When It Hits The Fan, Should We Still Be Fans?
As Afrika Bambaataa and Bill Cosby face allegations of sexual abuse, we ask should a celebrity’s beautiful legacy be cast aside after being tied to egregious crimes?
*DISCLAIMER: THE WELL-DRESSED HEADPHONE ADDICT IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM, CONDONES SEXUAL ABUSE OF ANY SORT.*
Before 2015, when someone said the name Bill Cosby, people would think of a prolific comedian and a dedicated philanthropist. Today, after over a year of allegations of drugging and sexually assaulting no less than 50 women over decades, his name evokes the thoughts of a rapist and a monster to many. More than three weeks ago, Afrika Bambaataa was a revered pillar of American hip-hop community. But now, when Bronx politician Ronald Savage claimed the musician sexually abused him in the 1980s as a teenager, all that began to change as well. Last week, three more men have come forward with the same claim, and while Bambaataa has stated the allegations are “baseless and cowardly,” his legacy may soon suffer the same explosion that Cosby’s has. It remains to be seen whether or not the courts will prove that either Cosby or Bambaataa are guilty of these crimes, but in the court of public opinion has already convicted them, serving as judge, jury and executioner. We live in a country with a criminal justice edict that reads “innocence until proven guilty.” Why is it that outside of courthouse walls, it has been the opposite? Moreover, should all that these men done to uplift Black culture over the years be omitted in light of this accusations?
Two things must be examined here. First, there’s the issue of a man being convicted by the court of public opinion regardless of the outcome in a court of law. For additional context, let’s go back to two other prominent occurrences. Two decades ago, both R. Kelly and Michael Jackson were accused of similar charges. Kelly’s reputation was originally marred when news got out that he’d married former protege Aaliyah at age 15 (he was 27 at the time). He has put out one chart topping album after another and it was all but forgotten, until allegations of statutory rape came after a sex tape allegedly of him and another underage girl surfaced in 2000. Jackson was accused of child molestation in 1993 and the public immediately turned on him. Both R. Kelly and Michael Jackson were exonerated of their respective charges. However, the stench of allegations is so potent that neither of them has been able to remove them completely. This ideal is intensified with Cosby’s and Bambaataa’s cases. Regardless of what any of us may believe, it is dangerous to target and see people as guilty, particularly from afar, before a judge has said anything. We are in a time when circumstances, hearsay and volume superseded evidence, and that’s a slippery slope.
Perhap it’s because the act of sexual abuse is so heinous. Fact about it, the public has often forgiven other prominent celebrities of brutal crimes. It’s been well documented that both Miles Davis and Richard Pryor were drug addicts and spousal abusers. However, history has been far kinder to them and their legacies than that of Bambaataa, Cosby, Kelly and Jackson. Is one crime worse than another? And is it fair why should we castigate people who aren’t found guilty in court while we lift up those are factually guilty?
More importantly, should we erase all the good that a person has done in light of bad things they “most likely” did – it cannot be overstated that these men were not convicted, or have yet to be. But let’s just say for the sake of the discourse that each is actually guilty. Let’s consider what each has contributed to the enrichment of Black culture:
Cosby’s revolutionized stand-up comedy; used the television platform via The Cosby Show and A Different World to promote Black familial assimilation and aspiration, and advocate for historically black colleges and universities respectively. Bambaataa, a reformed gang member, founded the Zulu Nation, deterring Black youth from street violence to more constructive and creative outlets; his 1982 hit “Planet Rock” caused a dramatic shift in the international musical direction of rap music. Jackson broke music and television color barriers, influenced multiple generations of pop and R&B stars to this day, completely revolutionized profitability and marketability of the modern recording artists, and is the most charitable celebrity in history, donating over $250 million dollars to charity in his lifetime. Kelly drastically inspired two generations of R&B singers and songwriters and created a new sound in contemporary Black music at the turn of the 21st century. All of these are feats that have provide Black men and women for over 60 years of being uplifted, enlightening and enriched.
Now, let’s look at what’s happened after each was accused:
Cosby’s legacy has been tarnished, arguably, beyond repair. Numerous colleges rescinded all his honorary doctorates, The Cosby Show was removed from syndication, and a man who made a fortune making people laugh is now the butt of every joke and meme. Jackson has labeled a child molester nearly everywhere he went, losing endorsements, investments and public approval. Kelly shares the same stigma of sexual deviancy, as he’s grilled in interviews with Huffington Post and GQ about his perceived preoccupation with sex in his work. As far as Bambaataa, according to the New York Daily News, Cornell University, where Bambaataa frequently lectures, is under scrutiny for housing his music collection and a Charge.org petition to remove him has been started.
Are we able to condemn the acts of evil while still commending all the good they did? In our society, it seems to be Black or White; either/or. There’s a possibility that some of us conclude that by watching The Cosby Show, singing along to “I Believe I Can Fly,” dancing to “Planet Rock” at a party or watching Jackson moonwalk during “Billie Jean” that we support and advocate rape, deviance and violence.
There is also the notion the public feels a deep sense of betrayal. When preachers are caught cheating, abusing young boys or stealing money, their flocks’ sense of trust, love and loyalty to men has been compromised, as these men are held in higher standards than others. We hold our entertainers more sacredly than politicians and dignitaries. We quote singers, rappers and comedians like scriptures and fables. Therefore, when they can’t live up to a standard or they are tied to – not even necessarily guilty of – an unforgivable crime, i.e. sexual assault, we tend to cast them to the wind and leave them behind for the most part. Well, it’s not quite that simple. We benefit from the good they’ve done whether we want to or not, because we’ve applied their essence to our lives subliminally every day, but it doesn’t make us rapist sympathizers. At the end of the day, none of us are perfect, and the faster we realize that people who are gifted at entertaining and educating us are any less flawed that those who watch, listen or subscribe to them. Acts should be praised before people. Acts should be judged before people.