As a little girl, my mother was concerned over any adult around me. She would have to meet the parents of my friends and really get to know them before I was allowed to spend the night. If one of my friends’ mothers started to date a new guy, my mom would have to meet him as well before I could continue to visit their house without her supervision. Of course, she was the same way with my brother because you never know who is interacting with any of your children. And no one was exempt from her strict rules, not even family members.
Time and time again, I heard stories about how dirty uncles or men who were friends of the family would take advantage of young girls. Something that, I think in the black community, we have been taught to ignore because we have so many other issues to deal with outside of the home. We’ve also been instructed to empower our men in a society that continuously demeans them and lies on their image. To us, our black men are the bread-and-butter of the families, the force who any outsider must face if trying to disrupt our daily livelihoods. So, if we accused them of doing anything to our daughters, how would we survive? And who could we trust if the man who is supposed to be our protector betrays us?
By the time I was 18, I was so fearful of being sexually assaulted in some way because of how hesitant my mother was of certain people. I’m sure it all stemmed from her own experiences and she didn’t want the same to happen to me. When I got to college, I learned that 2 out of every 3 black girls has been sexually molested/raped by the time they’re 18. Boys I knew from school had slapped my butt as a joke without my consent and I had been harassed before by older men attempting to follow me on my way home. However, I became even more fearful because I thought that my time would come for a truly agonizing moment. When I finally informed by mother of my ongoing fear years later, she apologized but also reminded me of the experiences in her life. More importantly she said, “It’s better to be fearful than have something that you can never take back.”
Conflicted and duped is how I felt after watching the Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly. There were things that I knew, but there was also a whole other disgusting world that I had no idea existed. Watching those women share their stories made me ache to even try to empathize with what they had gone through and the post-traumatic stress they endure. And all the while, Robert played us for fools by releasing music to distract us. It was as if I was watching a real life horror movie. Only this time, the agonizing trauma lives on in memories and will never fully go away.
A kid of the ’90s, I was a huge Aaliyah fan. I had all of her albums, I remember watching the third NeverEnding Story when a clip of Back and Forth played in the movie, she wore the same baggy jeans I liked, people would say that I looked like her and I would be super flattered, and I can recall the moment that a former friend of mine called to tell me how Aaliyah died in the plane crash. But when it came to R. Kelly, I knew that they worked together. It wasn’t until later that I realized that they had gotten married, but I thought that maybe it was something her parents oversaw. I had no idea. I knew of people who got married at young ages with their parents’ consent. (Still backwards and predatory, sure.) So, I thought that maybe this was something similar. Clearly, it wasn’t.
The time that the sex tape was leaked, I was in high school and didn’t have a full idea as to what was going on. I’m not even sure if I knew that it happened until he went to court in 2008. But I remember wondering how could so many other artists could continue to make music with the so-called “Pied Piper“? Either way, at that point, I was disgusted and done.
As time went along, I began to have more of an understanding of who Robert was; I was completely surprised when I found out he was married and had kids. I saw him as a dirty, old man still singing about sex and somebody’s black panties. At that point, I was repulsed and brushed him off. But it wasn’t until the 2015 Huffington Post interview where he walked out in the middle of a question about his relationships that I realized that he was running away from accountability. Instead, he has blamed his faults on everyone else or completely diverts from the issue. Once Buzzfeed released their damning reports of girls and women being trapped in his residential compounds, I was floored to realize that this sort of thing could happen, essentially, in plain view. This man had been making songs for 20 years about his abuse of these women and trying to make it appeal as art. That shit’s not art; it’s records of an abuser committing crimes against his victims. (Think about it: Many genocidal dictators had similar tactics.)
