I watched the original Space Jam with my kids recently. At the part where R. Kelly starts crooning “I believe I can fly” I felt uneasy. I had muted him years ago after it became apparent that he was a sex predator who particularly got his kicks from abusing young Black girls. So at our wedding reception almost nine years ago, I asked the DJ not to play any of his songs. Kelly finally got sentenced to prison after a career preying on the vulnerable. Thankfully, the voices defending him have been largely quiet in the aftermath. When Jerhonda Johnson came to support (and defend) him for previous charges and was later one of the many women traumatized by his abuse, it became impossible to put up any defense.
He deserves to go to prison for a very long time if only to protect the public from him. So there should be no tears now that he is in a cage facing life. But the uncomfortable truth is Kelly had never hidden who he was. He might have denied the charges and sung “Not Guilty” at the top of his lungs to avoid prison, but the man has always been a predator operating in daylight. We have always known who he was a problem; he was just one we mostly chose to ignore.
Kelly used bribe to marry Aaliyah when she was 15 (and he was 27) and wrote the song, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” for her to sing. He even lurked in the background of the video like a pedophile (just not) in a playground. If that wasn’t enough, he dubbed himself the “Pied Piper [of R&B]” after the figure who lures children to their doom. He was even caught on camera raping and urinating on a child. Rather than shun the pervert, the footage was released as a “sex-tape,” with “R. Kelly Triple-X” doing good trade on the bootleg DVD market. Anyone who bought or watched the tape participated in child pornography. Forget #MuteRKelly: #ShunRKelly, or #B’unRKelly would be more appropriate. But if we are honest, he was popular because he was sleazy. We winded along to “Bump N’ Grind” because we have bought into the stereotype that our men should be hypermasculine studs.
Historically there has been a fair amount of victim shaming of so-called “fast girls” who were all too quick to fall under his spell. We have bought into the lie that Black women are fair game when it comes to sexual abuse, violence that was institutionalized during our enslavement. Every time we ignored the Black women speaking out, we participated in our own oppression. The fact you can still hear Kelly’s music when you turn on a Black radio station should be a shame to us as a community. He got away with abusing our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, aunts, mothers, and friends because of the very racism against which we are supposed to be fighting. Black women have historically been much more likely than White women to have their complaints about sexual misconduct distrusted or denied. R. Kelly is a monster, but we are the problem for enabling him for so long.
There is a much bigger issue at work though, where many of us will defend Black men at the expense of Black women. During the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill was demonized by many in the Black community for complaining he had sexually harassed her. Thomas 100 percent played the race card when he declared that the uproar over the allegations was nothing more a “high tech lynching.” Meant to put down the “uppity” Negro who had got ahead of his station. Apparently, Hill was supposed to stay quiet for the progress of the Black community. This would have been a backward argument even if Thomas had the revolutionary passion of Malcolm X. Black women are part of the Black community, so accepting their mistreatment is always a problem. But Thomas is the most anti-Black racist on the Supreme Court, overcoming his skin color by being the most extreme in a bunch of extremists. We should have been protesting Uncle Thomas replacing the legendary civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall, but somehow circled the wagons to defend him for harassing a Black woman. There is no doubt that society makes villains out of revolutionary Black men and tries to bring them down. Thomas is a pawn of White society; R. Kelly feeds the racist stereotype of Black men, and don’t get me started on Bill “pound cake” Cosby.
Kimberlé Crenshaw once explained to me that “Black men are feared, Black women are despised.” It shows how little we appreciate our women when we allow them to be abused by no account Black men, just because they have a little wealth and power. Hopefully, R. Kelly will serve as a cautionary tale of the damage we do to our community when we ignore Black women and empower Black men to abuse them. There can be no Black liberation until we put the experiences and struggles of Black women at the heart of our movements.