With the recent and old allegations against R Kelly front and center in 2019, for me, song lyrics are taking on new meaning. So just like the TruTV show Adam Ruins Everything “turns life as we know it on its ear by showing us how horrible […] things really are,” this post does the same via R Kelly.
Let me begin with a reminder of the rules regarding sex. (Big thanks to the 1989 feminist Lois Pineau for making the rules simple and equal!) RULE #1: No means NO. To be more explicit: no consent to put body part X into body part Y means NO. RULE #2: Under-age means NO (because a child cannot legally consent to anything).
With the rules made clear, I offer you a few songs. It’s no 12-Play; in fact, there are no R Kelly songs on the list, at all. Instead, this is a fourteen track playlist of popular genre classics that we may consider muting from here on out because they incidentally normalize sexual violence against girls and women. Let me also state that I am not making any allegations against the singers or writers of these songs. What I am doing is saying that my awareness of R Kelly’s alleged sexual deviance has ruined these songs for me. I will point out, too, that some of these songs were questionably rapey/ pervy long before rumors about the Pied Piper of R&B began to surface.
For your listening discomfort I created a Spotify playlist. Some of the songs are reggae and dancehall classics; some are American pop or party essentials; and others are R&B slow jams. What each of the 14 tracks have in common are lyrics that we love to sing but might consider muting in 2019. I’ll lead you through how the first seven songs have been ruined, then you can make sense of the rest. Ready? Let’s begin.
Track 1 – General Echo’s essential reggae classic on the Stalag Riddim, “Arleen” (1980), is problematic even for this early king of slackness. Dear Lord, why is this song so aware of the age of consent? Lyrics in question: “Under 17 or you’re over 16, I beg you rock and come in.”
Track 2 – A big reggae classic by the voice of lovers rock is “Tempted to Touch” (1990) by Beres Hammond, but I’m calling FOUL! Why does this song talk about being tempted by a “little girl”? Lyrics in question: “Hey little girl each time you pass my way I’m tempted to touch. The dress you wear, your perfume, keep me wanting you so much.”
Track 3 – This 1992 Buju Banton dancehall hit, “Have to Get You Tonight,” was understood previously as a persistent man’s anthem. But today, can we just admit that this song signals DATE RAPE? No sir, you cannot have my body, not even “by gun fight” or other intimidation. Lyrics in question: ALL OF THEM!
“Gal me serious mi haffi get yuh tonight,
Haffi get yuh body even by gun fight,
Gal mi serious mi haffi get yuh tonight
Haffi get yuh, hear why
Yuh walk right, talk right nuh bother mention polite,
Woman yuh like roses inna mi eye sight
Charisma and charm gal yuh character warm,
Prettiest gal mi ever see from mi born,
What’s di matter what ah gwan, tell me what’s up,
I ah look yuh from dem say Whoppi did kill Phillip,
But true things never right yuh nuh want hug mi up,
Ah walk and ah model and yuh chest yuh push up,
But mi haffi get yuh body even by stick up,
Cause I came and I saw and I bound to conquer
Run weh di lickle man offa’ di verandah,
Cause yuh a my girl from birth him ah trespasser,
Tell him fi get none, cause di Banton deyah,
Mi ah look yuh from mi 18 sumting and now is 19 sumting,
And if di Banton don’t get yuh inna him arms,
Woman ah big big sinting,
Mi say mi serious I’m not joking,
Look at mi teeth dem if dem ah grin,
Gal yuh will never get to heaven if yuh break my heart
And that’s a big big sin”
Track 4 – The classic pop tune by Billy Ocean “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car” (1986) is just aggressive. Imagine the driver of a windowless van yelling these opening lyrics at you. Not sexy, mister. Not at all. But very stalker/ rapey. Lyrics in question: “HEY YOU! GET INTO MY CAR! (Who me?) YEAH, YOU!”
