How do you #MuteRKelly's music in your memories?
Many folks whose first dance was to an R Kelly song are now probably wondering if they should skip over that bit when watching their wedding DVD
Only a tone-deaf simpleton with a slab of concrete where his brain is supposed to be will have missed the fact that we're living through a significant shift of the social needle where issues of sexual harassment, misogyny, rape and other forms of male toxicity are concerned.
For centuries, if not millennia, men - that one half of humanity with the "dangly bits", to quote the great Zulu princess Mkabayi kaJama - have had a free pass in enjoying the fruits of unearned privilege.
We have unthinkingly walked into spaces we did not deserve without once questioning what made us so special. Take the said Mkabayi kaJama. I wonder how many Zulus are aware of the fact that she is the true architect of the kingdom that shaped the destiny of the Zulus for over 40 years, through the reign of six Zulu kings. In fact, while history mostly glosses over the fact, she was the Zulu ruler for six years between 1781 and 1787. She just wasn't installed as king. Again, this speaks to the privilege of the dangly species.
I was having a debate about this history over the Easter weekend. You wouldn't guess in a million years what prompted the discussion. It was one Robert Sylvester Kelly, aka R Kelly.
For years we have heard stories of the man's predatory paedophilia. But we live in a world where the more talented among us get a free pass because, hey, who can argue that R Kelly's music is some of the most brilliant we've listened to in the past 30 years? Even my mutts, Bengeta and Buster, probably know the lyrics to I Believe I Can Fly.
That song has inspired millions of people navigating dark periods.
When my firstborn son, Ntobeko, was at Glenwood Prep in Durban, he decided to enter the swimming gala one year, mostly because his best friends, Matthew and Cuan, were participating. We didn't have a swimming pool at our Pinetown townhouse complex and so, other than the few swimming lessons during school hours, he didn't have much practice in the water.
Frankly, he had no business entering the 50m backstroke in the swimming gala. Inevitably, he had a horrible race, coming dead last. He was so slow he actually got lapped by the top finishers. And getting lapped in a two-lap race is no easy feat. Of course, he got the obligatory standing ovation when he finished.
I thought that was the end of the swimming madness. I could not have been more wrong. When he got home, Ntobeko announced that he wanted to sign up for extra swimming lessons after school because he wanted to win the following year.
Over the next 12 months, the missus and I had to take turns ferrying him to and from his lessons in Morningside. There were many trips to the Kings Park pool over weekends. When we asked about his progress, his coach was cautiously pessimistic. Once she even shared with us her theories on race and swimming. Apparently, it is a "scientific fact" that black people have greater bone density and therefore "don't float so good".
Throughout all this, every time we drove home after the lessons, the young man would ask that we play his theme song, The World's Greatest, by R Kelly, from the soundtrack of the movie Ali.
On the day of the gala we watched incredulously as he went on to win the 50m backstroke. As we drove home, elated, he asked that we play The World's Greatest - not for inspiration this time, but as an anthem of triumph.
This is clearly an important episode in my son's life, one he will cherish until his last breath.
He watched the Surviving R Kelly docuseries a few months ago and, being the thoughtful young man he has become, fully supports the #MuteRKelly movement. When I told him Kaya FM had muted R Kelly as long ago as 2017, he nodded in agreement.Except for one problem. How does one mute songs that are permanently interwoven with one's memories? There must be millions of folks whose first dance was to Step in the Name of Love. I hope that every thoughtful person gets uncomfortable when they listen to an R Kelly song. But what do they do? Skip over that bit when watching their wedding DVD?When they curse you, the Chinese say, "May you live in interesting times". I so get that now. I know one thing for sure. It's a great, progressive start towards shifting the needle that we experience this discomfort; that we ask ourselves these questions.The era of consuming popular culture unthinkingly will soon be a relic of the past. There is a picture of me from 31 years ago doing the rounds on social media. In it, I'm wearing a black bomber jacket, black three-quarter pants, white socks and black moccasins. I have a sweatband tied around my impressive, greasy perm. When you encounter it, please be gentle with me.