Update: From January 3 to January 6, Lifetime aired a documentary called Surviving R. Kelly, which catapulted the controversial rapper and all the troubling allegations against him back into the spotlight. The following story was originally published July 26, 2018.
On Monday, R. Kelly released a 19-minute song. Let the absurdity of that sink in. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised as this is the same man who dragged his R&B opera, “Trapped in the Closet,” out for three parts, 33 “chapters,” and a total of 7 years. But in 2018, 19 minutes of anything from the R&B crooner is overkill; especially when it’s a defensive musical response to the minimal consequences he’s had to face in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual abuse made against him.
In “I Admit,” he thumbs his nose at his accusers, their parents, the people who believe them, the journalist who has covered their stories — including a 2017 Buzzfeed article that detailed the harsh conditions of a “sex cult” that Kelly has allegedly subjected multiple women to — and the people who have organized to have his huge platform dismantled. He called allegations that he was running a cult “silly,” while admitting to liking women who are both young and old. In truth, it was a laughably pathetic attempt to pander to his remaining audience and generate some buzz with an over-the-top stunt.
This even though the public record of his predatory behavior towards women, specifically young Black women, spans decades and is substantial enough that if it were up to me, he would spend the rest of his days in jail. But I also recognize R. Kelly as a symptom of larger cultural web that works against Black women and girls, making them susceptible prey to men like him. It’s important to spend just as much time calling out the culture that lets these men roam free as it is to call out his actions.
“[Black communities] are often reactionary in how we deal with things because we know that we're being looked at under a microscope,” says Oronike Odeleye, the founder of Mute R. Kelly, an organization that’s been sending petitions to radio stations to stop playing his music and protesting outside of concert venues since the Buzzfeed article was published in July 2017. In the beginning, though, what was most frustrating to Odeleye and her partner, Kenyette Barnes, an activist and survivor of child pornography, was the Black women in their lives who failed to come along. “We don't want to air our dirty laundry to the greater society that already demonizes and pathologizes us and our experiences. I didn’t know how deep the rabbit hole went.” All of this happened three months before the MeToo movement took off. That it took the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of a mostly white-woman led movement to create a real reckoning on sexual assault is indicative of the larger problem about how Black women's experienced are ignored. It doesn't help that Black women were also ignoring the attempts to solve this by other Black women.
Unfortunately, I’ve always known exactly how deep this runs. I went to the same Chicago high school as R. Kelly, real name Robert Sylvester Kelly. In 2001, I was one of the 7th graders freshly admitted into the Kenwood Academy Academic Center, a program that integrated advanced 7th and 8th grade students into the high school student body. One of the “cool” things my friends and I were told by older students to look forward to was surprise visits from one of the school’s most famous alumni: Kelly himself. When I finally witnessed one of these visits, I realized that they didn’t happen in any official capacity. It was just Kelly, in a fancy car, parked outside of the school during one of our off-campus lunch periods. It wasn’t until later, when I heard rumors about which girls at our school gave him their phone number, that I would understand why.
At the time, it didn’t alarm my friends and me that R. Kelly — who was in his mid-thirties at the time — was potentially cruising my high school for girls. The reality that grown men were interested in us as pre-teen and teenaged girls materialized over and over again. Men would catcall us out of car windows as we waited at the bus stop, heading to and from school. On our blocks, local corner boys whose school days were long behind them voiced their desires — sometimes in hushed tones and other times where anyone could hear. The gaze of some of our relatives’ older friends would linger a little too long as we moved about our own homes. Compared to these experiences, the idea of a celebrity showing us that same attention was actually exciting. But it’s all fun and games for a young girl to crush an adult star until he’s parked outside of her school ready to take advantage of her admiration.
Receiving attention from men wasn’t framed as an imminent danger — at least not for many of my friends and me growing up. Instead, it felt like a challenge; a live test of our own adherence to the subtle but strict rules of being the “right” kind of Black girl, one who denies every aspect of her sexuality. We should hide it. We shouldn't explore it. We shouldn't be talking about it. We shouldn't be thinking about it. And we shouldn't be susceptible to sexual advances by anybody, let alone older people, are lessons that are drilled into the Black girls, according to Odeleye. She’s right. I grew up with an acute awareness that when it came to engaging with boys and men of all ages, I should just know better. Finding myself in any sexual situation — with or without my consent, with people of any age or gender — always felt like a failure on my part; the result of some moral misstep that lead me away from the promises of respectability. Even as my friends and I buzzed with the thrill of sexual exploration in our teens, it was shrouded in shame, making it sometimes difficult to even discern when we were in the grasp of sexual predators. Odeleye summed it up perfectly: “We want to make girls to blame for all of the things that happen to them, especially when it comes to sex.”
Parallel to that constant suppression of Black women’s sexuality is the fucked up insistence that Black men are simply more important within our communities. From Chris Brown to XXXtentacion, Black men who are talented are given a pass on their mistreatment of Black women.
It’s a harmful practice that Odeleye condemns but understands. “These people are the soundtrack of our life… so we attach value to [them],” she explained. As a child, the only television that she was allowed to watch during the week was The Cosby Show and A Different World. It was extremely hard for her to divest from Bill Cosby after dozens of women accused him of drugging and raping them. Critics of both Cosby and Kelly have been made to feel guilty about tarnishing “great” Black legacies, as if advancements in television and music are more pressing than the well-being of actual humans. Over and over again, Black women rally around Black men who are harmful to us for the sake of racial solidarity. It was a button that Kelly knew to press in “I Admit” when he called for women to “show Black men some love” because they “go through enough.”
Kelly has been taking advantage of cultural codes that were designed to keep the victims of his alleged crimes silent. He is what happens when Black girls are ignored, repressed, and set aside. In upholding these values, we helped him take advantage of too many girls and women. “We've all seen it, we got videotape,” Odeleye seethed. “Twenty-five years of what's going on in the Black community, and no one gives a shit. Here's a high profile example of nobody giving a shit [about] what happens to Black girls.”
Now, thanks to the Women of Color committee within the Time’s Up campaign, which in April 2018 released a statement encouraging followers to tweet the hashtag #MuteRKelly, everyone else is finally paying attention, including Kelly himself. One of Kelly’s declarations on “I Admit” was that “only god can mute [him].” This was a direct acknowledgement of the organization that Odeleye helped found; one that has been actively working to get his concerts cancelled and his music pulled from radio and streaming platforms. But rather than feel disheartened by the dis, Odeleye felt validated. “He's got to admit that he's broke and he's on the road [touring] because he needs to pay his bills. He mentions the fact that we're cancelling his concerts. He mentions the press that's going on about it.” In other words, Mute R. Kelly is working, slowly but surely. And it’s good thing, because once they’re done with him, there is a hell of a lot of work to still be done.
R29 Unbothered presents Trap Glazed — a bi-weekly column where Senior Entertainment Writer Sesali Bowen looks deeper at what’s happening in Black pop culture.