn’t even his first such marriage. He had earlier married a 13-year-old first cousin, Dorothy Barton, before his career took off. Between those two was another marriage, with the latter two marriages occurring before the previous ones were terminated, officially deeming Lewis a polygamist. In all, Lewis married seven times, with at least one including allegations of physical abuse suffered at his hands.
Lewis’ pop career faltered in the wake of his incestuous and statutorily illegal marriages, but his country music career took off again in the late 1960s and throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s with nearly two dozen top-10 songs on the Billboard Country singles chart between 1968 and 1984. What was ironic about his rebound is that Lewis’ career flourished with an audience that typically touts conservative views centered on Christian morals. Perhaps forgiveness is the one that prevailed when it came to Lewis.
Then there’s the King himself, Elvis Presley, whose courtship of a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (when Elvis was 24) was notorious. The two finally married when she was 22, but Elvis’s career hardly suffered from the relationship that, although consensual, would’ve been illegal in most American states – even then. Few people recall that aspect when recalling Elvis’s career and legacy. In fact, he’s still one of the most celebrated artists in modern music history, and those who speak unkindly about him are usually met with a wrath bigger than Graceland.
Fellow inaugural inductee Chuck Berry – long considered one of the pioneers of rock and roll and often cited as an influence by some of rock’s greatest musicians – also had liaisons with a 14-year-old girl. Berry, who was 39 at the time (and obviously black), was arrested and convicted – in two separate trials – for his crime, which included transporting the girl across state lines. He, of course, served jail time for his offense, something neither Presley nor Lewis ever did (dare anyone try and justify the different legal outcomes?).
All seemed to be forgiven – at least for a moment – when Berry scored a comeback in 1972 with his only No. 1 hit, the (in)appropriately titled “My Ding-a-Ling,” of course.
Fellow original RRHOF inductee and Godfather of Soul James Brown also had a history of abusing women. Although none reportedly involved young girls barely past puberty, they did include his tumultuous and violent relationships with Motown singer Tammi Terrell plus at least three of his four wives and various mistresses. Brown was arrested numerous times for incidents of domestic violence and was slapped with a rape allegation that the court ultimately dismissed because the statute of limitations had ended.
Interestingly, with such a violent past involving women, the only crime JB ever served jail time for was…wait for it, carrying an unlicensed firearm and assaulting a police officer, along with some minor drug possession offenses. As for the women? Well, as most of them were black women, did we really expect their claims to be taken seriously? In this society?
Since then, Soul Brother Number One – who ironically had an eye toward black self-pride, self-identity, social justice and equal rights – has been one of the most celebrated musicians of all time, with inductions in numerous halls of fame, various streets named after him, and many statues erected in his likeness, not to mention the dozens of awards he’s received.
Other original Hall of Fame inductees like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles also had dubious histories with women. Charles had at least three children with three other women while married to his wife of 22 years (and twelve children in all by ten different women). And Cooke had that fateful (and fatal) night in December 1964 when a woman alleged that he had kidnapped her and took her to a hotel room before he met his doom with the hotel’s clerk – also a woman – when he appeared half-naked at the front desk after the first woman managed to leave the room with his clothes. Others have disputed the facts of Cooke’s case, but the courts ruled in both women’s favor.
That’s six of the first ten RRHOF inductees with troubling legacies involving women.
Certainly the stories don’t stop there.
Throughout popular music history, artists have notoriously debased, degraded and defiled women – some minors – whether through their words and lyrics or through their actions. Some of the artists regarded as the greatest (and not-so-greatest) of all time, receive more acclaim than ridicule for their misogyny and their exploits.
The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman who is listed as a “Living Sex Legend” in Maxim magazine for having bedded over 1,000 women, married an 18-year-old he’d been sleeping with since she was 14. He was 47 when they started.
Controversial rocker and full-time idiot Ted Nugent, who, by the way, would likely be one of the first to throw Kelly under the jail cell, wrote and recorded “Jailbait,” a song about his lust for a 13-year-old girl who he ultimately forces to have sex with a cop to avoid pedophilia charges. This from a man who was 32 when he wrote it and who has also been accused of sodomizing a 12-year-old Courtney Love.
Nugent’s loyalists – and Nugent himself – still lobby for him to get into the RRHOF, by the way, on the grounds of his music.
Oh, and Donald Trump did invite him to the White House in early 2017 where Nugent famously mocked a portrait of former First Lady Hillary Clinton.
And the list goes on and on.
So what does all of this mean?
Well, besides the age-old argument about separating the artists from the art (an issue also triggered by the temporary spike in Kelly’s record sales and streams following Lifetime’s documentary), it raises questions about whether Kelly’s ability to remain relatively unscathed has been fueled by an industry that almost thrives on the behaviors attributed to him. It’s an issue that the above cases certainly demonstrate – in addition to some double-standards along the way.
Yet, although R. Kelly’s career has been resilient, his fortunes as a major record seller ceased a long time ago when R&B music in general and his career in particular took a backseat to younger artists and other genres. His status as an older artist in his 50s now places him in that realm where musicians often turn to concert tour receipts and, well, their legacies for validation.
Kelly’s legacy as a musician is indisputable. His more than 25 years in the business makes him eligible for RRHOF consideration, and his status as one of the industry’s biggest music-makers of an era certainly places him in the discussion.
But will he ever get in? Probably not. Whatever slim chance he might have had as a ‘90s R&B artist likely vanished with the dawning of the #MeToo era and his well-documented history of alleged abuse and pedophilia, or better stated – his declaration of war against young black girls.
Yet, while his alleged crimes may be sicker, more egregious and more enduring than those of other folks in his industry, let’s not forget that it’s still an industry rife with artists whose malicious stories involving women have been conveniently swept under a rock-and-roll rug as those artists have thrived while being exalted to iconic status.
At this point it’s probably appropriate to state the disclaimer that Lifetime repeatedly showed during its multiple airings of the six-episode, six-hour docuseries Surviving R. Kelly: that the singer has denied all charges and claims involving sexual misconduct and has yet to be convicted by a jury trial.