Being an R. Kelly “hater” in early 2000s Chicago was a mighty lonely experience, but the release of a video that featured him engaged in sexual acts with two teenage girls was all the proof I needed to let him go ― though his marriage to Aaliyah in 1995 and the stories I heard about him approaching my friends when we were only in middle school should have done the trick.
For two decades, I have been begging people to stop playing this man’s music. Stop purchasing tickets to his shows. Stop acting like he isn’t to blame for every single relationship he’s had with an underage girl.
Despite mountains of reporting — not nearly enough, mind you — and evidence, people found ways to disregard allegations as rumors, and cited his 2008 acquittal on child pornography charges as a reason to leave the matter be. The same community that knows how unfair and inadequate the criminal justice system can be will lean on it when someone they love has been legally exonerated.
But now, finally, it feels like there is a sea change happening.
Since the first episode of dream hampton’s docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” aired, I have been inundated with calls, texts, emails and direct messages from friends, colleagues, former classmates and complete strangers. They thank me for appearing in the film and for constantly speaking out about Kelly and his predations. I’ve heard confessions from other survivors of sexual abuse who’ve never shared their stories with anyone, and heard vows to stop supporting a once-beloved artist.
My mother was even approached at a restaurant in the neighborhood where I grew up by a woman who remarked that she remembered seeing us together when I was a child. Then, the woman told my mother that she, too, had suffered at the singer’s hands, when she was just 17. Most significantly, the state of Georgia has reportedly reopened its investigation into Kelly’s actions.
Yet, there are still folks out there who seem to believe that those of us who participated in the project are acting on a desire to destroy the image of a successful Black man for insignificant or unfair reasons, or, perhaps, for no reason at all. Others feel that dedicating six hours of television to his sick offstage behavior represents the disparity in how Black and white male suspects are treated.
I’ve heard confessions from other survivors of sexual abuse who’ve never shared their stories with anyone, and heard vows to stop supporting a once-beloved artist.
One particularly infuriating video shows a Black man weeping at what he describes as the documentary’s insinuation that “one Black man” is “the No. 1 pedophile on the planet.” I didn’t realize there were power rankings for sexual predators, but I suppose it’s not surprising that someone who primarily harms Black victims would chart low on the list.
Those responses are a slap in the face to the Black women and girls who have already endured the indignity of Kelly’s continued success. Who have already been told, implicitly and explicitly, over and over, that our suffering and our success is less important than that of our male counterparts.
Black women have been told that the misogyny of rappers must go unchecked. That the largely Black and male artists who dominate the genre must be allowed to tell their truths without restriction. We’ve long understood that the violent, racist nature of law enforcement means that we cannot seek police aid when we are harmed by one of our own men without risking the possibility that he will be harmed by a responding officer. We know that those same officers are unlikely to believe us or show us the sort of empathy befitting a victim. We’ve also been taught to believe that “fast” Black teen girls are to blame when adult men engage them for sex that they cannot legally consent to have.
And so, there are still those who seem to feel that “Step in the Name of Love” means more than the humanity of both a famed singer like Aaliyah and the formerly nameless and faceless R. Kelly victims who have risked so much to participate in this series.
But letting Black men escape accountability isn’t some sort of retribution for our ancestors who were murdered over false accusations, or for our peers who languish behind bars for crimes that they did not commit. Those of us who really care about justice should focus on creating a world where the race of an abuser will not protect him from punishment, nor ensure that he will be unduly punished.
We cannot undo the darkness of our past or our present by protecting Black men who abuse Black women under the auspices of “racial solidarity.” Furthermore, attempts to let men like Kelly off the hook because of their race implies that Black men are either inherently predisposed to sexual violence or that Black girls and women are inherently incapable of being be victimized.
We cannot undo the darkness of our past or our present by protecting Black men who abuse Black women under the auspices of 'racial solidarity.'
My desire for R. Kelly to lose his livelihood, social capital and freedom isn’t about revenge or some sort of vendetta. Nor is it “brand building” or an attempt to further my career. I have a responsibility to address the unchecked abuse that Black women and girls face too often at the hands of men. I have an obligation to build a world in which those same girls and women aren’t tasked with protecting those same men out of a sense of racial loyalty.
I’m just a writer and commentator. I didn’t launch #MuteRKelly or set the world ablaze with #MeToo. I didn’t speak out about abuse by a former friend or family member, nor am I one of the brave survivors who endured harm at the hands of the singer. As such, I don’t think I deserve any credit or props. I’m just a Black woman, a Chicago native and a mother doing what I’d want anyone to do if they had the opportunity: standing up for Black girls and for all survivors. Being an R. Kelly hater isn’t so lonely these days, and it’s about damn time.
Jamilah Lemieux is a writer, cultural critic and communications strategist from Chicago. She lives in Brooklyn.