‘White Panties’: Why Does R. Kelly Keep Getting Away with It?

If you’re someone who enjoys R. Kelly’s music, you may be excited to learn that he is planning a “sequel” to last year’s album Black Panties, to be entitled, with crushing inevitability, White Panties. If, like me, you are one of those people who wonders exactly who R. Kelly needs to piss on before somebody decides enough is enough, you may find yourself asking something along the lines of, “What the actual fuck?” It’s barely three months since the Village Voice published Jessica Hopper’s interview with Jim DeRogatis, wherein the decades’ worth of allegations of Kelly’s alleged sexual abuse of underage girls were laid out in excruciating detail. Again. And it’s like it never happened.

Yes, I know Kelly’s never been convicted of anything. Yes, I know he might be the victim of a giant conspiracy of nefarious underage girls who just can’t stay away from creepy men who can’t keep their dicks in their pants, because of course that’s far more believable than the idea that a rich pop star might exploit impressionable fans. And yes, I know we shouldn’t conflate disapproval of the artist with disapproval of the art. But as I’ve written here in the past, Kelly’s art is so intrinsically linked with his sexual persona that, really, separating them seems disingenuous at best and deliberately blind at worst.

In any case, this feels like yesterday’s debate. Again. For whatever reason, America’s favorite raunchy balladeer is Teflon when it comes to this stuff. The accusations raised in Hopper’s interview with DeRogatis last year have been on the public record for decades. The world has known about the dark side of R. Kelly since the ’90s, and the world was reminded of it very graphically barely three months ago. But just like they were a decade ago, the accusations have pretty much been forgotten again.

Here’s the interesting question: why? After all, Kelly’s not the sort of person who normally gets away with this sort of shit, i.e. a privileged white man with a get-out-of-jail-free card like blaming “affluenza” for their failings. He’s an unrepentantly sex-obsessed black man with prior convictions for violence, a guy who married a 15-year-old girl and made perhaps the most bat-shit crazy TV show ever. He’s Middle America’s worst nightmare, in other words, the sort of public figure who you’d expect to be crucified for jaywalking, let alone for the fact that a video exists which may or may not depict him pissing on an underage girl.

And yet, here he is again, barely three months after Hopper published a widely read and widely publicized multi-page feature setting out the “stomach-churning” accusations against him, the subject of mildly risqué articles with headlines like “R. Kelly Drops His White Panties,” wherein he blabs on about how White Panties will be “a whole other level” and how “he always follow[s] what my spirit tells me to do,” while pliable journalists make clucking noises about how his new tour will “bring his 1990s magic back.”

How does he keep getting away with it? Why is America so ready to forget? The answer, I fear, lies in something DeRogatis said to Hopper when she interviewed him: “Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are ‘bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,’ plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of.”

Kelly might be cynical, calculating, and terrifying, but he’s not stupid. He picked his targets well. He’s built a career on betting that the American public will forgive and forget, or pretend not to know — or, like DeRogatis suggests, that “some percentage of fans are liking Kelly’s music because they know… There is some sort of — and this is tied up to complicated questions of racism and sexism — there is some sort of vicarious thrill to seeing this guy play this character in these songs and knowing that it’s not just a character.”

He’s betting on the basest instincts of our society. And he’s winning. Again. How quickly we forget. Again. And again. And again.