Marvin Sapp, R. Kelly, and the Church’s (Significant) Role in addressing Toxic Masculinity
By Jenn M. Jackson, Guest Editor
There have always been questions about the role of the church in addressing political and social issues facing Black communities. What should never be a question, though, is whether or not the church should work toward ensuring the safety and security of all those who call themselves Christians. Yet, a recent move by award-winning gospel singer Marvin Sapp highlights the far too common contradictions of faith at the intersection of church and masculinity, contradictions that frequently leave women exposed to sexual and emotional violence.
In September, news broke that Sapp, probably best known for his 2007 gospel ballad “Never Would Have Made It,” was teaming up with R. Kelly on a song called “Listen.” Kelly, the singer, and producer who “married” singer Aaliyah when she was only 15 years old, has been fighting dozens of rape allegations for nearly two decades. Even in recent months, reports have emerged from young women who have first-hand experience with the predatory, sexual violence for which Kelly has become known. Nonetheless, Sapp is pushing forward with their song.
Rather than taking this moment to reflect on the ways his highly visible recording choices support efforts to sanitize Kelly’s record and put money in the pockets of a known abuser, Sapp has remained steadfast in his decision. In response to public concerns about his professional involvement with Kelly, Sapp told BILLBOARD, “The album was completely done. My attorney, myself, and the record company did talk about possibly pulling it. Then I prayed about it. I later told the label that I’m crazy enough to believe that the message is always bigger than the messenger. I’m singing a song specifically designed to motivate, encourage and challenge people to listen to and for the voice of God.” Essentially, Sapp is suggesting that listeners and fans simply ignore the “messenger” and focus on the “message” behind the song. What if, however, the messenger is currently engaging in sexual violence against women? How then do we simply focus on “the message?”
That idea is cute but unrealistic. Asking consumers for a musical product to simply pretend as if a known predator isn’t involved in its creation belies the very point of listening to gospel music. For at least half those listeners (those who are women), Sapp’s choice to publish this song is fundamentally asking them to abandon the peace and spiritual freedom many seek when cueing up their favorite gospel songs. This request, it seems, has been leveled just so that Sapp can glorify the work of a man who unapologetically abuses women.
In this way, the “message” isn’t just about the practice of religion and closeness with God. It is also necessarily about excusing toxic men from the harms they inflict on women.
Who does “the message” serve when the messenger is this vile? At some point, spiritual leaders and representatives like Sapp will have to come to terms with the fact that their promotion of rapists and other abusers like R. Kelly is just complicity. It signals to other men that abusing women is okay especially if they have a “message” from God to deliver. It also justifies a range of injustices against women in the Christian faith who too frequently find themselves being sacrificed for the sake of a patriarchal performance of religion.