R. Kelly: Separating the Art from the Artist

Holly Sampson, BA Middle Eastern Studies and World Philosophies

Photo credit: Creative Commons

As the #MeToo movement is increasingly growing and more people are standing up against those that have silenced them in the past, it is no wonder that the debate of separating the art from the artist has come to the foreground once again. This time the focus is on R Kelly and the subsequent movement of #MuteRKelly. I don’t think that the artist should be separated from the art, and here is why.

Art is a highly emotive and subjective matter. Artists use their emotions and experiences to create their art and so it only seems logical that the art they produce is a part of them. Artists do not attempt to separate themselves from their art, so a critical approach that does not consider context is ignorant and blinds us from the full consideration of any creative piece of work. R Kelly released a song last year, “I Admit”, which is 19 minutes long which highlights his life, the accusations against him, and his response to them, “Only God can mute me”. Clearly, R Kelly is involved in his work, this song is blatantly biographical, and so the concept of separating him from his art is absurd. Similarly, in a time when celebrity culture seems to be at an all-time high, the persona behind the music is as much of a product as the music itself. Musicians are aware of this and create personas that seem genuine in order to appear authentic to fans. This makes it even more impossible to separate the art from the artist.

It seems as if people use the concept of separation to justify still indulging in art without feeling guilty. However, there are not two R Kellys. The R Kelly that sang ‘I believe I can fly’ is the same R Kelly that married an underage girl, abused his wife and has been accused of countless incidents of sexual assault on young black women.

The importance of context is hammered into us from an early age. We are taught that to understand an action we cannot consider it as an isolated incident. Sometimes the cause and the effect are difficult to extrapolate and seem to feed into each other, but we are still taught that looking at the wider context is necessary for our understanding. So, why should this change when we view art? R Kelly’s music is what he has created. It is a part of him, just as it is part of a wider geopolitical context of the world that it engages with. If we take this away, we would be left with a limited understanding and appreciation of art.

Interestingly, this debate only seems to arise when an artist has done something wrong. It seems as if people use the concept of separation to justify still indulging in art without feeling guilty. However, there are not two R Kellys. The R Kelly that sang ‘I believe I can fly’ is the same R Kelly that married an underage girl, abused his wife and has been accused of countless incidents of sexual assault on young black women. All of the personal aspects of R Kelly —  that are deplorable — originate from the same mind as the one that created his art, and thus should be treated that way.

Whilst we can’t force legal consequences, we can do something as simple as not listening to R Kelly’s music. We can acknowledge that the music that we may enjoy was made by a man who has been accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault, and so is a man that we should not support by listening to his music. If we don’t mute him, we are saying that we are unconcerned by what R Kelly has done and, by saying this, we are muting those who have been affected by him and his horrific actions. I would like to believe that the society we live in today is moving towards a consent culture, not further away from one, which is why I think it is so important not to separate the art from the artist and to hold R Kelly, and others like him, accountable for their actions however we can.


Post Author: SOAS Spirit

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