We Were Troubled By R. Kelly, We Just Turned A Blind Eye And It's Time To Admit It
'Surviving R. Kelly' might be the final nail in the coffin for the man's lengthy career -- but how and why did we allow him to prosper this long?
I watched Surviving R. Kelly with my husband.
At some point during the six-part TV series that has pop culture enraptured, we turned to each other and made our own difficult confessions.
We acknowledged we had suspicions about R. Kelly's alleged behaviour two decades ago. And we admitted we didn't care.
Don't get me wrong: we cared. But it wasn't nearly enough. And like many former fans of R. Kelly, we wish we'd cared so much more, so much sooner.
Surviving R. Kelly might be the swan song Robert Sylvester Kelly's career has tried dodging since it leaked he'd married Aaliyah when she was 15, and he was 27, in 1994.
The documentary features over 50 interviews with survivors and peers, sharing new allegations about Kelly's sexual, mental and physical abuse. Allegations which Kelly vehemently denies.
Explosive new claims were made, like Aaliyah having an abortion during their quickie marriage, Kelly having threesomes with underage girls, and more.
The series featured 'survivors' of Kelly's reported sex cult that contended he still had young women held in his various mansions, allegedly under duress.
The women's parents were also interviewed and disturbingly shown chasing their daughters across the country to 'rescue' them from his clutches.
Mine and my husband's apathy towards R. Kelly can be blamed on many things. Much of mine comes down to my own age when everything first started.
I was roughly the same age as Aaliyah when her debut album Age Ain't Nothing But A Number came out the same year she tied the knot with Kelly.
Of course, I noticed him in the shadowy background of the cover art and heard the sexual lyrics he'd penned for her -- beyond inappropriate for a teenage girl.
But in those days, lines were blurred -- especially when it came to R&B. We focused more on the hypnotic music than the real-life escapades of the acts.
"At the time R. Kelly and Aaliyah were creatively paired up, their narrative was really deceiving," Kathy Iandoli, music journalist and author, shared with me.
"Aaliyah's age was never a focal point the way it might have been now. Meanwhile, R. Kelly was posturing himself as the older mentor -- but in the 'your best friend's older brother kind of way', making himself seem as though he were just a few years older, and not an entire decade.
"Our frame of reference was dramatically skewed. I really believe that's why we had no real idea of the magnitude of the crimes R. Kelly was committing."
Like so many teenage girls, in those days I obsessed over my favourite male celebrities and never gave thought to how much older they were than me.
That's why I was in tears watching interviews with women like Jerhonda Pace, who was 15 when she met Kelly after his child pornography trial in 2008.
After the trial, Pace allegedly began a sexual relationship with Kelly, and in the documentary she emotionally recounted sexual and physical abuse.
Of course, one scratches their head when they learn Pace willingly entered into a relationship with Kelly after years of talk regarding his alleged vulgar behaviour.
But according to the law, she was still a child. And as Dr. John Mayer told Rolling Stone in 2017, "teens are exceptionally vulnerable to such control and manipulation".
An overwhelming amount of those featured in Surviving R. Kelly appear complicit in his alleged crimes. From the older relatives of the teen girls to his inner circle, there appeared to be little hope for the young black women he targeted.
"Rape culture rhetoric has been so normalised in our society that people blame the victim -- a child -- for their own rape," former New York City high school teacher Sabrina Thompson told me.
Thompson said the dichotomous responses she's witnessed about the documentary online are "so extreme, it's maddening".
"I’ve seen 'R. Kelly should be dead, in jail, under the jail.' I’ve read 'I blame the irresponsible, money-hungry parents.' I've also read 'Those fast-ass girls just wanted money' or 'older guys used to pick me up all the time from school, so what?
"It makes me sick people still revere [Kelly's] music so much they will disregard the notion of a grown man who's on video sticking his penis in a 14-year-old."
Till recently, fans didn't have the access to pop artists we do now but -- and it isn't easy to admit -- we often chose to turn a blind eye, and not dig deeper.
And while the #MeToo sexual assault movement has gained traction in Hollywood, the music business still waits on its reckoning.
"The problem with #MeToo entering the music industry is mainly due to the barriers of entry for women as it is and the potential effects of airing out the gatekeepers, who are so grossly protected by both men and women at the top," offered Iandoli.
Thompson, who is African-American, reflected on Chance The Rapper's candid assertion in Surviving R. Kelly that perhaps he didn't "value the accusers’ stories because they were black women".
The Chicago artist collaborated on "Somewhere In Paradise" with Kelly in 2015.
"[Chance] said what many folks subconsciously think all the time about black girls, and that is we are not valued or cared about compared to other races of women around the world," Thompson told me.
"His comments were and are troubling, but what is more important is he caught and corrected himself and is trying to be a better human."
R. Kelly has reportedly begun legal proceedings against "everyone involved" in the documentary, according to TMZ.
Meanwhile, a growing number of his peers have spoken out against him on social media, multiple petitions are circulating for Jive Records to drop him from their lineup, and Spotify has removed him from their company playlists.
My husband and I are raising a black daughter. We've vowed to never turn to each other about our lack of action when it comes to her safety again.
Featured image: Getty.
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