CW: CSA, VAW. This is a long read, and may be upsetting due to the nature of the content. If you are feeling a bit wobbly, overwhelmed or burned out, perhaps it would be best to stop reading and do something nice, like cuddle a puppy or sit down with a cuppa and watch those funny cat videos.
It’s a difficult time for anyone who has had any experience of sexual abuse or violence, and an emotionally confusing and draining one too. News stories about perpetrators, often powerful ones who have been allowed to continue predatory behaviour for decades, appear daily. It can feel relentless, frustrating, upsetting, traumatic and scary to see, and at the same time feel empowered, relief, solidarity, the joy of community at the voices finally coming through to push back and overall just be mentally exhausting. Firstly, I would reiterate that it is important to protect your own well-being by checking out of the news cycle if you need a break. (Including by stopping reading this. Go on it’s ok, I’m not offended, promise. Go do something nice.) But sometimes it helps to read about it from sources that are victim/survivor centred and may be able to shed some insight into how the hell we got here and why powerful people are able to continue this abuse, as well as how we can support each other through it to a better place. I personally find writing cathartic and helpful, so here we go…
I’m going to talk about R Kelly. But why him specifically and not one of the many, many other people who have been/are being accused of sexual abuse and violence against women? Well, even as a white, working class, English girl from the back end of no-where, who has never been particularly into R&B, I still know of R Kelly. I was a pre-teen/young teenager when he was at the peak of his popularity in the UK, when ‘I believe I can fly’ was already considered a classic and I remember ‘Ignition’ being played repeatedly at school discos and parties. So often, in fact, that I still even know some of the words despite never actually owning any of his music (remember this is before Spotify, people.) That gives an indication of his reach as an artist, and it means that his behaviour feels more personal to me, because his songs were a part of my adolescence. It also seems significant that although it appears to have been well known that he was predatory in the US at that time, I don’t remember hearing anything about it when his song was being played repeatedly. I think it’s also important to acknowledge how intersectionality and power structures play such a heavy role in his case in particular.
I learnt of the accusations against R Kelly through social media, as a result of #MeToo and #TimesUp, but more specifically because of a call to solidarity from noteable black women to white woman. White woman and black woman had come together, especially using social media and op-eds, in order to demand justice for the victim-survivors of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. They assaulted white women and women of colour when they were vulnerable, and were protected by the people around them. But some of women have become powerful in their own right and are therefore better able to seek justice now. The case of R Kelly is that of an extremely successful black man from an incredibly disadvantaged background deliberately choosing to abuse vulnerable black girls and women from the same disadvantaged background, using his position to manipulate them, and being actively protected by those around him despite his behaviour being common knowledge. These girls and women are for the most part, still disadvantaged and vulnerable in comparison to him, and so much less able to seek justice. I first learnt of more details of his behaviour because of the social media around a documentary called Surviving R Kelly, by dream hampton. Specifically, because of a tweet from John Legend who took part in the documentary and has been one of very few people in the industry to say that he believes the accusations against him.
As a result of the general media attention, the BBC also did a documentary called R Kelly, Sex, Girls and Videotapes which you can watch on iplayer. Though it is much shorter, it contains enough genuinely horrific testimony to leave at least myself with the resounding belief that not only are these allegations true, but that he is a deeply disturbed sexual predator who has a pre-mediated approach to deliberately targeting girls and young women who are vulnerable, and then committing systematic domestic violence against them in all its forms. The evidence against him seems to be compelling, reliable and there is just so much of it. Testimony from women he has abused, men he has worked with and even videotape evidence of him suggests committing at least; rape, statutory rape, making and distributing child pornography, holding women hostage against their will, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, psychological abuse…
So how has it come about that not only has he been able to continue this abuse but despite the evidence given against him over and over again, there are still people who will jump to his defence? I think the answer lies in the intersectionality of race, gender and socio-economic status that creates a huge imbalance in power between R Kelly and his victims, all in favour of R Kelly. R Kelly embodies the American dream for many black people, men in particular. He had an extremely rough childhood, grew up in a rough area, and failed in school, but his talent as an R&B singer enabled him to become extremely successful and privileged. It makes sense that he would provide hope for his community that it is possible to overcome adversity and live a gilded life. When accusations of abuse first arose, it also makes sense that his community would not want to believe them. It is also true that there is a deeply held prejudice against black men which means they are often accused of being dangerous sexual predators as a part of the racism that permeates everyday life. It is reasonable to initially assume that racism was the problem, not his behaviour, and that white people couldn’t stand to have a black man be so successful, so aimed to tear him down. What goes against this is the sheer volume of evidence that suggests that he is in fact a sexual predator. This is where the complexities of intersectionality come into play; his accusers were black girls, at least some under the age of 16, and black women, who were also from rough backgrounds, often from the community he grew up in. In the BBC documentary two women said it was known by everyone that he would hang around outside his old high school and pick up girls or in the MacDonalds across the street. An employee from the studio Kelly recorded his first album in talked of witnessing him have girls in their underwear bent over for him to stare at as he worked on his songs. That he offered blow jobs to friends and told a girl to do it even though she said no. That he saw a line of men wait to have sex with a girl who was bent over with her skirt up as they just took turns with her. This was told as being ‘the lifestyle’ and like it was socially awkward but not taken seriously as sexual assault or rape.
