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R. Kelly is one of the most successful R&B artists of our time. He’s sold 54 million records globally, had a career that spans three decades and penned classic records that have provided the soundtrack for some of our best moments.
But while folks were bumping and grinding to his hits, other things were going bump in the night.
In 1994, R. Kelly married a 15-year-old girl named Aaliyah Haughton. The marriage was eventually annulled. They never addressed the union publicly and, consequently, it seemed like R&B folklore. Two years later R. Kelly was sued for $10 million by Tiffany “Tia” Hawkins.
According to the lawsuit, Hawkins started having sex with R. Kelly when she was 15 and he was 24. After the "relationship" ended, Hawkins (then aged 18) slit her wrists in a suicide attempt. A friend of Hawkins alleged that she engaged in a threesome with Kelly and Hawkins while she was 16. The super star settled the lawsuit.
In 2000, Barry Hankerson resigned as R. Kelly’s manager. In a letter to R. Kelly’s attorney, Hankerson states he believes Kelly needs psychiatric help due to his proclivity toward pursuing underage girls.
In 2001, a young woman from Chicago named Tracy Sampson sued R. Kelly. In the lawsuit, it’s alleged she lost her virginity to Kelly at 17, was treated like a “sex object” and was pressured by Kelly into receiving oral sex from a girl she didn’t want to have sex with. He settled the lawsuit. The next year the singer was sued by another young woman from Chicago, named Patrice Jones. Jones estimated that she had sex with Kelly between 20 and 30 times before her 17th birthday. Jones states in her suit that R. Kelly impregnated her while she was underage and then arranged for one of his employees to take her to have an abortion. R. Kelly settled the lawsuit.
In June 2002, R Kelly was indicted on child pornography charges on account of a widely circulated sex tape where he was seen urinating on a young woman. Following a controversial trial where neither Kelly nor his alleged victim took the stand, Kelly was acquitted. Although prosecutors could not definitively say when the tape was made (or if it was indeed the alleged victim), multiple family members state it’s the alleged victim. A friend of the alleged victim claimed the tape was created in the summer after eighth grade.
A more fleshed out timeline of events can be found here. Despite the volume of evidence that would mean a man as compromised and tarnished as R. Kelly would either be incarcerated or a pariah, R. Kelly is neither. In fact quite the opposite is true.
R. Kelly is a free man who is currently heavily promoting his latest record “Black Panties.” As I’ve watched R Kelly court the mainstream media with no resistance, it’s apparent that R. Kelly’s having a career comeback of sorts. This resurgence isn’t being tempered by questions, or appeals to look further into his personal life to ensure that there aren’t any more victims.
There are no protests. No demands for a boycott of his music. Instead of wanting no more R. Kelly, the world wants more of what R. Kelly offers. In fact, loving R. Kelly has become one of these ironic hipster trends that are emblematic of the things many of us despise about Hipsterism.
Lady Gaga gyrated with him on SNL; Jezebel described Black Panties as a “magnificent ode to pussy.” Twitter’s joyously quoting the crude sexual metaphors that litter his latest album. All the people and platforms who I assumed would push back against society and the media embracing a pervert don’t seem to care.
There’s an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence that indicates R. Kelly is a sexual predator who grooms young girls to fulfill his perverse sexual fantasies. Despite this, the silence persists. My question is an obvious one: Why?
The simplest theory is it’s because of the music. R. Kelly’s talent is so colossal, his music so powerful, that it justifies us ignoring his exploitation and violation of the comparatively powerless. Plus, we’re aware that when wealth and fame are conjoined, almost anything a man does can be overlooked. Roman Polanski sodomized a 13-year-old girl, continued to have a successful career and many were outraged when there were calls for his extradition to face charges.
However I’m not sure I agree with Occam’s razor here -- sometimes the simplest explanation isn’t the most probable.
To attribute the rehabilitation of R. Kelly as a musical hero to his music alone would be lazy. I believe who his victims have been -- and, crucially, what they look like -- plays a massive part in our collective willingness to embrace a predator. They were all little black girls.
Recently a trending topic on Twitter called #fasttailgirls was started by @karnythia and moderated by @hoodfeminism. It discussed the sexualization of young black girls and how, due to no fault of their own, young black girls are made responsible when their bodies are violated. In this context the victims are criminalized and chastised, and the perpetrators valorized.
As I read the trending topic and watched women boldly share their truth, it occurred to me why R. Kelly's comeback disturbs me so much. If R. Kelly’s victims had looked different, had fit the archetype of what we believe victims typically look like (whiter, blonder and more in line with what we’re taught to associate with innocence), maybe there would be uproar.
The bodies that R. Kelly has violated belong to girls we do not believe are worthy of protection or uproar. In fact we’re taught to believe this type of girl “asked for it” or did something to warrant her abuse.
Historically, black women’s bodies have been in the crudest sense property. This impacts how their bodies are treated today. In many ways they are still viewed public property. However they’re not perceived as beautiful legacy buildings that are national treasures in need of being preserved and protected. They’re the type of buildings we should have total access to when we see fit. The type of buildings we neglect and ignore. If there are any visitors, they’re trespassers.
But R. Kelly's never-waning popularity isn’t just about power and race. It’s about how we treat our victims of sexual assault. By celebrating R. Kelly and other men like him, whether it’s because they’re geniuses, family members or “pillars” of our community, we’re implicitly saying to victims of sexual assault that their bodies and stories don’t matter. You can be urinated on, married at an age when you cannot legally give your consent, manipulated and coerced. You can gather the courage to come forward to the police; however, we will honor, protect and revere the man who violated you, rather than honor your courage by ensuring your words aren't in vain.
R. Kelly’s legacy isn’t that of a tortured genius who had legal woes. R Kelly’s legacy is one that shows me what happens when society is silent. If we look inwardly, we’ll admit that although we weren’t co-conspirators, in our silence we have become complicit. We didn’t shout enough. We didn’t demand more.
We didn’t demand more for Aaliyah, Tiffany, Tracy, Patrice, the young woman on the sex tape and the other girls who never came forward. And why should anyone else come forward? History has demonstrated that even if they do speak, we will reward their testimony not just with silence but with turning the radio up even louder.