“Oh, you write for VIBE?” A partygoer at my family’s Memorial Day barbecue floated the casual question my way in between pulls of his cigar. “Are you working on anything?”
“I’m doing a piece about R. Kelly and how the black community has to give him up,” I replied. “You know, separating trash men from their good art. He’s preying on girls no one cares to defend.” With a grin and an eyebrow raise, he began to voice his opinion.
Long story short, what followed was a passionate conversation between male and female partygoers about how the parents of the young black women and the young women themselves are the true problem, not Kelly, and that they’re likely looking for a payday. I could have very well gone off on them, however, I just smiled to myself and stayed quiet, because this very conversation is the reason why this piece had to be written.
Over the last year, R. Kelly has made numerous headlines for unsavory sexual behavior involving black teenage girls and women. However, those who have been closely following the controversial musician should be well aware of the 51-year-old’s pedophilic antics, abusive conduct and overall alarming habits with women, which have been well-documented for nearly 25 years.
In 1994, the singer-songwriter secretly married the late Aaliyah, then 15. In 2001, investigative journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has extensively covered the “I Believe I Can Fly” producer’s history of sexual misconduct, received a tape of the over-30-year-old man engaging in degrading sex acts with a then-14-year-old girl.
More recently, numerous claims surrounding a “sex cult” spearheaded by the “Pied Piper of R&B” made headlines. Rapper Vince Staples called Kelly a “f**king child molester” and spoke about the singer’s human trafficking ring during an interview at the 2018 Coachella Music Festival.
In a May interview with CBS News, Faith Rodgers plainly stated that he “pursues teenage or underage girls, and lures them into engaging in sex acts.” The 20-year-old woman reportedly sued the R&B legend for sexual battery and knowingly infecting her with the herpes virus.
“He’s like, ‘You know, if you’re really, you know, 16, that you can tell daddy, right?’” she told CBS News’ Jericka Duncan during the interview. “And he was like, ‘You know, you just look about 14, 15, or 16.'” His history of alleged domestic abuse was also confirmed by his ex-wife and the mother of his three children Andrea, who says that she contemplated suicide during their union because of his abuse toward her.
A 20-minute confession track titled “I Admit” was released via Instagram Live during the wee hours of July 23. On the song, Kelly sings “I admit I f**k with all the ladies, that’s both older and young ladies,” however, he says the accusations of pedophilia are “absurd.”
While he was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008, the facts are all present and accounted for: I consider R. Kelly a sexual offender who preys on black teenage girls and young women, and he must be stopped. However, the black community is the only group that will be able to stop him, and—provided we stop giving him passes—it can be done.
“We could’ve shut down R. Kelly years ago,” #MeToo founder Tarana Burke told VIBE in March 2018. “We don’t talk about [sexual violence]. We don’t do anything to deal with it as a community. We don’t look at sexual violence in our community as a social justice or community issue. [In communities of color] this culture of silence that we have is killing us.”
Why is it that R. Kelly flew under the radar for so long? Unsurprisingly, there are a few reasons, with one of them being the sad reality that mainstream news outlets just don’t care about the lives, well-being, and safety of black girls and women enough to report on any issue they face.
Atlanta-based arts administrator Oronike Odeleye admitted that the previous sexual misconduct allegations against Kelly seemingly dissolved from her consciousness. However, after the “sex cult” story made the rounds in July 2017, she became incensed enough to start a movement called #MuteRKelly, in order to raise awareness on the long-standing issue.
“Especially for [the sex cult] to be happening here in Atlanta, where we have a huge sex-trafficking problem, it just prompted me to just do something,” she says via phone. “I felt like these women were continuously shouting and asking for our help, and we needed to focus on this issue. We weren’t doing anything about them, and I felt like I had to do something. So, I started a real humble petition, just to try and get him off of local radio, and it grew from there.”
