“Look At This Tangle of Thorns”: On R. Kelly, Lena Dunham, Terry Richardson and Beyoncé

So if Beyoncé likes him, he must be ok?

“I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we don’t really exist if you don’t.”

A few months ago, I ate dinner with a group of friends—all women—on a roof deck with views of Central Park on one side and the Hudson on the other. We drank bottle after bottle of wine and ate lobster rolls. We talked about many things, and one of the women brought up Roman Polanski. This woman had been brought by one of the other guests, and was the kind of woman who makes lots of brash, declarative statements seemingly out of nowhere, all of which cause other women to exchange glances and sometimes subtle eye-rolls and try to change the subject as quickly as possible. But this woman would not be dissuaded from talking about Roman Polanski (maybe it was our proximity to the Gothic gables and balustrades of the Dakota, who’s to say), and she soon brought out her phone, so that she could read to us everything of which the director had been accused. After she’d finished speaking about Quaaludes and anal sex and what it is to be a thirteen-year-old girl in the home of a 43-year-old man, there was silence. And then someone deadpanned, “Yeah, but Chinatown is a really, really good movie.” And we all laughed, a laugh very specific to being on a roof deck in the summer, the city stretched out like a glittering carpet, stomachs full of lobster, heads full of wine. No one wanted to talk about pedophilia. No one wanted to do anything but laugh and talk about other things, better things, our things.

“I feel shame when I think of all the times I’ve laughed when I wanted to scream,” Lena Dunham tweeted yesterday, after having read the “stomach-churning” sexual assault charges against R. Kelly that accompanies the amazing, informative, essential interview  in the Village Voice between Jessica Hopper, the music editor for Rookie, and Jim DeRogatis, now a professor at Chicago’s Columbia College and formerly the reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who broke the Kelly story years ago. For those vaguely familiar with Kelly’s sexual history who can only identify that he maybe has a sex tape and that it maybe involved Kelly urinating on a woman, this interview and the accompanying documents will illuminate all of the things which Kelly has been accused of in court, many cases of which he settled so as not to go to trial. It will also make you feel ashamed that you ever could have thought that Kelly’s “sex tape,” in which he urinated in the mouth of a 14-year-old girl, is in any way akin to a video of two consenting adults engaged in sexual activity. It’s not. And that tape is just the tip of the iceberg. DeRogatis makes clear that Kelly had sex with dozens of underage girls, many of whom he found by visiting and staking out the high school that he once attended. Ninth- and tenth-grade girls were interviewed and confirmed that Kelly would hang out in their high school parking lot trying to pick them up. More than one of the girls he was involved with attempted suicide. DeRogatis emphasizes that it was not one girl, not one video, but that it was, “rapes plural. It is on record. Rapes in the dozen.”

And yet, despite all the information available, Kelly’s behavior has—for years now—been dismissed and joked about and ignored in favor of his musical talents. Kelly has recently had the full weight of the Pitchfork machine behind him, supporting his music and his career, and Kelly’s latest album, Black Panties, has been praised by many, including feminist website Jezebel, which called the album “a magnificent ode to pussy.” Is this just a case of society looking beyond the artist’s bad behavior and focusing only on the art? Or does it have more to do with the specific type of bad behavior at play here? There is no arguing with the idea that bad people can make good art, and while Kelly is certainly one example, there are countless other artists (including Polanski, of course, and also, as mentioned in the Voice article, James Brown and Led Zeppelin) who behaved in monstrous ways, and who have also escaped the scrutiny that people might give their next door neighbor upon finding out that he beats his wife. DeRogatis addresses this by saying, “You have to make a choice, as a listener, if music matters to you as more than mere entertainment. This is not just entertainment, this is our lifeblood. This matters.” Especially in the case of Kelly—who is promoting a new album, continues to perform, and has not disavowed any of his past activities, saying as recently as today, that anyone who has anything negative to say about him should listen to his track “Shut Up,” because haters gonna hate and “spiritually I’m a climber”—it is important to at least know to whom exactly you’re listening; listen to his music, but know that you are listening to a monster.


  1. I fully agree, I feel a little bit sick to be honest. I’ve just sat and listened to “Do What You Want” by Lady Gaga – featuring R. Kelly – I never knew of his ‘history’. I love Lady Gaga and now I’m wondering why she let him in on the song, also declaring on national TV (in UK) that she (quote) “LOOOOVES R. Kelly!”, especially as she is a woman who prides herself on being up to date (if not before the date) with music, fashion and news – surely she would have known about this? I’ve been questioning my love of pop culture for the past year really, I’ve been trying to “wean myself off of it” so to speak but it is hard as stupid as that sounds with my love for Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Rihanna – I do say I look up to those ladies because of their hard work, determination and creative abilities but I might not respect them if they know of certain ‘celebrities’ behaviours and continue to work with and publicly admire them.
    It could just be that I am among the so called powerless, however us, the powerless count for more than 90% of the population (UK and to be fair, everywhere) so in fact if we want to change the world we can and no matter of money that the so called “powers that be” have could stop us. Which makes me sound like I want to begin a revolution and I don’t mean that but like you elegantly wrote, a change in the public thought and consensus could change everything dramatically!

