R. Kelly and Michael Jackson face the music for their precarious, predatory pasts

R. Kelly and his publicist Darryll Johnson, right, leave The Daley Center after an appearance in court for Kelly's child support case, Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Chicago. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

R. Kelly and his publicist Darryll Johnson, right, leave The Daley Center after an appearance in court for Kelly's child support case, Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Chicago. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Often we consume entertainment–no matter what form it takes–without considering its origins or its creator’s intentions. Surely we’ve listened to some gut-busting comic routine or read a captivating literary work, only to discover later that its originator’s beliefs and/or actions were rather unsettling. Alongside incredible displays of artistry and talent, the music industry has produced some controversial figures (and no, I’m not talking merely about those who litter their song lyrics with obscenities or encourage maladaptive behaviors). In light of the ongoing Me Too movement and the recent release of a couple of docuseries, accusations of pedophilia have rearisen against esteemed vocalists R. Kelly and Michael Jackson. Although the King of R&B and King of Pop both face heavy public scrutiny, I’d like to sing a different tune for each of them.  

Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” hands over the microphone to young women who recount haunting tales of sexual abuse. Friends, family and other relevant guests speak on the matter, providing context for Kelly’s ability to mask his heinous misdeeds while producing critically acclaimed music. Such allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct–mostly involving underage black women–have followed Kelly since the 1990s; but until now, he has successfully evaded justice for his crimes. Following the docuseries’ broadcast, public outcry forced RCA Records to cut ties with its embattled client, and on Feb. 22, Kelly was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Given the mounting pile of evidence (both past and present) against Kelly, alongside his unhinged, confrontational interview with “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King on March 5, I’m heavily inclined to believe in his guilt. He may believe he can fly past the accusations levied against him, but I suspect that he’ll be trapped in the closet away from civilization (i.e. a prison cell) soon enough. 

Now allow me to moonwalk toward my other person of interest. HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” depicts the late Michael Jackson’s inappropriate sexual activity with two young men. Like Kelly, Jackson endured countless allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct since the 1990s, developing overly friendly relationships with impressionable children and invading their personal space. Yet while I certainly won’t discount the inappropriateness and abnormality of his behavior, I’m a bit more skeptical that he took it to the extremes that Kelly did. For one, Jackson was much more cooperative–perhaps too much so, considering the suspicion that arose from his payments to affected families–in the face of his allegations than Kelly has been. Also, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the subjects of “Leaving Neverland,” have publicly defended Jackson in the past, thereby putting their credibility in serious doubt. Furthermore, it just feels scummy and cowardly to disparage Jackson posthumously, denying him the opportunity to defend himself against charges for which he has already been cleared. Honestly, this feels more like a twisted financial ploy than a genuine attempt to spread awareness, and the Jackson estate is right to file suit against a network that is biting a hand that fed it. To be fair, I and many others are likely biased on Jackson’s behalf; after all, he and his music are arguably more beloved, and we tend to focus more on abusive heterosexual relationships than on toxic homosexual dynamics. However, I believe that Jackson acted from a place of naivety as opposed to one of malice, and perhaps we each must look at that man (or woman) in the mirror and realize that the issue isn’t so black or white.  

Although I’ve drawn some distinctions between the two, neither Kelly nor Jackson conducted themselves appropriately. These cases, compounded with disgraced comedian Bill Cosby’s recent conviction, may give some the impression that we’re targeting prosperous black men. I’d dispute this hypothesis by arguing that generally we frown upon pedophilia regardless of the perpetrator’s ethnicity, and that racial conspiracy applies more so to stereotypical instances of violence and robbery. Ultimately, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson astutely notes that we can find fault with any prominent figures and decide for ourselves whether or not we still wish to play R. Kelly and Michael Jackson’s music on our Spotify playlists. If we want to make the world a better place and rid it of impropriety, we must take a look at ourselves and make that change. 


Michael Katz is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email michael.katz@uconn.edu.