The majority of Kelly’s victims are poor to middle-class black girls, who are seen as “nobodies” in the eyes of the media. According to the Women’s Institute for Leadership Development for Human Rights’ book, The Treatment of Women of Color Under U.S. Law: Violence (2001), “some African American women’s decisions not to report their sexual assaults may be influenced by the criminal justice system’s history of treating European-American perpetrators and victims differently than perpetrators and victims of color,” making their stories largely unreported or unnoticed.
“If he was dealing with 14-, 15- and 16-year-old white girls, that would have been the end of him,” Odeleye continues. “We wouldn’t have heard another peep. He’d still be in jail. The fact that it’s black girls just goes to show what society values.”
Another factor is the hero worship and idolization of celebrities and entertainment figures, especially as it pertains to popular figures of color. Whatever personal connection members of the black community have to R. Kelly and his music seems to preside over the well-documented fact that he’s a child predator with a history and penchant for targeting disenfranchised young women, who historically have been shown that no one cares to listen to or defend.
“When we get into hero worship, idol worship, we tend to not look critically at who [the celebrities] are as a person behind the art form, and see whether or not we want to support that,” Odeleye says. Kelly is hardly the first musician to continue reaping the benefits of idolization despite wrongdoing. Miles Davis, who struggled with drug addiction, was allegedly known to “slug” his wives to keep them in line, including his ex-wife Cicely Tyson. More recently, Kelis revealed that she and Nas were in a physically abusive relationship. However, these men went on to have fruitful, relatively unscathed careers and were involved in endeavors that have earned them millions.
“You have to try to withdraw this emotional attachment that you have to the person, look at it clearly and say, ‘If this were my mailman, would I have a problem?’” says Odeleye. “‘It would be okay if my child’s teacher had the same level of allegations. It would be okay if my boss had pictures in his desk drawer, pictures of himself engaged in sex with 14-year-old girls.’ If that’s not okay with you, then it can’t be okay when someone like R. Kelly does it as well.”
While many people care to hold on to the music of problematic musicians instead of separating the artist from the art form, others are able to differentiate between the two. DJ9AM, a black female deejay who performs coast to coast at various functions such as the NYC Vs. Everybody Yacht Party and the 4 Lovers Only 2018 tour, says that due to the controversies and claims against Kelly, she does not play his music during her sets anymore.
“Everyone wants to hear ‘Step In The Name of Love’ or those types of songs that you play at family functions, barbecues, those feel-good types of parties,” she says over the phone. She details that during past sets, many of the requests to hear R. Kelly’s music came from older women, although both genders would ask her to play him.
“I just feel like, as a woman, I have to stand up and stand beside other women,” she explains. “It’s kind of sad because you hear R. Kelly songs and you get that nostalgic feeling… But now, the music gives me a different type of energy, so I don’t want to bring that type of energy to the party or the event I’m at. The song feels different. You don’t feel the same.”
“This is us as a community cleaning our own house. We have a predator in our midst that we have got to get rid of.”
DJ9AM says that the same notion of separating the artist from the art form goes for musicians such as the late XXXTentacion, who was accused of sexually and physically abusing a pregnant woman during his time in the spotlight. She details, however, that other artists who are viewed as problematic are given a pass, such as Kanye West.
“It depends on what the issues were with the artists,” she says of personally separating problematic artists from their creations. “If you’re physically harming another person, that’s when there’s an issue. You have Kanye [West]… it’s a little touchy to play his music, too. I don’t stand by his opinions whatsoever, but at least he’s not hurting anybody else. I don’t have to agree with his views, but as long as he’s not hurting anyone else physically, it is what it is.”
Spotify announced in June that it was pulling its previously revealed “hateful conduct” and hate content policy after industry backlash. It would have excluded problematic artists such as R. Kelly and XXXTentacion from being promoted on their curated playlists. Odeleye believes that the backtracking was a “textbook example of how the entertainment industry continues to shield problematic artists from the consequences of their actions.”
“[Spotify] caved because record labels and the media conglomerates that fund them put pressure on the streaming service to reverse the policy in order to shield any and all artists on their labels that have amoral behavior,” she said via email after the news was released. “Spotify chose profit over people.”