Knowing how my mother was when I grew up, I couldn’t help but be curious as to why so many of these parents were so trusting of this man with their daughters. I don’t blame the parents at all for this monster’s wrongdoings; he’s the one committing the crimes and taking advantage of these young women while paying off their families in exchange for silence. But it did make me curious that in the black community, do we not recognize that we are still so environmentally disenfranchised that we bank our energy more so on our children making it big as entertainers? With adults who we really have no respect for their scruples or morals, is it worth the gamble of our children possibly becoming famous? Do we not value our children’s right to healthy childhoods and a decent education to rise above instead? It seems to be an ideology that was sewn into us during slavery when all we were allowed to do, apart from picking the cotton, was entertain “massa,” a time when we were not allowed to read because the value of education could take us farther and break our chains.
Again, I do not blame the parents because, they too, are victims in the situation. Their children have been taken from them and brainwashed, not being able to see them for years. Not being able to see their daughters unless the girls can manage to break the bondage of manipulation and free themselves from the oppressor. And if the girls run away, who knows if his dogs will bring them back?
And you cannot place fault on the victims. I remember hearing a radio-caller during the pee-tape trial say how the 14-year-old knew what she was getting herself into. Robert picks his victims wisely. No child knows the ramifications of the choices that they ultimately make. The brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25, so rationality for these young girls was near non-existent. The older women he found were from abusive or unstable backgrounds as well. He was able to take these girls and women and groom them to his liking — the way a slave master trains his slave not to talk back, eat only when allowed, and sell them when he’s done using them for his benefit.
The documentary showed us all that we could no longer hide from the truth. Sure there are other celebrities out there who are a bit questionable, but Robert, we have evidence. Robert doesn’t even deny the stories of the victims. Instead, he calls them traitors and golddiggers. (But how are they golddigging when there’s no money, tink tink? After paying all them people off and having shows canceled, you’re only worth $1 million now. And you don’t own the rights to your songs. Probably should’ve learned to read.) And he threatens to post revenge porn as a way to seek vengeance. Point blank: This man likes underage girls. This man is a mastermind at manipulation. This same man broke those girls and women down to build them up for his own ego and twisted motives. This man turned them into sex slaves. We cannot use his own childhood abuse or perceived mental instability as excuses. Robert knows what he is doing is wrong. Otherwise, he wouldn’t hide behind the law and lies. Instead, this man is pure evil in raw form.
And so many people enabled him and pacified his wants: managers, studio employees, CHICAGO POLICE who would give him a warning if a girl’s family was looking for her at the studio. But it crossed my mind even more so about the artists who worked with Robert. I’m sure that he put on his fake-ass smile to some of them who didn’t know him extremely well. But those others who did multiple projects with him, possibly recording at his studio in Chicago, how could they dismiss seeing young girls stabled inside? Or were they having sex with them as well and that’s why they’re not speaking out?
In the black community, I know it can seem difficult to know the damning truth about someone you hoped would have been a good person, a black man who was able to excel past just the likes of the black community and into white culture as a pop icon. But it shouldn’t be a difficult choice to choose between that man versus the black women who have been scarred for life due to his abuse and enslavement. Do we really hate ourselves that much that we don’t recognize that, as black women, we deserve better? That our daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts, wives deserve better? Watching the documentary released more emotions than I was ready for, making me reflect on some previous relationships I’ve dealt with where men knocked me down to pick me up, humiliate me in public, be verbally and emotionally abusive, make decisions for me, make me not trust my own judgment — something a Surviving R. Kelly victim mentioned. We cannot allow for this to be our normal in the black community, and we shouldn’t blame those who speak out on the injustices. If you find yourself shunning the victim, ask yourself why. Was it really her fault or do you feel guilty from your own past — either from enduring the pain or inflicting it?
And yes, I was a kid who sang I Believe I Can Fly in my elementary music class too. But it, along with Your Body’s Calling, When a Woman’s Fed Up, I Can’t Sleep Baby, I Wish, lyrically-challenged Feeling On Your Booty, and that dumbass Same Girl, can all go in my mental trash basket. Deleted, to not be recovered, wiped from my mental hard drive. Knowing he was writing about those women he abused and singing his truth to us, I cannot separate the art from the artist. He’s like a serial killer collecting bodies. I don’t need any of those skeletons in my musical wardrobe.