Just like Bill Cosby, musician R. Kelly has been for years trailed by a cloud of fouled air. Black women have long charged, and journalist Jim DeRogatis has been reporting since at least 2000, that Kelly has long preyed on teenage girls who are too young to legally consent to sex with him. In 2003, the singer was arrested on child pornography charges; in 2008, he was acquitted at trial. Now, DeRogatis has published a long feature in BuzzFeed that suggests Kelly has changed tactics. It alleges that Kelly has used his influence in the music industry to create what amounts to a private sex cult that separates women who are young, but old enough to consent to these relationships, from their families and controls every aspect of their lives.
It’s not that I have Kelly’s albums on regular rotation, but the piece was useful in articulating a bright line for me. It’s one thing to consume the art of people you profoundly disagree with or even who behave in ways you find abhorrent. It’s another to know when you simply don’t want to fund someone’s life anymore, even at the tiniest level. It’s worth knowing the difference.
In general, I don’t tend to use artists’ private behavior or political beliefs as a litmus test for whether or not to engage with their art. Woody Allen’s personal life has sharpened my understanding of his humor writing and his movies, even if it means I emerge with readings that Allen might find uncomfortable or disavow. Michael Bay’s jingoism and lascivious appreciation of the female form may not be my style, but his movies still help me understand how those ideas can be marketed effectively. DeRogatis’s years of reporting on Kelly deepened my understanding of the sexual perspective at work in his music and videos, and my awareness that Kelly isn’t merely adopting a posture of transgression as a shtick.
And in more extreme cases, where artists whose work I love lobby for policies I find repugnant and harmful, I’ve long argued in favor of moral offsets, the way some people buy carbon credits to compensate for the damage their airplane travel is doing to the planet.
The way most pop culture works is that 100 percent of the purchase price isn’t going directly to the artist who made it. If you buy a book, some of your money goes to the people who produced the physical copy (or formatted it for your Kindle). A larger chunk of it goes to the publisher, which is entitled to the first crack at that revenue until it has made back the money it paid the author as an advance. And only later does an author get a cut of the proceeds. If you purchase a movie ticket, a lot of that money will go toward the production costs, which include everything from catering to special effects. The writer, director and actors on the movie will likely all be compensated according to different agreements, so a small percentage of the movie’s profits may go to a director you hate, while a larger percentage goes to, say, an actor who has advocated for greater salary parity. You see my point.
Given this, if you donate the purchase price of your book or movie ticket to an organization that works on the issue at stake, more of your money will be going to a cause you care about than to a person who might try to roll that progress back or who might use that money to burnish their image or even defend themselves against serious charges in court. Even if I believe that, say, Orson Scott Card’s homophobia is detestable, or that various famous artists are guilty of serious crimes, I still believe that people have the right to lobby for what they believe and to mount a strong legal defense if they are charged and tried.
But there are some things so heinous that the prospect of even a penny’s worth of participation in them is utterly intolerable. I can’t stand the idea that any of my money might go toward a private sex cult where the women involved allegedly have to ask permission to go to the bathroom or to leave their own rooms in the residences where they live, and were allegedly ordered to face the wall when other people came into the room so that no one else could look at them. These relationships may be consensual rather than coercive, and they may well be legal. And as with all stories about secretive organizations and arrangements, the reality may differ in some ways from what DeRogatis has reported here. But morally, I’m personally not willing to take any percentage of a chance that a cent of mine might finance the worst-case scenario here.
After everything that has been reported about Kelly already, this latest story may not be the case where you draw the line, if you haven’t already. Still, when it comes to artists — or any sort of business — you ought to know where your own line is. A resilient set of ethics is a critical part of loving and interrogating art, not a barrier to it.