Singer-songwriter R. Kelly has maintained a wildly successful music career for the past three decades, despite a long and disturbing history of sexual misconduct allegations against him.
But in 2017, a social media campaign to bring down the so-called “King of R&B” was launched amid reports of Kelly holding several women—and girls—as sexual prisoners. And on the heels of Lifetime’s six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, the Fulton County district attorney in Georgia reportedly opened a criminal investigation into sex crimes allegedly committed by Kelly in and around Atlanta, where the 52-year-old once resided. Also, the Cook County state attorney recently urged anyone in Kelly’s hometown of Chicago with information about alleged sexual abuse by the artist to “please come forward.”
Some streaming services like Spotify have stopped promoting his music and removed him from playlists, and this week Dallas radio stations banned Kelly’s music from their airwaves.
Now, growing discourse around Kelly and his alleged predation has many wondering what it takes to divest from disreputable celebrities—particularly in a digital age.
Artists generate revenue through many channels, including record sales, touring, merchandising, monetization of YouTube content, music streaming, and broadcast and digital radio airplay. Withdrawing support from harmful entertainers begins with knowing how they make their money.
Touring tends to rake in the most cash for performers with ticket and merchandise sales, according to entertainment lawyer Bernie Lawrence-Watkins. “That’s why you see some artists on tour for two years straight,” she says. “The artist will make more money on tour than they do making an album.”
She adds that independent artists who may not be well-known have a huge fan base for their genres and are able to stay on tour.
The gainfulness of selling records depends on the star power of the artist and how popular a given record becomes. In today’s digital age, 1,500 streams equate to the sale of an album, making 1.5 billion streams equal to a platinum record. The higher the subscription fee for a streaming platform, the higher the payout is for an artist.
Broadcast radio play in the U.S. generates earnings for songwriters but not performing artists, although performing artists do receive royalties when their songs are aired by digital radio stations.
Even in boycotting, it’s possible to support an entertainer inadvertently via advertisements or endorsements.
In the case of internet radio stations like Pandora that offer both paid and unpaid subscriptions, advertisers fill in the gaps where listener money doesn’t. When it comes to songs involving more than one performer, a featured artist gets paid from revenue a headlining artist receives.
“If you have an artist who is popular and they are featured on a project, they’re able to ask for a larger percentage of sale royalties,” Lawrence-Watkins says. “A no-name artist, for example, that’s featured on a project will more so just get publishing [royalties] if they wrote their verse.”
More established artists might also request a fee in advance of the sale of records they’re featured on or for appearing in music videos.
Truly disrupting the profits an entertainer makes, says Lawrence-Watkins, “really would entail not buying anything associated with the artist.”
But even in boycotting, it’s possible to support an entertainer inadvertently via advertisements or endorsements. And the only sure way to avoid this, Lawrence-Watkins explains, would be for the artist’s work to be banned at nearly all levels of business and media.
“A few people making an outcry wouldn’t affect the bottom line. It has to be done in large numbers,” she says. “The public has a voice, and if [companies] see that something’s going to affect their bottom line, they’re going to revisit what it is that they’re doing and consider what’s more important to them.”
For this reason, Atlanta-based activist and lobbyist Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye co-founded the social media campaign #MuteRKelly, which has turned into a grassroots movement of 11 chapters across the country and in Germany.
“We just were over R. Kelly continuing to perform, continuing to make money and not be held accountable for the horrible behavior that he has committed over the years, mostly involving Black young women and girls,” Barnes said.
Even when the public is convinced abuse allegations against a celebrity are credible, people still might attempt to divorce an artist from their work.
The group successfully lobbied the Fulton County Board of Commissioners in 2017 to rescind its decision to allow Kelly to perform at a county-owned venue in College Park, a suburb of Atlanta. However, Live Nation, the California-based events promoter and venue operator, ultimately denied the county’s request to cancel the event contract. But the FedEx Forum in Memphis canceled Kelly’s concert that was scheduled two days after the Atlanta show.
#MuteRKelly has since gotten several other concert venues around the country to cancel Kelly’s shows and is in the process of lobbying a number of radio stations to pull his songs. They were able to get Tom Joyner’s Morning Show, the nation’s top syndicated urban morning show, to stop playing Kelly.
But while support of the #MuteRKelly campaign has grown, so has opposition by fans.
“What he has managed to do is do horrible, horrible things and then give people exactly what they want in a rather feigned way to say, ‘Oh well, see if I was such a horrible person, could I have made this wonderful song to make you sing and dance?’” says Barnes. “We were playing ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ in churches and high school graduations.”
This complicity, she believes, can be attributed in part to misogynistic racism in society toward Black women and children. It has left many asking whether Kelly would have been found guilty and sent to prison were his victims little White girls.
A 2017 report by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality revealed that people tend to perceive Black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection than White girls. The report also found that Black children in general are perceived as adults earlier than White children—a phenomenon sociologists refer to as “adultification.”
“What adultification does is actually twofold,” says Barnes. “One, it assigns these precocious behaviors to children who just developmentally don’t have them, and makes them perfect prey. It also leaves them unprotected.”
So when Black girls and women do come out with accusations, Barnes explains, people often subscribe to narratives that project blame and expectations of adultlike discernment onto them, or see their outcries as a financial ploy.
And even when the public is convinced that abuse allegations against a celebrity are credible, people still might attempt to divorce an artist from their work.
But ethnomusicologist Aja Burrell Wood reckons it’s nearly impossible to do so.
“When you’re talking about R. Kelly, what we see is this person who’s been able to fund himself as a predator,” Burrell Wood says. “What allowed him the resources, the access, and the money to be a predator is through his music. There’s no way to listen to a song—especially when you’re putting your own money behind it in terms of going to a concert or buying music—without funding an artist.”
Kelly went on trial in 2008 for child pornography charges after a video believed to show the singer engaging in sex acts with a 14-year-old was leaked to Chicago Sun-Times. Kelly was ultimately acquitted and has vehemently denied all allegations of sexual assault.
But accusers say he has made a number of out-of-court settlements, implying his guilt.
“Most entertainment matters that end up in court [don’t go] to trial,” Lawrence-Watkins says. “There’s usually a settlement—a confidential settlement—because money talks. Money helps cover reputations and pad the blow.”
Given the sociopolitical climate around movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, Lawrence-Watkins suspects a different outcome for Kelly this time around from new investigations brewing in Atlanta and Chicago.
This time a jury may be more likely to convict, she says.
“The jury is made up of ordinary people who listen to the news and read the paper, and they’re aware of what’s going on,” she says. “And they’re exposed now to everything that’s been taking place recently with more and more stories coming out.”
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.
Liz Brazile reports for Crosscut and KCTS 9 as Cascade Public Media's Emerging Journalist Fellow. She is a former solutions reporting intern for YES!