  2. Be careful using the word “smart”: “You who are reading this are probably too smart to fall prey to some creepy guy hanging around a high school parking lot.” You may mean we think we’re that smart, but it sort of implies those young women of color are not smart, or that smartness is something that only the privileged readers of this blog possess. I’m so down with everything else you are saying, just want to make sure the message is consistent.

    • Oh, in no way do I think the young women who are preyed upon aren’t smart. On the contrary, actually. I just mean that I think many people in a privileged position tend to think that they are smarter or better in some way than those who are victimized, not realizing that so much of life is circumstantial and dependent on things outside of an individual’s control, and thus blaming the victim. But I appreciate what you’re saying! Thanks for reading.

  3. Disturbing. I’d never read the full course of charges on R-Kelly, and it’s really awful-sounding. But can we discuss Terry Richardson too, in depth? He’s accused of assaulting numerous young women, and he’s getting away scot-free, if not getting MORE work. Nor is he getting grilled in this article like he should. You need to be as forthright in your cultural critiques.

  4. You know what’s more concerning ? Is the fact that people like you write such an Indepth analysis of a celebrity. That’s the problem. People like you who prefer to ignore the realities of the evil inside all humans. You’d rather go about drinking your wine and eating lobster rolls, laughing about nonsense with your girlfriends. If at any point you feel some sort of spiritual guilt, you always resort to celebrity obsession with a moralistic angle. to diffuse your inability to face reality. There are far more urgent matters to be writing about. More issues that deserve the attention of humankind. Such as Fukushima, or the lies the mainstream media is feeding us on behalf of the dark powers hiding in the corners of modern society.
    Maybe it’s time to grow up a bit, and spend a lot less energy and focus on fame and celebrity. Start addressing the real world, and the ever increasing dangers challenging the citizens of this world.

    • No, I think Zman is saying that we should all write about who took a dump on the floor in the men’s restroom at the local 7-11, which leads me to speculate that it is possible that Zman took a dump on the floor of the men’s restroom at the 7-11.

      Of course, that begs the question of WHY Zman would do something like that, and that points in the direction of deep and obscure evils in the human heart that frankly boggle the imagination. Clearly, someone hurt this man. It is unclear how, but that much at least is clear.

      Or it’s possible he legitimately believes he’s just throwing a Red Herring at a Pink Herring (Best case scenario with respect to Zman)

      Anyway, back to the topic at hand – the writer of this article, Kristin Iversen, thinks we should devote more of our focus to imagining the lives of victims and not so much time imagining how uncanny it is that R. Kelly keeps getting away with it.

  5. It’s not about being forgiven, it’s about not turning a blind eye when it’s convenient, such as the case with Mr. Richardson, whose reputation on the real, not in media, but among the ‘private whispers’ continue to surface and no one says shit because guess what? His ‘cool factor’ seems to supercede all of it and people fall over him regardless, even Ms. Bey. Please.

  6. So often we sit back and separate ourselves from issues of race, exploitation of women, or bigotry within pop culture and media. Then when local news comes on about someone being raped, sexually exploited at work, or racially discriminated we are up in arms. The media is our backyard, artists with power are more influential than most teachers. Yet they are never held accountable for their actions like a teacher would be.

  7. As for things that come with Terry Richardson, these women knowingly and willingly exploit their sex appeal (their looks) for monetary gain and fame. That is all that needs to be argued when it comes to anything related to the big bad evil men objectifying women.

    As far as any sexual assault claims, it’s probably most like he started touching them, harassing them, and they did not enjoy it or want it, but being as to how they wanted a big break and considering his power as a photographer they simply never said to stop. Keep in mind, not enjoying something or not wanting something but never saying “no” or “stop” doesn’t make it rape or sexual assault,etc.

    • Yes, yes it does. If you know that you are using your influence, power or strength to enagge someone in contact that they do not want, if you know that they play along with because of fear, then yes it is assault. You make sure that they say “yes” not that they say “no”.

    • If they are underage (as in R. Kelly’s case) they are not considered old enough to be consenting adults. Whether the girls say yes or no, it is not legal.

  8. i disagree that he is forgiven because he is preying on the weak. Chris Brown beat up Rihanna and his career is thriving. Rihanna has a voice, money, good lawyers, all that …

    The avg person simply doesnt care enough. I thought about both the R Kelly and Chris Brown situations a lot and whether or not I could listen to their music … in the end, the radio made that decision for me. It was fed to me, and I enjoyed it no matter who was making it.

    I think the key here is not to condemn the society that still listens to these people, but rather focusing on educating young women that they have value and dont need to be peed on to feel beautiful.

  9. We live in a society where there is no nuance. The media makes everything sound like it is either black or white. Life is a little bit more complicated. Things are often grey.

