When I was in the sixth grade a boy—a friend—was encouraged by the other boys in our class to put his hand down my shirt. Due to early puberty, my breasts started growing in the third grade. By the time I entered sixth grade, I was wearing a C-cup bra, and deflecting the hands and comments of boys on a daily basis. I was used to it. These boys believed noticing my body was all the permission they needed to touch it. I physically fought back as often and as hard as I could, but it was exhausting. Up until the point that he held a fistful of my breast, this particular boy had always been kind and kept a respectful distance. Up until then, I’d thought he was nice. I’d even had a budding crush on him. Still, in that moment, I had to decide: tell on him, or let it go. I went home and asked my grandmother what I should do. She didn’t even hesitate before answering,
“They’re always looking for reasons to kick a black boy out of school. Don’t give them another one.”
I loved and trusted my late grandmother. I believed she was the person who was always looking out for me no matter what. Her answer crushed me. But I accepted it. I didn’t realise it at the time, but her response also planted a seed inside me. That seed was an idea that would grow and multiply in my heart and mind. The seed turned into a dark blossom that carried a singular message: there are some men who are more important than the protection of your body.
This idea, that some men should be given a pass for bad behaviour due to their contributions, or potential contributions to their community or industry, is what I see at the heart of this public controversy surrounding R Kelly. The R&B musician just came under fire after an article on BuzzFeed News alleged multiple women are being held captive by him. According to the report, the women’s families, many of whom met or spoke with Kelly, and all but offered their daughters up to him, are claiming these young women are displaying symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome from living under his immense influence. According to Kelly’s former assistant, Cheryl Mack, the women are required to address him as “Daddy”, and he refers to them as his babies. Per Mack, at times the women are only allowed to wear jogging suits, and are directed to face the walls when men other than Kelly are present. All of the women in the home are of legal age, but their parents continue to insist they are not of sound mind.
The report is shocking on its own and should ignite outrage over the way young women are treated at the hands of powerful men. But since the article dropped Monday morning, a number of people have taken time out of their lives to go online and defend R. Kelly against another round of what they consider targeted harassment. One woman tweeted, “These are allegations. They have not been proven victims. I will not throw black men under the bus when cops are killing them for fun daily.” Another person inferred that we should be grateful to R. Kelly as his music is the reason most of us were born. In both scenarios, the girls and women who have allegedly been harmed are considered nothing more than the collateral damage of a male genius.
On Facebook, a woman I know who got her graduate degree in order to work closely with college students stated that she “just feels like people love to pick on R. Kelly.” She said she’d only believe these allegations were true when R. Kelly admitted they were true. I know this woman works with dormitories full of young women who come to her for counsel when they find themselves in tough emotional situations. I am terrified for them.
Let’s make one thing clear: no one who has been paying attention over the last twenty years should be surprised to hear that R. Kelly is allegedly abusing young women in some form or another. There was his 1994 quickly annulled marriage to a then 15 year-old Aaliyah (he was 27 years old at the time), as well as alleged group sex with other minors; reports of sexual harassment where an intern complained of being a “personal sex object”; and, of course, the infamous reports of a tape he made with a minor in which he relieved himself on her body during a sex act. News of R. Kelly’s exploits are well known, and often mocked, in mainstream spaces. The specific details of this new report may be disgusting, but they aren’t shocking in the least. We’ve known who he is for some time now. The same is true for Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. The same has been true for countless famous men.
Over the years, as more and more information about R. Kelly’s history of abusing girls and young women is revealed, I find myself losing more and more hope. That’s not the work of a single man. I don’t know R. Kelly, and I have only ever liked his music on the margins of my life. He was never an artist I listened to often or alone. Still, his music was ever-present at family get-togethers, school dances, and when I went to college, at every single party white people threw. As news of his predilection for underage girls spread through our communities, the music never stopped. Not only was cancelling this artist not even considered, the choice not to do so was openly and vehemently defended. People might have dragged Lady Gaga for performing with him in 2013, but a lot more people continued to buy his music and tickets to his performances. Something is wrong with a person who believes that black girl’s bodies, their innocence, and their ability to own themselves apart from the hands and eyes of men is a fair trade for a slow jam. Some believed they could truly separate the “art from the artist.” Others denied anything had ever happened in the face of mountain after mountain of evidence to the contrary. Each denial and defence affirmed what I’d come to believe about black girls: we were disposable.
Listen, my grandmother loved me. But her beliefs about what my body should have to endure for the betterment of black folks as a whole, damaged me. Both of those statements are true. I often wonder how my life might be different, if it all, by her coming up to the school and demanding that this little boy apologise at the very least for violating my personal space. I wish I had been taken seriously by…anyone. I wish a different seed had been planted that day. Something dark and ferocious, and tied to the part of me that was rooted and assured of my worth. I wish the people who love R. Kelly’s songs would decide that in a world where Frankie Beverly made music, they can make do without him. More than anything, I wish my community stood behind black girls and young women as fiercely as they stand being black men and boys. I wish our bodies and minds meant more to Us. Then, maybe, we could plant a different kind of belief in black girls. Maybe we could watch them grow as strong and sure as intended.