On R. Kelly, Lady Gaga, and redemption narratives: A conversation with Salamishah Tillet, Ph.D.


Photo via RCA Records

On Tuesday R. Kelly shared the tracklist and artwork for his subtly titled Black Panties album, which comes out December 10. The album cover, which Kelly released Tuesday, features the artist literally playing a topless woman as if she were a cello, bow and all. This, of course, is hardly shocking, given Kelly’s recent performance with Lady Gaga on Saturday Night Live, in which the two simulated having sex. Though the video went viral and set the internets abuzz with articles and blog posts, an important element was shockingly absent from the discussion: rape culture. Jenn M. Jackson, who called Gaga a rape apologist, was a notable exception.

For me, it wasn’t the simulated sex that  I found disturbing as much as hearing R. Kelly sing the lyrics, “I do what I want with your body.” Kelly has been accused of statutory rape by several women and has settled out of court on multiple occasions. He married Aaliyah when she was 15 and he was 27. True he wasn’t convicted, but the video tape of him urinating in, allegedly, a 14-year-old’s mouth, as are photos police found of him having sex with an underage woman. On top of that, his now ex-wife took out a restraining order against him and accused him of physical abuse, harassment, stalking and interfering with her personal liberty. Why is all that being largely ignored? I spoke with Salamishah Tillet, renowned scholar, writer and feminist, about R. Kelly, Lady Gaga, and redemption narratives. [Interview after the jump.]

KATIE HALPER:  The internet has been abuzz with talk of Lady Gaga and R Kelly’s SNL performance of “Do What You Want.” Everyone is talking about the fact and the way that the two stars simulated sex. But almost nothing about R Kelly’s sexual and violent history with women and girls.

Salamishah Tillet, Ph.D.

SALAMISHAH TILLET: People brought it up but in a comical way. I thought it was interesting that if there was a feminist critique of R Kelly it was only about how absurd the performance was. It wasn’t about why it was problematic that Gaga was performing with him given her own politics. Gaga, for a contemporary pop artist, is one of the more politicized artists we have. She has identified as a feminist. She’s used her platform to consistently advocate for marriage equality and the end of DOMA. She’s a pro animal rights activist. So in a variety of ways Gaga has progressive politics and her art is usually in line with that. It’s odd, then, that she has this song with R Kelly at this moment that she is trying to push against certain restrictions placed on women pop artists. ARTPOP is a very liberatory album for her so I think it’s fascinating and kind of sad that she chose to make this stand with someone like R Kelly.

KH: The lyrics are about media exploitation and violation, and in the SNL performance R Kelly, to some extent plays the violator, who will “do what [he] want[s] with [her] body.” What do you think about this choice?

ST: I think she’s suggesting that she and R Kelly are these iconic figures whose status has been exploited and abused by the media. The song is obviously complaining. To me what’s dangerous is that the song is contingent on remembering but ultimately forgiving R Kelly for his sexual violence towards girls and young women.

What does it mean that nobody’s talking about it?

Because this was violence against girls and young women and an African American teenager–people who are really invisible in our culture. So, we can technically move on because he was found not guilty even if we do think he actually did commit these crimes. Nobody is talking about it because there’s really no impetus to talk about those issues because we don’t really care about the population this happened to.

Is it also about people not considering statutory rape or child pornography as criminal acts?

Or just not caring.

R Kelly was obviously never convicted. He was indicted and he settled out of course several times and there was a charge of child pornography, though the evidence had been seized but unlawfully. But I still think he committed statutory rape and violated young women. Something I struggle with is how to reconcile my response to these realities. I mean, on the one hand there’s someone I think truly has perpetuated violence against women, and the other hand there’s a racist criminal justice system that I can’t support.

I agree with you, the criminal justice system is biased against African Americans and it’s not always a good way of holding people accountable. And people get locked up all the time for crimes they didn’t commit. But with R Kelly in this situation it’s more about the kind of feminism that Gaga is practicing. And are young black girls included in that feminism? And, if so, how can she explain her R Kelly duet? He’s been accused of rape, so the performance reminds us of the way black women become invisible even as a self proclaimed feminist is trying to invoke R and B.

Would she have done this with a famously known racist? With a famously known homophobe who may have committed violence against a certain group because they are different. Whether or not you and I think R Kelly is guilty, it’s interesting that Gaga chose to do that performance with him with that history. Part this is how do we redeem certain people.  Why are they redeemable? And what can we gain from doing with this? She’s part of his redemption narrative right now.

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