Can A Nigerian Find R. Kelly Guilty?

There are those for whom the R. Kelly trial and verdict do not present any sort of dilemma. As a big fan of the man’s records from the early 1990s to his Chocolate Factory album, I am not one of those persons.

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I admit that reading that he had been found guilty made me hunger for his music, perhaps because the beat from the semi-title track of his album from 2000, TP.COM, had been playing in my head for some time. I also read the Jim Derogatis piece in the New Yorker about the unanswered questions arising from the trial. “How did Kelly avoid a conviction, back in 2008, when the state of Illinois tried him for child pornography?” “[How] many more victims are there who we don’t know about?”

To my mind, the most important question Derogatis brings up is this one: “How, exactly, did Kelly avoid repercussions for illegally marrying his protégé Aaliyah, in 1994, when she was fifteen and he was twenty-seven, and they were two of the biggest stars in popular music?” Of course, this question indicts the legal system and the entire apparatus of American superstardom — but it also raises questions about Aaliyah’s mother, Diane Haughton, and her uncle, Barry Hankerson, both of whom, says Derogatis, were not called by the prosecution.

Hankerson managed R. Kelly for years including through the days when the media were calling attention to the nature of the R. Kelly and Aaliyah affair. People may have their own questions; mine is simply: did he look the other way because of the sheer amount of money that Kelly, who was then at his majestic peak, presented? After the bungling of the Bill Cosby case, I think the prosecution wanted to avoid ruining their chances especially if both mother and uncle had signed some papers stating they would not be saying anything negative about Kelly back when nobody knew that the day would come that would see Kelly in court.

And yet, I am concerned about the moral aspect of this story if it was the case that Aaliyah’s relatives looked away because of cash. The only other way of seeing this is that they said nothing because of the potential damage to their daughter and niece’s career. I hope someday this gap in the narrative is cleared. Nonetheless, I can’t help wonder if money is the reason Hankerson, in particular, looked away and how it is somewhat related to my own decision to not pay too much attention to the case because of the music. Of course, I read everything — I have been reading Derogatis’s relentless pursuit of the case for over 10 years. I was surprised when he first turned up in the New Yorker after, I think, I read him in several publications. From the sidelines he had finally entered the mainstream.

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In any case, I read everything but kept them at a distance. In Lokoja, from before I was a teenager, I was listening to this man. In secondary school, we were rapping along to the Fiesta remix, the hit song featuring Jay-Z, who, like Kelly’s many collaborators, has kept away. (Even then, even before then, we had heard rumours about the Aaliyah situation.) I remember Channel O playing the Ignition remix over and again when ASUU went on strike in early 2003 and I was home with my dad in Warri. How am I going to be able to tell you I have abandoned this guy whose music was so foundational if you think about a life as a series of soundtracks? I listened to ‘I Wish’ months ago and man, that song holds up. If you play ‘Bump and Grind’ on loudspeakers I can’t trust myself to not mouth the line “I don’t see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind” loudly. I know several song lyrics from Best of Both Worlds, the celebratory but ultimately doomed album he and Jay-Z recorded in the 2000s. I recall thinking that it was the somewhat early stages of his court cases that prevented that album from getting any video. I can comfortably sing a decent chunk of the non-album single ‘Heaven I Need A Hug’, a song that makes Kelly look like a persecuted sinner but one who thinks he really is a misunderstood semi-saint.

And here we are finally, with Kelly looking at 10 years to life. Many people have said that his music has to be cancelled. And some of the reports from the trial are really damning: apparently, a video showing Kelly forcing a girl/lady to perform oral sex on another man was shown and there might be another where he asks a girl to be intimate with bodily fluids. These are both legally and morally damnable things. And maybe all things Kelly should be cancelled. But for fans of his music for as long as I have been, it is incredibly hard.

Over the past few months, I have heard Kelly’s songs in public spots in Lagos. I don’t know if the guys behind the speakers are aware of the trial. If they are, I can’t blame them. For so long, the man made great music and across genres. He is certainly going to jail. His music, though, is still out there. Each person would have to make their own decision. I condemn what the man did all of these years and I am curious to hear why Hankerson continued to manage the career of a man who married his niece as a kid. But there is a chance that the next time I hear a Kelly song, I would be singing along. Breaking a 20-year habit is hard.

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