Last week’s premiere of the Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” brought back memories of the shameful ways in which our culture failed R. Kelly’s victims and how, by failing to hold him accountable, the black community continues to betray the victims of his manipulation to this day.
Despite the online media outrage against R. Kelly as the docuseries premiered, per The Blast, his Spotify music streams skyrocketed. One cannot simply separate the music from the musician, especially when the music reflects his heinous actions. R. Kelly has used his music to lure black teenage girls with empty promises of future stardom. He has used his platform as an entertainer to force young girls into countless horrors. Had they occurred in any other country, Americans would deem such behavior barbaric. Had Kelly targeted any other race, national media would cry foul.
Robert Sylvester Kelly, otherwise known as R. Kelly, is an American monster. In his late twenties, his predatory behavior was first brought to light when he illegally married then-15-year-old singer Aaliyah and ordered his tour manager to forge documents saying she was 18. After achieving initial fame, he was known to hang around high schools, where he would pick up students and take them to his studio for sex.
Then, in 2002, at the height of his career, he filmed himself having sexual relations with a 14-year-old — the niece of R&B singer Sparkle, with whom he often collaborated. Footage captured him peeing in the young girl’s mouth, yet he was acquitted of all charges. As a result of the verdict, those who denied he was a predator felt their beliefs were justified. His followers perpetuated the idea that his accusers were liars. And yet Kelly had the freedom to prowl once again.
Perhaps the jury could not fathom that R. Kelly — an artist who had come to define the black musical lexicon — could be a serial abuser. Or perhaps they didn’t care. Regardless, the impact of his acquittal was immediate. His musical talents triumphed his heinous acts and made him untouchable in the real world — the world where ‘Step in the Name of Love’ is played at every black family gathering and the songs he wrote for Michael Jackson have come to define his legacy. His fans’ unwavering support allows him to keep using social leverage to lure in girls as they provide economic support for him to sustain his predatory behavior. In 2017, Buzzfeed News revealed that R. Kelly has been housing teenage girls in his homes across the country, in what its survivors have described as a sex cult.
It is imperative that society does their part in demanding justice, so serial abusers are not allowed to strike again. “Surviving R. Kelly” spoke not only of the horrible actions of the singer but also the epidemic he represents.
However, R. Kelly’s freedom is not only due to his successful music career. He represents a larger issue regarding young black females in America — nobody believes them and nobody cares when they are left to suffer.
Since the years of slavery, young black girls have been regarded as more sexual than their white peers. The Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown Law School published a report titled, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erase of Black Girls’ Childhood,” which stated that enslaved black children as young as two were often put to work and were severely punished for exhibiting childlike behavior. The paradigms of black femininity, which originated during this time, are still present in modern day society — that black women are aggressive, sexualized beings who exploit men.
Last year, writer Adrienne Green wrote an essay in The Atlantic titled “How Black Girls Aren’t Presumed to Be Innocent,” in which a study proves that because adults in modern society view black children as less child-like, they thus see them as needing less protection. These harmful stereotypes have allowed for millions of young black girls to become victims of those who take advantage of a knowingly blind-eyed society. Predators use the harmful, false perception regarding the sexualization of Black children as an excuse to abuse them, while others shame the children after the abuse has occurred. The dismissal of predators such as R. Kelly not only shows young Black women that the world does not hear their pain or recognize their suffering — it also shows that the world simply does not care.
The sheer volume of victim blaming that has arisen from the conversations surrounding R. Kelly illustrates how far the Black community must come in its understanding of sexual assault. Accountability must be shifted away from the abused and onto the abuser. Constant dismissal makes the black community complicit in creating harmful environments and causes people to stay silent about their trauma. The Lifetime documentary turned a new page, fostering conversations that many were afraid of having.
The calls for R. Kelly to be incarcerated have grown louder while he plans his own retaliation against the Lifetime documentary — a website to “expose” his alleged victims and survivors. In the future, monsters like R. Kelly should no longer be given success. This man preyed on girls he thought he could conquer, girls with parents he knew he could manipulate. He knew that he could get away with it, and, so far, he has. His persistence begs the question: How will we respond to the next R. Kelly?