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Weekly reads from CJR for August 26, 2021

Alexandria Neason on R. Kelly’s press

This month, R. Kelly is standing trial for sexual abuse. The charges against him are numerous: that he preyed on girls and women over two decades, that he produced child pornography, and that he offered hush money to victims, among other crimes. He has also been accused of bribing an Illinois official to create a fake ID for Aaliyah, the r&b and pop performer, so that the two could marry when he was twenty-seven and she was fifteen. (R. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all of the above.) As Alexandria Neason wrote for CJR’s series on arts criticism, these allegations have been public since 2000, when Jim DeRogatis, a music journalist, reported that Kelly was believed to be sexually abusing minors. More stories broke; R. Kelly was charged and then acquitted. “All the while,” Neason observed, as an artist, “Kelly has enjoyed a lucrative, charmed career.”

The music press largely supported R. Kelly’s work until 2019, when a filmmaker named dream hampton released Surviving R. Kelly, a documentary in which women newly came forward as survivors of his abuse. A wave of negative attention followed, along with a fresh set of legal charges. “Press coverage of Kelly has now taken an appropriately scathing and confrontational tone,” Neason found; news outlets have since been judged for failing to scrutinize him sooner. “As journalists, we often deceive ourselves into believing that it is not our place to make moral judgments, that we merely let the public decide how to feel,” Neason wrote. “This tends to be particularly true of critics, who have historically seen their role as offering critiques of the art, not appraisals of the human beings behind it. But our editorial decisions—whose album gets attention, whose face appears on the cover—not only reflect but also form public opinion.” In speaking with music writers about R. Kelly’s press, past and present, Neason examined how his story has been handled, and the particular challenges it has posed for the Black press. —Betsy Morais, managing editor

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