The Same F’ing Song
In late January the advocacy group Black Women’s Blueprint organized an event called “March for Black Women” outside of an R. Kelly concert in New York City. The group’s protest is part of a larger #MuteRKelly movement, one which aims to, in the words of #MuteRKelly founder Oronike Odeleye, “disrupt, continue to demonstrate, continue to call him out, continue to raise awareness” about Kelly’s alleged abuse, in the hopes of legal justice. Although this group formally began their campaign just last year, it’s merely the latest to protest the singer and his music. Many, it turns out, are inflamed by his past marriage to Aaliyah, the late R&B singer, when she was only fifteen; his 2008 child pornography trial; 2014 allegations that he scoped middle schools to find young girls to have sex with; and recent claims that he held several women prisoner in homes he rents in Atlanta and Chicago, controlling every aspect of their lives. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, and at a time when many advocates are asking for justice, Kelly, who’s long been accused of illegal sexual activity, is facing renewed pressure.
Naturally, that leaves those of us who want to think about what to do with the work of alleged abusers to try and figure out what it all means. Some are re-engaging with the oeuvre of men accused of sexual assault. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott plans to reconsider the work of Woody Allen, writing, “Reassessment is part of the ordinary work of culture, and in an extraordinary time, the work is especially vital and especially challenging. I will not blame you if you want to stop watching Woody Allen’s movies. But I also think that some of us have to start all over again.” Others are reinterpreting recent films in light of the present moment, even if these films were in production before it; such is the case of The Tale, a Sundance hit this year, about a woman looking back at her past abuse by older authority figures. The idea is that it doesn’t matter when, exactly, such films were produced: they’re in and of the culture that led up to this moment. And the culture that informed this moment stretches back through history; we can’t easily extricate ourselves, or art, from it.
Trapped is a story about sex, shame, violence, and gossip, with a side of media criticism thrown in.
R. Kelly’s body of work, which is mostly about sex (“Bump N Grind,” “Feelin’ On Yo Booty”) and love (“Step in the Name of Love”), and occasionally about spiritual transcendence (“I Believe I Can Fly,” “I Wish,” “World’s Greatest”) is not all that different from that of other R&B singers. However, Kelly’s most singular work, Trapped in the Closet, stands out in more ways than one. Trapped is a story about sex, shame, violence, and gossip, with a side of media criticism thrown in. Set to a sauntering beat, the arc of its instrumental is stasis, confrontation, crescendo, and then de-escalation back into a groove, always ending with an echoing cliffhanger. All of these elements are packaged in a seemingly endless loop, and there is no real resolution; shit just continues. Now, if all that doesn’t amount to a metaphor for the rhythm of harassment before the Weinstein reckoning, I don’t know what does.
Released in 2005, Trapped is a wild and crazy saga about an improbably interrelated bunch of philandering, vocally harmonizing, gun-wielding Chicagoans. Kelly sings all the parts, including the narration, dialogue, and diegetic sound effects. Like a closet, which is both a part of a larger room and somewhat separate, Trapped in the Closet creates a liminal space: it’s part soap opera, part song-cycle, part music video, part film, and situated somewhere between the determinism of Greek drama and the debauched possibilities of the Greek Picnic. Kelly plays Sylvester, a gangster trying to make his way home after a wild night out in the club. Sylvester’s odyssey begins when he wakes up with Mary, a one-night stand who is not who she says she is. From there, the plot twists and twerks, evolving into something indelible, settling into an uncanny valley peopled with caricatures, scored by a numbing melody, and told in joyously silly lyrics. Echoing the drama of the Isleys’ moderate hit “Contagious,” (which was written and produced by Kelly) later realized in Kelly’s viral skit “Real Talk,” and “Same Girl,” his collaboration with Usher, the plot of Trapped is driven by escalating tensions and suddenly important details: “Then he notices the pie on the counter, one slice is missing / Now the story’s getting scary / Because he comes to realize that . . . BRIDGET IS ALLERGIC TO CHERRIES!”
Upon its release, or not long after, Trapped suspended the country in a splendid circus of trash reminiscent of The Jerry Springer and Maury shows; it felt like a nighttime soap with daytime talk shows on its dial. There are love quadrangles, little people used as props, so-called Mexican standoffs by way of the South Side of Chicago—which is to say wholeheartedly American standoffs as dubious as the racist names we give things. This is comical noir you can listen to in your car. With its cheesy green-screen effects and halfway famous actors (Michael K. Williams during The Wire years), Trapped is an ingenious collage of black American camp and classical drama: the theatrics of Tyler Perry’s stage plays crossed with ancient operatic themes set to mid-’00s beats, coolly undulating beneath its red hot fuckery.
