On Thursday, January 3rd the 6 episode docu-series “Surviving R Kelly” aired on Lifetime, chronicling the embattled singer’s history of sexual abuse, particularly against underaged black girls. The day after, the internet is ablaze with disgust and shame toward the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R&B”, with declarations to never support or listen to Kelly’s music again.
What took so long?
I grew up listening to the over-sexualized lyrics by R Kelly at the height of his career. I’ve lived in Chicago – R. Kelly’s hometown where he reigns supreme – for 13 years now. I went to 5 weddings in the last year where the probability of hearing “Step in the Name of Love” at the wedding receptions was approximately 4 in 5. And let me tell you, when you hear that flute over those synthetic drums and R Kelly belts, “WOAHHHH, OHHH, OHH” you can’t help but feel a groove.
But not any more. For the last 3 years I’ve actively rejected, renounced, and resisted R Kelly, his music, and my urge to catch a groove. In my older age and heightened consciousness I can no longer just “separate the music from the artist” – especially when 90% of the artist’s music is about sex – likely with 14 year old girls in mind. And I’m glad the rest of pop culture is catching on too.
But what took us so long?
The writing has long been on the wall. Whether it’s his moniker as the “Pied Piper”, a mythical figure based on true events of a Piper seducing the children of Hamelin away from their homes with music (red flag!), or a 14 year old Aaliyah’s debut album “Age Aint Nothing But a Number” produced and written by R Kelly who would go on to unlawfully wed and perhaps impregnate the underage songstress – Robert showed us from the very beginning exactly who he is. We should have believed him the 1st time.
But we looked the other way. Even after seeing with our own two eyes (ya’ll saw the tape!), we continued to look the other way. dream hampton, executive producer of “Surviving R Kelly” explains it this way: “What happened after this tape came out of him abusing this child was that he then dropped the best album of his career, Chocolate Factory.” The music to our ears betrayed our own eyes. But it’s not just Kelly’s musical genius that has rendered us complicit in his abuse, it’s also who he has historically abused.
In 1962 Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected woman in America, is the black woman. The most un-protected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the black woman.” He was right then, and would be right over 55 years later. In 2017 an estimated 75,000 black women and girls were missing in the United States with cities like Washington DC and Chicago as ground zero.
If 75,000 white women and girls were missing in the United States the federal government would declare a state of emergency and the media would dedicate uninterrupted coverage to finding each and every one of them. In fact, the late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill coined the phrase “missing white woman syndrome” referring to the mainstream media’s seeming fascination with covering missing or endangered white women — like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway — and its seeming disinterest in cases involving missing people of color, many of which have been trafficked into an intricate network of sexual abuse.
Likewise if R Kelly’s victims had been white girls he’d have been locked under the jail 15 years ago. R Kelly’s predatory actions against black girls and our inaction to protect them are simply symptoms of a larger cancer of the devaluation of the black woman. Kelly’s behavior is not isolated, and you only have to open up your browser or social media app to see so.
2 years ago I came across a social media thread where a black woman asked the question: “if you’re a black girl, how old were you when you were first hit on by a grown ass man?” The responses were so disturbing I cataloged some of them for such a discussion as this. Here are just a few that spanned the age spectrum:
“8yrs old. City pool lifeguard used to make me get out of the pool for ‘punishment’ for a nonexistent breach and then he’d have loud discussions about my body with the other men and boys in the pool.
“9yrs old. Out- of-towner stayed at our house while he participated in a community service project. Told me he wished I could fast forward to adulthood so he could marry me. Would whisper that I was his girlfriend every time we were alone. 10. Constant, and from all sides. Went through serious body dissociation because I thought that it was to blame for the constant danger.”
“10, and I was with my mother at the time. We were walking somewhere, and stopped in front of this house to talk to some ladies she went to school with. This dude who was there started saying some real crazy stuff to me with my mother right there, but she didn’t hear him. I was so disgusted, and can remember every detail til this day.”
“By 12 I was for sure being hit on as I had a C cup. And when I didn’t know how to deal with GROWN men and would simply say things like, I’m 12 I can’t give you my number, I remember being called out of my name on many occasions and told that I was lying about my age. It was a lot to handle as a CHILD. ‘Bitch’ became so commonplace for me to hear when men were rejected by me. Crazy.”
“13 or 14. My bike had a flat tire so i was walking to the convenience store to pump it with air. Scary old white guy in a cement truck thought it was a good idea to drive up to me and tell me I looked good and then laugh like a maniac. I ran as fast as I could.”
“14. I’d convinced my father to buy me a two piece I know my mother would have rejected. It was a sports bra top with a sheer panel in the middle and the word Everlast in white embroidery. I was stick skinny but always had a rack and have been my height since 7th or 8th grade. Daddy, my brothers and I were at a hotel pool. Daddy called me out of the pool to introduce me to some Judge and I didn’t have time to grab a towel. Dude stared straight at the sheer panel mashing my tits together while I fidgeted under his gaze. My brothers could see my discomfort, jumped out of the pool, brought me a towel, and stood there for the rest of the time we had to make pleasantries with the letch.”
“16. And he had his kids in the car with him. Smh.”
Just 2 episodes into “Surviving R Kelly” and it’s clear that a lot of adults aided and abetted in R Kelly’s abuse of underage black girls, including us. It’s also evident that R Kelly is himself the product of a vicious cycle of abuse and we need to have a more nuanced discussion about the sexual abuse of black boys. The #meToo movement has heightened our consciousness around sexual harassment, rape, and related abuse, and has certainly encouraged subsequent movements like #muteRKelly. However like many mainstream movements, the experiences of a few are elevated while less famous, less white, and less wealthy individuals are unintentionally left out of the discussion.
Black girls in our own families, our own churches, and our own neighborhoods are experiencing sexual abuse at every stage of their development, and majority of them won’t get a 6 episode docu-series to expose their abusers and convict us to act (change). We have to make a conscious decision as a community to reject, renounce, and resist the urge to be seduced by the music of our abusers, lest we lose ourselves and our futures.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken (wo)men.” – Frederick Douglass