Worshipping huge pop idols as deeply as a religion is a culture I’m all too familiar with. As an awkward teenager in the early Nineties, I was a follower, led by wherever the cool clique of my generation would take me. R&B and hip hop weren’t just popular music genres – they shaped our identity, beyond just being British south Asian girls.
We were brash, inquisitive and, in hindsight, quite naive; young females catapulted into adult, fantasy worlds by two of music’s biggest stars, Michael Jackson and R Kelly.
Now we are faced with their unravelling. In the aftermath of two controversial documentary series, Surviving R Kelly and Leaving Neverland, we have been confronted by weighty allegations of sexual misconduct against both singers and by the social media frenzy of debate that followed.
In my role as UK editor for Brown Girl Magazine, a US-based publication producing content on the South Asian diaspora, I feel a duty to revisit the infamous history of two of my music icons. As a 40-year-old woman, I have tried to understand why I resisted the power of the mounting allegations; why I was so eager to defend these men against attacks from some of my friends and my family.
Michael Jackson was a key part of a lifelong, childhood friendship. Jackson’s persona was sheer magic – every song and music video he created was like an extended rollercoaster ride into paradise for us.
As naive 12-year-olds we would furiously try to justify to our parents why it was ok that a grown man like Jackson had young children as friends – we wanted to be his friends too! We wanted to be in that Black and White video! We wanted to be taken away from the realities of adolescence and experience the wonderful world of Neverland.
His indifference and apparent innocence was endearing to us. It seemed to validate his Peter Pan-like behaviour, to make up for his lost childhood. Through his songs of social change he was “Healing the World”, and by listening to these lyrics, I believed I was part of that movement.
As the abuse allegations began to surface, my instinct was the same that some still feel today. I would launch a powerful defence of Jackson based on an assumption that greed was driving the accusations. I refused to consider how children could have been “groomed” if their parents were willingly capitalising on the lavish lifestyle offered to them. I recalled how my own parents would diligently examine my friends’ backgrounds, and wondered: how would you NOT know what was happening to your child at all times?
Out-of-court settlements allowed people like my parents to confirm their belief in Jackson’s “silent guilt”, but I was unfazed and I imagine his defenders are feeling the same thing now. I went to watch him perform at Wembley in 1997, and it cemented my belief that his talent could outweigh any form of defamation. I left the concert with goosebumps – this man knew the extent of the power he had.
The same went for R Kelly. The absence of the internet in the Nineties didn’t stop brash teens like me from seeing questionable videos such as “Bump n’ Grind” – Kelly’s anthem from his debut album. His brand of sexual fantasies sprinkled with hip hop and R&B beats and his videos insinuating sexual behaviour were drip-fed to us through whichever channel we could find. His music fast-forwarded my curious mind into an adult world which was otherwise omitted from family discussions growing up.
The arrival of Aaliyah, Kelly’s then 15-year-old protege – who brought swag, style and substance with her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number – simply placed Kelly on a higher pedestal in the eyes of millions of female fans. He was 12 years her senior; his closeness to Aaliyah was scrutinised, and her songs fuelled rumours of their so-called affair. But while the media cried statutory rape, I shouted back, “but age ain’t nothing but a number!”
I found the music too precious. It provided a sense of belonging just as I was growing up and I was grateful to Jacko for being unapologetically different, and to Kelly for introducing me to sexual liberation. I didn’t want to hear anything else. The drumbeats of sustained and troubling accusations took so long to shatter that barrier because it had become such a powerful part of my story.
So I can understand why some people cling on – to their icons and to their past. I’m just grateful that I no longer do. I’m finally, and firmly, on the “mute R Kelly” bandwagon after the documentary shook me free. Leaving Neverland was always going to be a harder pill to swallow – but deep down in my gut, I knew that behind closed doors a darker parallel to my own happy story had been written.
Like many fans have done, I could have chosen to refuse to acknowledge the films, as a sign of solidarity perhaps. Thank goodness I didn’t.
I am now facing up to the hidden voices I dismissed, to the stories of abuse survivors, to the power of their words. I wonder if the lack of open discussion around grooming and sex clouded my judgement? Perhaps it clouds the judgement of fans who still won’t let go?
I am left with the troubling truth that I was one of the many thousands who refused to acknowledge victims of sexual abuse. I can only apologise, and hope others come to that conclusion too.
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