For its visuals, Kelly and co-director Jim Swaffield picked a TV aesthetic that highlighted the grubby hiding places within American domesticity: bedroom closets, the space beneath the kitchen sink, a broom closet, a pantry. Kelly’s songwriting choices collapse genres: the lyrics lay out a B-movie about a corrupt cop, an underworld crime noir, a melodramatic love story centered on an overly twangy Southern white woman impregnated by a man who’s not her husband, and a slapstick comedy about a stereotypically nosy neighbor, Rosie, who’s straight out of Peyton Place (or 227, or any twentieth-century American sitcom). Trapped in the Closet brings together decades of American tabloid culture and sensationalism in one oddly satisfying form.
In 2005, Kelly performed at the MTV Video Music Awards, playing all three principals himself: Sylvester, the confused man on the side; Cathy, the cheating wife; and Rufus, her pastor husband with a secret of his own. The idea of Kelly embodying all characters at once unintentionally highlighted a way of compartmentalizing the singer that would come to underscore Trapped’s musical themes—shame, secrets, and double lives. In hindsight, this performance also illustrated the mental gymnastics performed by his fanbase, not to mention a music industry that had enlisted its own kind of compartmentalization—the age-old separation of the man and his art. In this case, the task of keeping both separate was a lot harder given the slipperiness between the man and his entertainment persona.
Kelly’s music had sometimes reflected the alleged events of his personal life. Given the numerous allegations of Kelly’s sexual involvement with underaged girls, songs like “Seems Like You’re Ready,” from 12 Play, in which Kelly sings to a paramour, “Seems like you’re ready to go all the way,” in the parlance of a teenager, does not age well. At around the time he was working on 12 Play, he wrote and produced songs for Aaliyah’s debut album, called Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. The chorus of that album’s title song literally expresses such sentiments, with an eyebrow-raising “my” placed in front, a move which personalizes it, making the tie stronger between the then underage singer and Kelly’s own language. Later in the song, Aaliyah sings “Boy be brave, don’t be afraid / Cause tonight we’re gonna go all the way,” thereby presenting a nauseating symmetry. Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number was released in May of 1994; the marriage took place several weeks later.
Then in February 2003, after his 2002 indictment on child pornography charges, stemming from a videotape that allegedly depicts him performing sexual acts on a fourteen-year-old girl (he was acquitted in 2008), Kelly released The Chocolate Factory, a minor opus. “Step in the Name of Love” was the album’s third single. Although the song was likely produced before the drama, its music video fits neatly with his later, embattled persona. At the end of the video, Kelly, wearing a Zorro mask and an all-black outfit, dances as the song vamps out. He wore a pink version of the mask in Cassidy’s “Hotel” video. In another way, Trapped continues this tradition of blurring man and character. Kelly gave the main point-of-view character, Sylvester, his own middle name.
In his memoir Soulacoaster, Kelly teased Chapters 23-33 ahead of their release, writing, “The alien that is Trapped in the Closet is getting ready to visit Earth again.” Kelly has called Trapped in the Closet “an alien,” a phrase used to describe its pop-cultural reception, which outstripped much of his other work, and its weirdness. This description points to a maverick artfulness, its possession of what writer Hillary Brown described as “an abiding strangeness, choices that make one uncomfortable, a forceful originality.” Or, as Sylvester tells his brother-in-law Twan in Chapter 13, it’s the quality of being “crazier than a fish with titties.” The “alien” descriptor seems analogous to Trapped’s in-story spectacle: the series is R. Kelly’s “alien,” and Sylvester is an “alien” within the narrative universe. While he may be a participant in the lying and cheating, he stands slightly adrift, both inside and outside of the chaos (yes, like a closet), threatening to shoot sons of bitches if they don’t give him answers “right gotdamn now.” His cornrows and gigantic diamond earrings frame a perpetually puzzled countenance. Sylvester is a man outside the law, a vigilante working tirelessly to solve the mystery of where and how he became implicated in the madness.
