After R. Kelly wrote “I Believe I Can Fly,” I came very close to hating the man. But it’s wrong to hate a person just for writing a terrible song. After all, I figured, Kelly may have other redeeming qualities of which I’m not aware.
So I decided instead to just hate the song, with its simplistic, infantile lyrics and warbling vocals that sound about as heartfelt as Mike Tyson in a school musical. To hell with touching the sky; I just wanted to believe he could touch the right note. So why is the song so popular? Best I can figure, it was a case of full-frontal assault marketing to an audience that gives mediocrity a superiority complex.
But I digress.
Prior to the recent videotape stories, I’d heard other mutterings about the guy’s private life, but mutterings don’t amount to much, and you always hear things about big-name entertainers. After Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive, back when he was the big topic of conversation, I heard soooo many wild stories about what he used to do and whom he did it with. Any number of folks claimed to be in the know, or to know somebody who knew somebody else who, you know, was in the know.
This just means that it’s not always the best idea to go on what you hear. Then again, there are times when the things you hear make you wonder. Like the things I’m sure you’ve already heard about R. Kelly’s infamous videotape, followed by his arrest and then the 21-count child pornography indictment.
R. Kelly, naturally, says it’s not him shown with an alleged 14-year-old girl having sick-as-hell sex in that videotape, giving a whole new spin to the phrase “pissing and moaning.” Kelly says he hasn’t even seen the tape. And his lawyer says that the allegedly underage female in the video is not really the underage female reportedly now refusing to cooperate with the police investigation. Innocent until proven guilty? Fine. Time will tell. I suspect time may be running out on R. Kelly just about as fast as some of his fellow artists are running away from him.
In the meantime, there’s one thing I read in a New York Times piece about R. Kelly’s bust that kind of bugged me. It was a quote from a young black Chicago woman (Chicago is R. Kelly’s hometown) who speculated that Kelly was probably being harassed because he is a successful young black man.
As soon as I read that, I thought back to a number of conversations I had with people about ex-football hero O.J. Simpson and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I remember hearing a few black folks say they thought O.J. probably did it, but they were still kind of glad the brother got off because white folks got away with murder all the time. It was about time one of us finally screwed the system the way it has always screwed us. A number of others refused to believe he did it. As for Thomas, I still recall a conversation with a journalist buddy who was pulling for Thomas to prevail in his better-than-a-movie Senate confirmation hearings. My buddy just believed when Thomas got on the bench his blackness and his background of poverty and struggle would compel him to suddenly git up, git on up and do the right thing. Yeah? Well, Undercover Brother Thomas is still very much undercover.
So this is the thing about R. Kelly: If the man truly did do what he is being accused of, and he really is the man on that videotape, then he is one sick puppy who needs serious psychological help. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in America to begin having suspicions when he married the late pop star Aaliyah a year before the child had even reached her 16th birthday. At the time, R. Kelly was sneaking up on 30. The marriage was later annulled.
Since that time, despite that Kelly is currently married to a full-grown woman and is the father of three children, he has still been fighting off lawsuits from women who claim he had sex with them while they were underage. I understand and accept that celebrities are prime targets for this kind of stuff and that an out-of-court settlement by a celebrity does not always mean guilt.
It ain’t easy being a sex symbol. Then again, it ain’t easy ignoring all those pointing fingers either. And I can hear a new version of R. Kelly’s signature hit: I believe I can fly, I believe my own alibi, I convince myself every night and day, spread my wings and AHHHHHHH!!!!
That he is a young, wealthy black man doesn’t have squat to do with his troubles, as far as I’m concerned. Judging by some of the letters I receive, I’m guessing some folks will be shocked to hear me say this, but race shouldn’t even be a part of this discussion.
I know that R. Kelly is a hero to a lot of young kids. The Grammy winner was said by many to be the next big thing in black pop music, following in the footsteps of such old-school luminaries as Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. That’s admirable, and it’s a shame to see it all go to waste. But there’s something here that these young kids — and some adults — need to understand as well: Sometimes the very heroes who tell us to fly fall to earth themselves.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org