The acceptance of this behaviour says as much about how we as a society devalue black women and girls as it says about how much we value the commercial success of black men. The successful black man is to be protected at the cost of black girls and women. But the main thing that was asked over and over was did they consent? Were they forced? Our understanding of consent as a society is oversimplified and leads to the idea that there are only two realities; physically violent rape or sex. Most women’s experience of consent falls within a spectrum that includes compliance, coercion, assault and rape, wherein the victim may have some agency or choice but that it is severely restricted by the power imbalance between her and the perpetrator. Girls and young women may be especially vulnerable to compliance – passively allowing something to take place that they do not actually consent to because the emotional or physical cost of actively saying no is too high and the lesser of two evils is to let it happen or go through the motions. This makes it seem impossible to judge from the outside if consent is being given, which is presented as a flaw. In fact, it’s the whole point – did the victim feel like they gave full consent, did they give conditional consent that they felt was a choice they made, or did they consent out of fear of the consequences if they didn’t? It’s the victim’s thoughts and feelings that matter, not the perpetrator’s. The problem is that our societies understanding of sexual relationships is flawed – that men want and are able to try to get sex and it’s women’s responsibility to stop them if they don’t want sex. Women are left with all the responsibility, when they have none of the power. Then, if a woman does accuse a man of sexual assault or abuse, victim blaming follows. In this case, R Kelly had the power of celebrity, maturity in years, socio – economic status, and physicality, whereas the girls and women he targeted were especially vulnerable because of their race, youth and disadvantage. What is significant in these accusations is that Kelly appeared to target the most vulnerable, repeatedly, publicly and with the collusion of the people around him which normalised his behaviour.
Race is an incredibly significant part of the power imbalance, because had R Kelly targeted white girls and women, the racist stereotype of the dangerous sexual black man may have overcome societies’ inclination to blame the victim. But racist stereotypes of black girls and women as hypersexual feed into the victim blaming narrative that allows some people to save the man they admire at the expense of the girls and women he hurts. It’s the intersection of both Kelly and his chosen victims’ disadvantages which meant he was able to continue the abuse. The testimony given by former girlfriends is the most harrowing, describing what is known as the full constellation of domestic abuse; physical, sexual, emotional, financial, social isolation, and psychological. It speaks to the intensity of victim blaming and the lack of value we give to black, disadvantaged women and girls that these women can describe this abuse and still be disbelieved.
Many of the people he previously worked with appeared conflicted when they spoke of his treatment of women. One former employee spoke of being asked to get girls for Kelly, and that he was the one who told girls he thought were under the age of consent to leave, even if it made Kelly angry. He reluctantly admitted he thought Kelly was a paedophile, and that he married the singer Aaliyah when she was 14, having faked her age as 18. He has settled a number of civil cases out of court with substantial payouts to girls and women who accuse him of sexual assault. One of the most disturbing facets of the documentary was the outcome of the criminal case Kelly fought when he was accused of making and distributing child pornography, where videotape evidence was available to the court and jury. Despite the tape and testimony from family and friends of the girl in the video, Kelly was able to pay for lawyers who cast enough doubt on the victims’ decision not to testify that he was not charged. Instead of looking at the severe power imbalance between the girl and Kelly as the reason a 14 year old would not want to appear as a witness in court, they framed it as because Kelly was not the man in the video. It is this same framing that allows fans to dismiss the civil cases, instead of looking at the traumatic, expensive, relentless, drawn out legal proceedings of a criminal case, fans instead paint accusers as gold-diggers. One of the women who has openly testified to being abused by Kelly was a fan who believed him to be innocent and met him outside the court. We so often just don’t want to believe that our heroes can be predators, but they are in the best possible position to be so and avoid any consequences.
It may be understandable that fans can turn a blind eye, but what about employees and family members who say they saw Kelly manipulate, control and be sexual with girls and women? How can they stand by while it happens? How can they conspire to protect him? Again, the intersections of privilege and disadvantage and power have a massive influence. At least some of the people who worked with Kelly and his family were directly impacted by Kelly’s success, lifting them out of poverty, giving them a platform for their talent, starting their careers in music – people around him felt like they owed him. They may have worked hard, but they saw it as his talent that gave them a new life. And so if he failed, they failed. This may appear selfish or greedy, but the circumstances of Kelly’s brothers after they stopped working with him show how much they had to lose. Kelly has mansions; they are living in one of the roughest parts of Chicago. They haven’t lost their talent, but in the rift with Kelly after the criminal court case, they lost almost everything else. Their lives slide backwards into the poverty and disadvantage they grew up in. There have been no accusations of ill treatment by Kelly from anyone male, and Kelly is undoubtedly charismatic and able to charm people. This causes conflict for the men around him, they may well feel uncomfortable about how he treats women, but culturally they are expected to stay loyal to their male friends, follow the narrative of victim blaming, or claim his personal life is none of their business. They may have been fully aware of how much they had to lose by going against him, and managed to convince themselves for the most part that the women were willing participants in Kelly’s ‘lifestyle’.
Another potentially surprising factor could be the desire of young female R&B artists to work with Kelly despite the allegations against him. This is most likely to be victim blaming once more as a defence mechanism, a way for women to rationalise potential danger by believing it wouldn’t happen to them because they didn’t ‘ask for it’ or that they were savvy enough to navigate the situation without the same problems. One young woman said she would work with Kelly on a song because she knew that it would sell so well, almost as if she had weighed up the reward and danger in her mind and believed the reward of success would be worth it. Again, if someone who lives in a cycle of poverty sees a way out, and it doesn’t necessarily appear to be any more dangerous than navigating a rough neighbourhood as a young woman, it may well seem worth the risk.
It’s this exact power imbalance and the multiple disadvantage black women face which mean that a call for solidarity from white women is so necessary. Black women are more likely to have multiple disadvantages and therefore less socio-economic power, so white women, especially multiple-privileged white women can help tip the balance so that black women can have a hope of finding justice. Kelly continues to be accused of the most disturbing violence against women, being perpetrated right now. Not only could we get justice for the past, but prevent the #MeToo stories of the future.
For more information, follow #MuteRKelly #BelieveBlackWomen and #ALongWalkHome