Controversy has always followed American R&B superstar R Kelly and recent accusations that the singer is running an abusive sex cult involving young women has created heated debate amongst his fans and critics. The scandal has raised numerous questions. There have been accusations that R Kelly uses his charisma and superstardom to lure barely legal young women into what the media has labelled a “sex cult”. Are these accusations valid? Would we still count as responsible adult thinkers if we dismissed these allegations as absurdities that defy even the smallest hint of reasonable doubt?

When stories such as this break, avid fans are usually quick to go on the defensive. Hardcore supporters will cite everything from conspiracies by Uncle Sam seeking to destroy all things negritude to shaming the sources or victims cited in the exposé as vampires wo were simply seeking quick access to fame. The alleged perpetrator is viewed as the victim, and in the R&B crooner’s case, it is the young women involved who are seeking fame and fortune to the detriment of the beloved R in R&B (one of Kelly’s many monikers).

Whether you believe the story or not, it is shining a spotlight on a topic that has managed to evade scrutiny due to its normalisation as part of “the good life”. With fame comes money and girls, right? Who those girls are and how they got there is beside the point, right? Wrong!

Separating the artist from his art

For some people, it is completely possible to separate the artist from his art. The universal cliché that “boys will be boys” comes into full effect particularly when the integrity and judgement of male artists are called into question. As far as R Kelly’s followers are concerned, the groupie life is not without risk. Women and girls walk into such situations with their eyes wide open and intentions clear – or so the narrative goes. The lucky ones, as in the case of Kelly’s six women, are wooed with promises of mentorship and guidance on the road to success. They are pulled into a world beyond their wildest imaginings and anyone who dares dispute that is merely a hater of greatness – at least as far as the artist’s lawyers and hardcore fans are concerned.

As far as R Kelly’s followers are concerned, the groupie life is not without risk.

Consent versus soundness of mind

Are we open-minded enough to explore the possibility that Kelly’s women and others like them might be brainwashed? I, for one, fell hopelessly in love when I was 17. I convinced myself that the guy in question would be the father of my four sons (a girl can dream!). I was under a spell, hanging on to everything he said. I memorised his touch, his face, sense of style, walk, the whole nine. Thinking back to that phase of my life, I can relate to the intensity of what the six women in the R Kelly case are feeling. The difference is that my love interest did not come after me in a predatory mind-control manner. I was not uprooted from my life, education and family; I was merely a fixated teenager.

R. Kelly at Pre-Grammy Gala. Photo: Flickr/Lean-Op

Examples of brainwashing or mind-control techniques are abundant and easily accessible on the Internet and include but are not limited to:

– “Love bombing” – creating a sense of family through physical touch, thought and feeling sharing and emotional bonding.

–  Rejection of old values – accelerating acceptance of a new lifestyle by constantly denouncing former beliefs and values.

–  Removal of privacy – achieving loss of ability to evaluate logically by preventing private contemplation.

–  Disinhibition – encouraging child-like obedience by orchestrating child-like behaviour.

–  Uncompromising rules – inducing regression and disorientation by soliciting agreement to seemingly simple rules which regulate mealtimes, bathroom breaks and use of medications.

Read: Consent, Kissing and Groping in Nigeria’s Reality TV Show

–  Sleep deprivation and fatigue – creating disorientation and vulnerability by prolonging mental and physical activity and withholding adequate rest and sleep.

–  Dress codes – removing individuality by demanding conformity to the group dress code.

–  Financial commitment – achieving increased dependence on the group by ‘burning bridges’ to the past,

Finger pointing – creating a false sense of righteousness by pointing to the shortcomings of the outside world.

Isolation – inducing loss of reality by physical separation from family, friends, society and rational references.

No questions – accomplishing automatic acceptance of beliefs by discouraging questions.

Lesser evil

These may not seem so bad if you consider the alternative. South African musicians such as Arthur Mafokate and Tumisho Masha have recently been in the headlines for being abusive and physically confrontational with their partners. Sentiments such as #menaretrash stay on the lips of proponents (women and men) and further widen the divide between themselves and those who lean on the #notallmen side of the conversation. Then there are the pacifists who say that if women were docile and avoided provoking men, life would be sweet for all involved.

We formulate saint complexes about our celebrities.

What is clear, though, is that the lines blur when our idols are at fault. We weave justifications for them and demonise their victims by saying things like “They are after the money” or “They were chasing their five minutes of fame”. Victim blaming is defined as the practice of questioning victims on what they could have done differently in order to prevent a crime from happening. The implication of this practice is that it places the fault and guilt on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Victim blaming manifests in different forms, whether overt or covert.

Read: Too young to wed: The realities of child marriage in Africa

We formulate saint complexes about our celebrities because admitting that they may be what the news reports claim is admitting that we have been party to their audacious invincibility. Bill Cosby’s criminal sexual-assault charges are an interesting case in point: Fans are torn between defending the man and his artistry in the face of numerous cases of sexual violence. Cosby was a hero to many people and some fans still struggle to accept the possibility that their hero could indeed be fallible. Chris Brown is another interesting case worth discussing. Some of his fans are known for sanitising and apologising for Brown’s domestic abuse and his general “bad boy” behaviour.

We cannot bring ourselves to accept that our heroes are mortals who are corrupted by power, fame and fortune.

We cannot bring ourselves to accept that our heroes are mortals who are corrupted by power, fame and fortune. Our admiration and support gives them the balls to play God in the lives of those who are too vulnerable to stand up to them or resist them. We console ourselves by saying things like “innocent until proven guilty” or “the dude is a douche, but damn, he has a great voice”. We rob ourselves of the benefit of the doubt because “boys will be boys” and girls should simply know better.

It is difficult to defend the accomplishments of an artist while acknowledging the possibility of their fragility. Fans struggle with accepting the villain part of their perceived blameless hero/heroine. Perhaps it is time for all of us to remove artists from their pedestals and realise that they are fallible human beings too.