“I’ve heard [R. Kelly] say something in an interview about the music ‘already being injected into the world,’ so ‘it’s too late,’” DJ9AM says. “I’m like, ‘that’s disgusting.’ Like, how dare you? You’re not even sorry. You have no empathy or anything. You’re just like, ‘oh well, it’s already out there. I’m doing me and I’m already successful.’ Trust me, there are consequences.”
Many subtle R. Kelly defenders seem to question why there are so many women who continue to go to his shows, listen to his albums, and dismiss his wrongdoing against their black sisters. Greensboro Coliseum Complex’s Public Relations Manager Andrew Brown revealed to VIBE that Kelly’s May 2018 performance at the venue raked in $250,844.50, despite numerous protests that took place outside the establishment.
Odeleye says that due to a societal hierarchy that we’re conditioned to follow from birth, black women will continually protect black men regardless of what they’ve done. “Black women are unfortunately taught, always, to put themselves last on the totem pole of needs and importance,” she says. “Black men, in our totem pole of importance, are always gonna be at the top. We kick into defense mode because that’s what we’re told when we’re young, to defend black men against everybody.”
Due to the greater society’s stereotypical beliefs that black women are liars, promiscuous, untrustworthy, gold diggers and hypersexual, Odeleye says that we are also taught to believe negative notions about black women, which may make it easier for people to side with Kelly in this situation.
“That messaging that we hear in media over and over again about ourselves…that penetrates our psyche until we believe it,” she says.
Instead of victim-blaming the women who come forward with sexual misconduct allegations, or questioning the parent’s actions (like so many people do in VIBE’s Facebook comments whenever we post stories about famous black men potentially being in the wrong), question why our community is still holding on to Kelly for dear life. This fervent dismissal of his wrongdoing in favor of his music allows him to tour, further allowing the cycle of preying on the young women who attend his shows amidst a sea of older women to continue. There will always be something that keeps black women supporting the men who continue to do wrong against them.
“You never wanna see the demise of a successful black man,” DJ9AM says. “Who wants to see that happen? Even in the Bill Cosby situation, it’s really sad to see his legacy end up the way it is now. It makes me really sad, but you have to pay the consequences… The race shouldn’t matter, but [Kelly is] doing this to black women, and black women are the people that are supporting him.”
What we need to do now is commit to halting the support of R. Kelly completely, and it appears as though the train is starting to move forward. Despite the Memory Lane Tour continuing without a hitch, several of his shows during his After Party Tour were canceled, allegedly due to low ticket sales. Kelly could be seen as groveling for attendees as well; before his May 2018 Greensboro, N.C. show, he announced via Twitter he was giving out 2,500 free t-shirts to fans who arrived at the venue early.
“People don’t really think about the connection between radio play and the finances of these artists. This is what has enabled him to continue touring,” Odeleye says with a sigh. Despite not having a number one song in 11 years—“I’m A Flirt” topped the Hot Rap Tracks chart in 2007—radio play continues to keep Kelly fresh in our minds, thus allowing him to continue touring.
“When he tours, we’ll wanna buy tickets,” she continues. “That money goes straight to lawyers to insulate himself from the consequences of his crimes, and it makes us all complicit in the sexual molestation of young black women. It’s super important that we keep up that fight.” Odeleye details that there are several radio stations, including the Tom Joyner Morning Show, who no longer play Kelly’s music. On the #MuteRKelly website, those who are interested in joining the fight can sign petitions demanding Sony Music to drop him from their label. Additionally, some big name backings have contributed to giving the movement more ammo.
The #MuteRKelly movement has become more mainstream thanks, in part, to a co-sign by the women of color involved in the Time’s Up movement. In late-April, a press release read, “As women of color within Time’s Up, we recognize that we have a responsibility to help right this wrong. We intend to shine a bright light on our WOC sisters in need… We demand appropriate investigations and inquiries into the allegations of R. Kelly’s abuse made by women of color and their families for over two decades now.” Kelly and his team denied any wrongdoing after the #MuteRKelly campaign gained virality.