Track 5 – This slow jam by Maxwell, “Til the Cops Come Knockin” (1996) may be deleted from all the baby-making playlists. We all watched “Surviving R Kelly” and we all heard Asante McGee explain the Black Room. No thank you, sir. Please do not lock me up for days until the cops come knocking. Lyrics in question:
“Gonna take you in the room, sugar
Lock you up and love for days
We gonna be rockin baby
Till the cops come knockin
Pappa gonna have to leave
A message on the telephone baby
There won’t be no stoppin’ me
Till the cops come knockin'”
Track 6 – Beres Hammond’s music returns to the list with “Can’t Stop a Man” (1996). This song seems to blame the “little girl” for the man’s ogling and persistence. The song says that there is nothing a girl or woman can do to stop a man from trying, but self-defense instructors would argue otherwise. Lyrics in question: TOO MANY!
“[Hook] What can you do to stop a man from trying?
I said I wanna know now
Nothing you can do to stop a man from trying
I wanna know, yes, I wanna know now
What can you do to stop a man from trying?
I wanna know, said, I wanna know now
Nothing you can do to stop a man from trying
Not with that big broad smile and that sexy dress you wear
It’s totally impossible for a man with eyes not to stare
There is no reason to be so uptight
Now when you got everything alright
By now you should know you’re every man’s fantasy
Hey girl, check out your style, brothers going wild
It’s hard to keep control when your right there on that throne
So little girl don’t cramp my style
Wave your hand, give me a smile
‘Cause after all, I’m one of your fans, yeah”
Track 7 – Inner Circle’s “Sweat” (1993) always made me uncomfortable. According to the lyrics, a man sees a strange woman that he finds attractive. He is nervous but decides to approach her by telling her that he wants to make her sweat and cry as he pushes “it.” These lyrics are terrifying. Lyrics in question: the entire hook!
“Girl, I want to make you sweat, sweat till you can’t sweat no more
And if you cry out, I’m gonna push it some more
Girl, I want to make you sweat, sweat till you can’t sweat no more
And if you cry out, I’m gonna push it, push it, push it some more
There are readers who will say that these are just song lyrics, just words. That’s true. But words like “rape” matter. And words like “no” should have the power to stop unwanted actions. Listen to the rest of the playlist and listen for the references to “teenage” girls. Listen for the aggressive demands. Listen for references to women as “young things.” Listen to lyrics that suggest date rape drinking. Listen for consent and be met with silence. And after you listen to the playlist, decide which words you’ll repeat in 2019 and which words you’ll mute in 2019. The saying goes that once you know, you cannot un-know. Maybe you won’t be able to un-know the allegations that have been made against men like R&B singer Robert Kelly and Pastor Rupert Clarke in Jamaica. Maybe you won’t be able to un-know or un-hear these lyrics.
This 2019 #SurvivingRKelly moment that is directly a part of both the #MuteRKelly and #BlackGirlsLivesMatter spotlight on injustices against Black girls and women, is also a part of the broader #MeToo, #EnoughIsEnough, and #TimesUp movements. These movements don’t just raise awareness of these specific stories, they ought to make us all acutely aware of how we are often blind to the evidence of victimization and deaf to abusive language. Here too in Jamaica, with the #TambourineArmy and in the Caribbean with #LifeinLeggings, women and girls have raised their voices to speak out against sexual abuse.
When you listen to the lyrics of these selected songs, stop to consider exactly what messages you’re supporting when you nod along. R Kelly’s alleged actions may have ruined these songs for me, but that’s not such a bad thing. If I don’t support rape and if I don’t support pedophilia, why should I ever again sing out words that suggest otherwise?
* I’m sure R Kelly has ruined many more songs than these 14. Leave me a comment with song titles that you would like to add to this playlist.
** Also, let me add that I don’t think any of these songs should be banned. Let’s use them to open up conversations about rape culture and consent.
