In early January, Lifetime aired a documentary series chronicling R&B singer Robert “R.” Kelly’s history of sexual assault and pedophilia, with alleged crimes going back 30 years. In all six episodes, one point was made overwhelmingly clear: R. Kelly’s success is fueled by not only the enablers who continue to support him, but also by the willful ignorance of those who don’t even take the time to listen to his victims. This ignorance has allowed him to victimize girls as young as 13. Until we start paying attention, he won’t stop.
The series, “Surviving R. Kelly,” starts by detailing Kelly’s relationship with singer Aaliyah, who met him when she was 12. Kelly helped Aaliyah write, record and produce her debut album, released in 1994. “Age Ain’t Nothing but A Number,” was a chart-topping, multi-platinum album that jump-started Aaliyah’s career. This success was followed by a media bombshell when Vibe magazine discovered a secret marriage certificate, where the then 15-year-old singer was listed as 18, the legal age to marry then 27-year-old Kelly without parental consent. The marriage was quickly annulled after reports of the certificate came out and should’ve been enough evidence of Kelly’s predatory behavior to end his career. So why didn’t it?
At the time, the Aaliyah story was treated as media gossip, a topic for late-night talk shows, rather than a clear pattern of grooming and pedophilia on Kelly’s part. Kelly’s fame allowed him to ride out the media storm, until a tape of the singer raping and urinating on his 13-year-old goddaughter became public in 2002. Again, the story was treated as media fodder. Singer John Legend, who appeared in the docuseries, said the tape was being sold on street corners in New York at the time. Kelly was charged with 21 counts of manufacturing child pornography, seven of which were eventually dropped after it was discovered that police failed to obtain a search warrant before entering Kelly’s property, a jury later acquitted the singer of the remaining 14 counts. Months later, Kelly’s hit single “Ignition,” was topping charts. At this point, Kelly’s career had survived an illegal marriage with a minor, several lawsuits from women alleging they were sexually abused by the singer while underage, not one, but two sex tapes with underage girls and pornographic photos of himself raping underage women. So why do Kelly and his career seem so invincible?
According to a 2017 report from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, black girls are seen as “less innocent and more adult-like” than their white peers. Survey participants believed that black girls need less protection and know more about sex than white girls of the same age. This sentiment was echoed by victims and interviewees in the docuseries. Radio host Charlamagne tha God, who appeared in the series said, “I always say if you want to get away with murder, kill a black rapper. If you want to get away with sexual assault, assault a young black girl.” One of the jurors who secured Kelly’s not guilty verdict also appeared in the series, saying he didn’t the believe the women who testified in the child pornography case because, “The way they dress, the way they act — I didn’t like them.” Other jurors said they couldn’t be sure if the girl in the video was Kelly’s goddaughter, even after the girl’s aunt positively identified her to police and in court.
In July 2017, BuzzFeed News released a damning report detailing the stories of concerned parents who lost their children to Kelly. According to the story, Kelly took away the girls’ phones, cutting them off from their families, forced them to call him “Daddy” and subjected them to physical and sexual abuse. The report prompted one woman, Oronike Odeleye, to start the #MuteRKelly movement, with the goal of getting Kelly to face trial for his crimes as well as end his music career. The movement gained traction and managed to cancel a few of Kelly’s concerts in the summer of 2018. The Time’s Up campaign even backed the movement, until media attention died. Within two months, the story faded from headlines and, seemingly, the public’s memory, until the docuseries aired.
It shouldn’t take constant reminders of the harrowing abuse Kelly inflicted and continues to inflict on his victims to get us to act. There are girls trapped in Kelly’s mansions and recording studio who haven’t seen their families in years. These girls have a future of sexual victimization awaiting them, unless we take off our blindfolds and stop feigning ignorance to Kelly’s crimes. If you or someone you know streams his music, stop. Listen to other artists because at this point, there is no excuse to continue supporting him. Don’t buy new music from him, don’t go to his concerts and help the #MuteRKelly movement end his career. On Jan. 18, after just two weeks of public pressure, Sony Music dropped R. Kelly from its record labels. Chicago police are seeking a warrant to search his recording studio. The culture surrounding sexual assault has changed since 2002, but it’s our job to make sure it stays that way by keeping pressure on enablers in the music industry and law enforcement officials who have become complacent. It’s our job to make sure Kelly serves time for his crimes and his victims see justice.
Our actions do have an impact, but we must be willing to put in the effort and help Kelly’s victims, past and present. Together, we can stop him from victimizing others in the future.