While unearthly language might adequately describe the happenings within Sylvester’s world, its themes are so terrestrial, so commonplace, so mundanely down-and-dirty. Given its scope and subject matter, it’s not unlike the picaresque novel. The Oxford Dictionary defines picaresque as “relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.” You have to wonder how intentional this framing is, given Kelly’s co-opting of fairy tales and folk literature in service of his own confounding narrative. Along with borrowing the Zorro iconography, Kelly has called himself “The Pied-Piper of R&B,” calling back to that medieval Germanic character. And really, it’s true: Trapped in the Closet is a picaresque updated for the contemporary era, with Kelly in the starring role, raging against his neighborhood’s whisper networks and fast-spreading gossip, which Kelly likens to an incurable STI called “the package”— which itself spreads to many of Trapped’s characters. The latter chapters, while lacking the intensity and sheer strangeness of the earlier ones, are consumed with a tabloid reality/talk show, “Out of the Closet,” where the series’ main players are invited to expose each other.
Of course Kelly didn’t write Trapped anticipating the events of fall 2017. And he claims he neither reads nor directly references literature, telling GQ in 2016, “I started calling myself the Pied Piper because of the flute. . . I don’t really know the story of the Pied Piper. I don’t read stories, first of all . . . I’ve called myself a lot of things, changing the name, switching it up, just flipping, remixing. But never to harm anybody. Never to make a deep statement for people to dig into and figure it out.” But Sylvester’s louche, picaresque characterization recalls the ways in which suspected abusers, from Weinstein to Mario Batali to Russell Simmons to Mario Testino and Bruce Weber to Kelly himself, have been described by alleged victims and supporters alike. And Trapped in the Closet‘s main narrative thrust, of a rogue male protagonist barely wading above the murk of an elaborate sex scandal inflamed by gossip and exposure in the national media, certainly makes it very much an artifact of the present.
In this moment, I wonder about the relationship between Kelly’s “alien” and the singer’s life on this plane. The series is supposedly out of this world, yet it’s devoted to a particular kind of man’s problems living in ours. Perhaps for Kelly, “alien” also means “art.” There’s the way of compressing complex ideas by imagining how someone would describe them to an extraterrestrial; Kelly’s way of conceptualizing his work fucks up that rhetorical strategy. Instead, he distills a mess of complicated ideas into an “otherworldly” offering he shares with a global audience. It feels notable that this is how Kelly thinks about Trapped—a story about gossip and sex that’s set some distance apart from the real world. A work fashioned by an aggrieved auteur and made to contain the undesirable, in his view it floats in space, away from us, starkly outside the spheres of influence found here. In 2016, when New York Magazine’s David Marchese asked Kelly if he is sexually attracted to underaged girls, Kelly denied it, replying, “That’s a rumor that comes from the Earth, like all rumors[.]”
As it pertains to Kelly, it seems a good deal of the American music industry and buying public is currently trapped.
Some years ago, I went to see a screening of Trapped in the Closet on Earth, at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland. Relishing the opportunity to make fun of the series and sing along with other hipsters, my excitement dampened once the program began. Instead of going directly into Trapped in the Closet proper, the theater aired a few of Kelly’s videos in a short featurette before the main show. I clammed up, ready to shout along to Trapped but not the other songs, and yet the DVD or reel they were projecting from ensured it was to impossible to alienate this project from his others. I remember feeling stuck watching the music videos, uncomfortable with the fact that I’d paid to support R. Kelly, yet still looking forward to singing this ridiculous song with the verve of a musical theater nerd. For the remainder of the event, I munched popcorn sprinkled with nutritional yeast, and I bellowed punchlines—my emotions oscillated between guilt and a hearty karaoke zeal, my mind and mouth did not agree.
As it pertains to Kelly, it seems a good deal of the American music industry and buying public is currently sort of trapped, or at least as constrained as I was at that screening—and still am, in many ways. According to journalist Jim DeRogatis, an employee of Kelly’s former label Jive Records once said of the label’s decision to keep working with the singer, “At the time it seemed disgusting, but it was the music business, an industry built on the foundation of white male sexual fantasy, so a lot of bad behavior was not only condoned, but enabled and encouraged.” DeRogatis has said that based on his years of reporting on Kelly’s alleged abuse, “no one, it seems, matters less in our society than young black women.” If not in a closet, with all of its attendant metaphorical meanings, then those who shrug at the mounting allegations against Kelly maybe place the singer in an antechamber or lobby of some kind, a holding cell for men who are suspected predators but who are accused of abusing people most Americans don’t seem to really give a shit about. But—as in a Sylvester-esque cliffhanger, it feels like our national culture is on the cusp of something. The protests are back in full swing, and #MeToo insists that the issues of sexual assault and harassment are taken seriously, and that the movement is inclusive for all women. What comes next? A singer muted, or, as in Trapped in the Closet, a continuation of the same fucking song?