The Time’s Up movement was started earlier this year by more than 300 celebrities in response to the sexual assault allegations plaguing all industries. Through the initiative, these women are hoping to raise awareness to put a stop to sexual assault, harassment, and an unlevel playing field in the workplace by providing resources and support for victims. According to Forbes, the Time’s Up legal defense fund has raised over $20 million to benefit victims. In addition to the over 20,000 donors, over 200 lawyers have reportedly signed up to offer their services through Time’s Up.
“You hear R. Kelly songs and you get that nostalgic feeling… But now, the music gives me a different type of energy, so I don’t want to bring that type of energy to the party or the event I’m at.”
Emmy-winning screenwriter, producer, actress and Time’s Up member Lena Waithe says that the main goals of the organization are to create “equality, a safe work environment for everyone, and an industry that no longer embraces the status quo.” While the stories of many white women have been highlighted by the media during the movement (like Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd’s encounters involving Harvey Weinstein), women of color, members of the LGBTQ community, women in adult industries and men have been seemingly shut out of the conversation.
Waithe says that while it is a journalist’s responsibility to include everyone in these spaces, society needs to work as well. This certainly pertains to the movement’s announcement in late-April calling on industry bigwigs to sever ties with the “Bump N’ Grind” singer.
“Sexual assault is a crime no matter who the victim is,” Waithe wrote via email in March regarding the Time’s Up initiative. “We have to remind ourselves that predators come in many forms and we have to make sure everyone feels safe. We as a society have to make sure everyone has a seat at the table when discussing these issues. Women of color, women in the LGBTQ community, and women in adult industries are speaking up, but the media must listen and make sure their issues get just as much coverage as everyone else. It means that journalists will have to dig deeper and work harder, but that comes with the territory.”
Odeleye says that the Time’s Up co-sign for #MuteRKelly has been beneficial in spreading awareness about the singer’s behavior to more people and that she’s grateful for the help.
“Whenever people put their voice, their resources, their celebrity and their connections behind a movement, it can do nothing but grow,” she explains. “We have been yelling, yelling, yelling from Atlanta about R. Kelly, and we have had a lot of success. We have had tentative concerts canceled, we’ve held protests. We’ve been able to have success, but to have a platform as big as [Time’s Up] to be able to push it even further… It’s been able to grow it very quickly.”
“The point of this movement is to say the community is done with him, the black community collectively,” she continues. “It really has to be about all of us, black women and black men, taking the hashtag, using that as a banner moving forward in our daily lives and our communities. We have to be the ones to talk to the deejays at our parties. We have to be out here calling our radio stations, letting people know ‘you’re not gonna play that song at my child’s graduation,’ letting the wedding deejay know ‘no R. Kelly.’”
While Kelly called the #MuteRKelly movement a “public lynching” after it gained traction, Odeleye has a very different way to put it.
“This is not a ‘public lynching,’ this is a reckoning,” she tells me. “[The public lynching] is calling on an image in American history that is so volatile, so sensitive and should be held so sacred. To use it in defense of a child molester, of a sexual abuser, of a pedophile, of a brutalizer of black women, is to dishonor all of the men and women who were lynched largely in part for standing up for their communities…This is us as a community cleaning our own house. We have a predator in our midst that we have got to get rid of.”
The exposure of sexual perpetrators such as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby have been watershed moments in the #MeToo era, and as Odeleye sees it, if justice can take down men like these two, it can certainly take R. Kelly to task.
“We wouldn’t allow this behavior from any other person, so why would we allow this from R. Kelly? His time is absolutely up,” she concludes.
Enough with being complicit in the crimes committed against black women in favor of backing someone who makes glorified cookout music. Enough supporting a pedophile when someone who could easily be their own daughter, sister or cousin is in trouble.
Preying on black youth is something R. Kelly has been accused of doing for years and something he addressed on “I Admit.” Unless the black community puts a stop to it, this is something he will continue to do. There’s no stepping in the name of love when the lives and well-being of young black women are put in jeopardy.