Drawing the line between art and the artist: the case of R. Kelly

By Hayley Thompson
February 11, 2019


As a young child, I fell in love with R&B music and the way that it made me feel. I started out by listening to popular R&B artists from my generation like Chris Brown and Ciara. As my love for the genre grew, I began to explore the world of R&B and the classic songs that lay within.

I started listening to artists like Bobby Brown, Stevie Wonder, Xscape, Johnny Gill, TLC and my favorite, Aaliyah. Most of the music I was listening to had been released between the late ’80s through the early 2000s.

As I made clear in my previous article Separating art from the artist, I quickly realized that R&B music was positively timeless to me. I have created multiple playlists throughout the years with my favorite R&B artists and I still never skip a song.

There are plenty of legendary R&B albums that I still need to checkout. However, I believe that Aaliyah’s 1994 debut album produced entirely by R. Kelly will forever be my favorite.

The first time that I heard Aaliyah’s song “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number,”  the debut album’s title, I didn’t think anything bad of it. I thought it was just a song. A few years later, I remember playing that song in the car with my aunt.

She immediately commented saying that she did not like the words and that she felt uncomfortable. At the time, I had no clue that R. Kelly wrote that song for Aaliyah to sing. I also had no clue that R. Kelly and Aaliyah secretly got married later that month. He was 27 years old and Aaliyah was only 15. The marriage was annulled the following year by her parents.

It is hard for me to grasp how this grown man met Aaliyah when she was only 12 years old and decided to secretly marry her three years later. That will never sit well with me. It also makes me highly uncomfortable knowing that R. Kelly, a man who likes little girls and has multiple bedrooms in his studio, produced the entire album with a very young Aaliyah inside his studio.

Now that I know what I know, I have to admit it is hard to listen to some of the songs on that album. The album cover itself is a photo of Aaliyah with a blurred out man staring at her and the words Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Looking at it now, that is clearly R. Kelly and again I feel uncomfortable.

Aaliyah’s 1994 debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Photo by Blackground Records, BMG Records and Jive Records

It does feel weird hearing R. Kelly’s voice on this album. Although he is only featured in one song as a remix, he still slipped his voice on the tracks in true ’90s style. For example, one of my favorite songs on that album is called Down With the Clique. At the beginning you hear R. Kelly say, “Yeah, it’s the ’90s and I got a little something for ya. So, check it out,” and then Aaliyah starts singing.

I am still shocked that I listened to these tracks on repeat for years without knowing any story behind them at all, especially when the story is this bad. However, I will not allow R. Kelly to take away from the brilliant musical gift that Aaliyah has left behind.

Aaliyah was a beautiful soul that was taken way too soon. She died in a plane crash in 2001. I see the music that she left behind as a gift because she was robbed from the opportunity to make more.

Rapper Common addressing R. Kelly. Photo by iHeartRadio on Snapchat

As I was writing Separating art from the artist, I came to the conclusion that there are limits when it comes to separating the two and that everyone sets their own personal limits. I was able to continue to support Chris Brown as an artist because he went to rehab and placed himself on a good path. He was not going to continue his wrongs. With R. Kelly, it is different. It has been proven that he will continue his disgusting wrongs whenever he is given the chance.

Although the vocals are not of R. Kelly, he was still just as involved in the production of the album as Aaliyah was. In this situation, I am able to separate art from the artist.

I can still listen to the album he solely produced because I love Aaliyah and he cannot take the joy away from her music. However, I will not continue to listen to R. Kelly’s own music. I draw the line with predators. R. Kelly clearly has no intention in stopping his sickening behavior. I strongly believe that if an artist is still doing the terrible things that they are caught doing, listening to their music should at least be paused until action has taken place.

Common, a rapper from Kelly’s hometown of Chicago, told TMZ that he failed our community because he, like many others, knew that these things were happening. He said that instead of having the situation resolved, everyone was just “rocking to the music.” Listening to an artist during the time of scrutiny for bad reason is only helping the artist. They see views and purchases as support and a confirmation that they are doing something right. When, in reality, they are doing way more wrongs than rights and they need to be taken accountable for them immediately.

After the artist is rehabilitated and takes legal responsibility for their actions, I believe that it is important to respect other people’s decisions when it comes to listening their music. R. Kelly still has loyal fans that love his music. I think that they should be able to listen to his music if they truly appreciate the art of it and his soulful sound.

After watching Lifetime’s documentary Surviving R. Kelly, I cannot bring myself to listen to R. Kelly’s music at this time. I strongly believe that R. Kelly needs to be held accountable for his actions before any song of his should be played again.

Hayley Thompson

1 thought on “Drawing the line between art and the artist: the case of R. Kelly”

  1. I definately agree with you after I found out about his problem and not taking responsibility for his actions I stopped listening to his music. Though he had good songs I can’t stand to support him.

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