This is great. Aaron Hall (from the group Guy which makes my age show) had “Don’t be afraid” that we knew in high school was “rapey” but we still sang along. This is how the normalization of consent NOT mattering or even existing becomes a thing. And the normalization of the “she’s fast” way of thinking which promotes victim blaming creates a society that doesn’t even have space for a girl or woman to report situations that, at the very least, made her feel uncomfortable and at the very worst, violated her body. I would even say that nothing is ruined by paying attention to how this messaging has happened, because that feeling like we are “losing” something (a song, a fun memory associated with a time when that song was playing) is why none of these violent and inappropriate lyrics have stopped being a thing. Parties are still fun with a million songs that don’t trojan horse the idea that sexual encounters are only for men to decide and that girls and women are just being coy lolitas (Lolita reference on purpose because Nabokov’s book is the cringiest) when they say no. Our selfish hold on out memories seems to make us not want to do better for someone else’s benefit. That being said, after years and years and having all kinds of terrible messaging through songs as the soundtrack to my life, the other day “boom bye bye” came on and I cringed, stopped, got my phone out and blocked that song from my Spotify. I was embarassed it took this long for me to reject that sentiment which I was passively supporting by streaming but I’ve done it and will continue to do it with songs that promote homophobia and rape. It’s the least we can do for ourselves and certainly for children that haven’t even gotten old enough to articulate what they may be experiencing but can tell that something ain’t right.
“Passively supporting” the normalization of abusive behaviors and abusive language has to end. Thank you for your generous reply. I do believe that the songs on the playlist (and do note that I will certainly add yours and other’s suggestions to build this important cultural archive!) is creating a useful platform from which we can all have converstions about consent… Hopefully these kinds of conversations can work to prevent rapists from becoming rapists.
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Thanks for this list and explanation. I hope that it stimulates a discussion especially among the intellectual dance hall fan who have been rationalizing these pathological trends in popular culture. These lyrics have been shaping the minds of our young, especially those who are not from homes that provide counter arguments.
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Let the discussions begin! I’m particularly struck by the reggae and dancehall common ground. The attention paid to “little girls” is a concerning reflection of what happens in tje day to day. General Echo is a given. He was a slack star. But Beres’ lyrics ain’t much better!
You are wrong about the Buju song. He was saying that he would even fight others, even by the gun, in an effort to “get” the ladies body, (be the romantic victor). Just like he said in his song, he would climb a macka tree naked (a pickle bush with no clothes on).
It was a way of expressing how he would put himself through to make sure that this beautiful body ‘belonged’ to him, in a romantic way. In no way was he saying that he would take the body from the woman.
I appreciate your comment. Many thanks!
Let’s say that the lyrics are to be understood the way you outlined. The language that the song uses to express interest is still problematic.
The lyrics don’t take no for an answer. The woman is NOT interested in the man: “But true things never right yuh nuh want hug mi up, Ah walk and ah model and yuh chest yuh push up.” But he is determined and, as you say, will risk gun fight to still take her as his possession: “mi haffi get yuh body even by stick up” and “Cause I came and I saw and I bound to conquer.” The language is the problem. The male sees her rejection, but interprets that as try harder to get what he wants, try harder to “conquer”. You see what I’m saying?
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The language of the songs on this list is the basic reason why conversations about consent must be had. Through the patriarchy ALL of us have internalized misogyny as normal. We have spent our entire lives digesting the storyline that a girl/woman’s “No” means “Try harder” and that internalization makes it so things like the entire genre of romantic comedy films exist lol Our patriarchal society means that all, even well-meaning smart men and women, reward boys/men that ignore “No”, that interpret “No” as “do more” and completely reject the possibility that “No” and disinterest actualy are exactly what they are point blank period. Dig through allllllll the media that you consume and you’ll find this language and theme because female autonomy is viewed as nothing more than a challenge to overcome when looking at it through the lense of patriarchy and misogyny🤷🏾♀️
And I certainly don’t want tables to turn ans for men to experience being catcalled or followed down a street or touched inappropriately on public transport… I just would like “No” to be accepted as “No”.
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I agree. And I appreciate what you have pointed out regarding romantic comedies. Until we change the thinking and stop downplaying aggression as persistence, NO will continue to be a word that is open to interpretation.