    R. Kelly’s alleged victims were all saints.
    Jim DeRogatis is an angel with no hidden agenda.
    Jessica Hopper is a voice for the voiceless who does not need web traffic to make money.
    Terry Richardson is the first person who allegedly got sexual favors in exchange of a career advancement.
    R. Kelly is just a MONSTER although he was sexually abused as a child and has not gotten in any new trouble in 15 years.
    Roman Polanski is The DEVIL although his victim forgave him and asked the world to move on.
    Chris Brown is SATAN although his victim Rihanna forgave him and took him back and told the world to mind their own business.

    Life is complicated, the guilty ones are not just monsters and the victims are not just saints.

    • Actually, it seems that you’re the one who thinks in absolutes. yes, the world is grey which is exactly why we have laws in place to make sure sexual predators like R.Kelly don’t ‘charm’ 14 year olds into fucking him on tape and letting him piss in their mouths. You don’t gotta be a genius to understand that logic.

      • R. Kelly faced the law and he was found NOT GUILTY.
        15 years after should he not be allowed to make a living?

        Would YOU like to still be paying for things you did fifteen years ago?
        Try to walk in someone’s else shoes for a minute instead of locking yourself in that judgmental bubble where others are awful and we are all good people lying, cheating, dodging the law, doing drugs, etc…

        A good look in the mirror is something that teaches EMPATHY.

        • I don’t lie, cheat,or dodge the law and I haven’t raped anyone 15 years ago or 30. I feel empathy for the poor young girls that grown man raped. I do not feel it for a man who has shown no remorse only defiance.
          He was found not guilty of child pornography by the way — only because they could not prove the age of the young girl after her parents were paid off. Tell the whole story.
          He was never tried for rape. He would’ve been found guilty because you can’t have consent with a 14 year old girl — like the one he MARRIED at age 27.
          In closing I don’t think others are awful. I do think R kelly is awful.
          Oh, 15 years ago I went to college. I’m still paying for it.

          • You never lied in your life?
            Wow, I get it, R. Kelly is awful and everyone else is not.
            That’s the reason why the world around us is so perfect.

            You are talking about showing remorse, R. Kelly’s music is filled with apologies and confessions, it’s just that those who don’t like him ignore them.
            For obvious reasons he can’t go on TV and say that he did all those things.

            Listen to songs like “Apologies of A Thug,” “Heaven I Need A Hug,” “I Wish,” “Fly” and the whole “U Saved Me” album, you will hear a flawed individual trying to come clean.

            I know the whole R. Kelly story and that’s what I said at the beginning.
            In the whole story no one is clean.

            By the way they failed to charge him with statutory rape NOT rape.
            I think it’s a distinction, that some rape victims appreciate.

  10. Translation: “I live in New York. Rape is bad. Patriarchy is bad. Lena Dunham is good. Here’s a quote from a book so everyone sees how cultured I am.”

    • No. I live in New York. Lena Dunham is responsible for ignoring the exploitation of the young women in the images surrounding her on the walls of Terry Richardson’s studio. Lena Dunham is responsible for pretending she didn’t remember that R Kelly pissed in a 14 year old girl’s mouth and filmed it. Lena Dunham is responsible for BASING A CHARACTER ON HER SHOW on this creeper Uncle Terry— like he’s just quirky or something—then pretending her 3 year association with him was limited to one photo shoot, to which she had not yet learned to say no. Right.

      Lady Gaga is responsible for choosing to use this freak pervert predator Richardson to film her video with the child rapist R Kelly.

      There, I held women responsible too. I even added one, and I never mentioned patriarchy, nor did I quote from books.

      Now will you agree with me that rape is bad?

      • Rape is bad. But trying to draw a parallel to R. Kelly and Roman Polanski is laughable. First and foremost, R. Kelly was acquitted of the charges thrown at him. I mean, I understand that as a twent-something Brooklyn based blogger, you have more insight into things as others. And we all know that the court of public opinion outweighs the court of law. Roman Polanksi, on the other hand, legitimately took advantage of a youth and raped her, no argument there. A better comparison would have been Roman Polanski and Jerry Sandusky, but that would counter your only young, underprivileged women are raped hypothesis.

  11. Awww, you didn’t even mention his adorable sextape with his god daughter! This guy’s a gem. Book this freak and get him off all his instruments. The world will be alright without this guys music for 5-10.

  12. These celebrities don’t matter enough to people. (Maybe that’s a good thing?) Pop culture products are pretty throw-away. We consume so much information that no one cares to educate themselves or invest any energy in the backstory to a song, show, movie, etc. I’m not saying anyone should.

    You listen to a song, you like it or you don’t, and it’s over in three minutes. If you’re pretty average, you regard the song or the product as it’s own stand-alone thing, for the most part. That’s what art is. There is a separation between an artist and their art, and it’s enough of a separation to say, “yeah, I like R Kelly’s music,” and “Chinatown is a classic, whichever way you slice it, and yes I know who made it.”

    The article makes a great and worthy point, but it’s a difficult change to make — essentially choke the livelihoods of these predators by going after the one thing that makes them powerful, their art. The one thing that isn’t even them; their art being a separate entity.


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