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#RSFlashback: 25 Years Later, ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ Went From Classic To Canceled

The inspirational ballad from ‘Space Jam’ made a dent in pop culture

Amit Vaidya Dec 17, 2021
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A quarter century ago, a film starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny became a huge success at the box office. Seemingly even more iconic than the film Space Jam was its soundtrack that featured an inspirational ballad that would quickly make a dent in pop culture. Of course, we’re talking about “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly.

25 years ago this week, the single soared to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100. It would be unable to unseat Toni Braxton’s equally memorable ballad “Unbreak My Heart” from the top spot but it did manage to hit Number One on the R&B charts and also become a staple on Adult Contemporary radio. For Kelly, it became one of his biggest pop commercial successes and the single ended up being nominated for five Grammys that year including Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year and winning for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Song and Best Song Written For Visual Media.

After hitting gold writing and producing for Michael Jackson for his final Number One hit “You Are Not Alone” in 1995, Kelly followed a similar formula here, replacing that ballad’s love-themed lyrics with an inspirational tale of achievement and accomplishment. The gospel-tinged single widened Kelly’s audience beyond his usual R&B sphere and with a choir backing his emotional performance, the song became his signature hit.

Kelly struck gold again just a year later when working with Celine Dion for her holiday album These Are Special Times – with their duet “I’m Your Angel” spending six weeks at top of the Billboard Hot 100. Like the Space Jam hit, the song was lauded for its uplifting message and powerful vocals.

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Both songs became staples of pop cultures for many years that followed. “I Believe I Can Fly” has been covered and performed by seemingly every contestant on every singing competition show across the planet and “I’m Your Angel” became a mainstay especially around Christmas time each year.

Of course this was all until R. Kelly became a disgraced convicted musician. While YouTube removed all of Kelly’s channels after he was found guilty on all counts in a sex-trafficking trial, his music is still readily available on most streaming services. On average, the artist still racks up 4.5 million-plus monthly listeners on Spotify and his “I Believe I Can Fly,” while not part of any curated streaming playlist by the service, is available to listen to with a simple search. Radio has basically banned him and seldom if ever are any of his songs played in recurrence. Celine Dion went as far as to remove her Holiday staple from her album altogether.

While there is no doubt that Kelly’s personal conduct was reprehensible, “I Believe I Can Fly” became an anthem giving solace to so many around the world. The singer has been legitimately canceled, but should the song too? Some would say, absolutely – that you can’t support the song because the singer still financially profits from its continued availability. Others, however, recognize there is little for the artist to gain at this point, given that he already made the vast portion of his fortune off the song and his entire catalog before being convicted. I’d argue perhaps the latter likely bolstered his entitlement and feeling of invincibility.

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Regardless, it’s an interesting time in music history where we now flashback to artists and songs, moments of history are now featuring more and more asterisks. The legacy of artists and their music is being packaged not based on their talent but their character and/or their actions.

Are we willing to forego remembering our own history with a song to avoid feeling triggered in the present? I don’t think there is a right answer, but having said that, I also first go by how a song made me feel and if it meant something to me, I will listen to it again. Like many songs, some will resonate years later while others won’t – sometimes because I’ve changed, sometimes because I no longer like the song, and sometimes, I no longer like the artist. Should we prevent younger generations from accessing Kelly’s music and allowing them to be their own judges?

No matter what, “I Believe I Can Fly” will always be remembered as a massive single that meant an incredible amount to a great number of people – and that is something that can’t be erased.

*Please note: No link to Kelly’s music/video are being provided with this article.

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