I really wanted to avoid talking about R. Kelly. I had stopped listening to him years ago when the allegations of predatory behavior toward young girls, particularly African-American girls first surfaced. The recent docu-series produced by dream hampton placed the artist and his horrific behavior front and center in our consciousness. Social media, as well as conventional media (television, radio, newspapers, etc.), have been abuzz with R. Kelly stories.
How has he been allowed to get away with this? Would this have persisted this long if his victims were White? Are the girls/women and their families complicit in this horror? His supporters have pointed to other sexual predators and their ability to evade prosecution. Some of his supporters have cried “foul” and insist that the only motive in going after R. Kelly is to “bring down another Black man.” My motive in writing this blog is to make sure we do not lose sight of how vulnerable our children are in a world determined to destroy them.
1. One’s childhood victimization is not a pass to victimize others: Over and over we have heard how R. Kelly was abused as a child. That fact does not mean he is permitted to abuse others. He probably does not understand how to enter into healthy relationships but his childhood abuse doesn’t mean he has a right to visit that same behavior on others. By his own admission, Kelly’s younger brother was also abused but he lacks the fame and fortune that allows him to manipulate others and perpetrate these crimes on others like his brother.
2. Young minds are malleable: Many of us who are not caught up in the web of sex abuse do not understand mind control. We forget that before about 25 or 26 years old, individuals’ brains are not fully developed and the part of the brain that is still developing is the frontal lobe—the place that houses evaluation and judgment. When you’re 40 and someone says they’re going to make you a star but you have to come to their studio late at night you are likely to question that. However, if you are 16 and a big star pays attention to you, you are likely to do whatever he says. After all, he is the star. He knows the industry. If that star tells you that he is the only one who cars about you, you may begin to mistrust family and friends. Your isolation makes you susceptible to all kinds of lies.
3. Predators exist throughout our society: While R. Kelly’s behavior seems particularly egregious it is emblematic of predatory behavior everywhere. The scandals in the Catholic Church, the behavior of the Olympic and Michigan State University doctor, and the Penn State University football assistant coach are all examples of how widespread this behavior is our society. Anyone who has ready access to our children—teachers, Scout leaders, childcare workers, youth leaders, pastors, coaches, parents, grandparents, older siblings, neighbors, and friends—can prey upon them. Our role is to be ever vigilant and make sure we are talking with our children about how adults treat them.
4. Let’s not forget the enablers: While the documentary focused on R. Kelly, there is no way he could have gotten away with all he’s done (and allegedly continues to do) without the help of those around him. People facilitated his access to young victims. They knew/know about what happened in his homes and studio. Some of the enablers cried, “mea culpa” in the documentary, others continue to aid and abet his criminal behavior. The reasons for their complicity are varied. Some are financially dependent on the singer. Others have a misplaced sense of loyalty. Still others suffer from a similar psychological manipulation as the victims. But, they are just as responsible for these crimes. They did not speak up.
5. Nobody Protects Black Girls: Black girls are the forgotten segment of our society. We know of the vulnerability of Black boys and the “Black Lives Matter” movement primarily focused on Black boys and men. We know about the pernicious problems of sexual harassment and assault but despite being founded by a Black woman (Tarana Burke) the “Me Too” movement has been co-opted by wealthy and famous White women. R. Kelly knew that Black girls were considered less valuable, less worthy than other children. I am convinced he could not have gotten away with this behavior for this long had his victims been young White girls. We see far too many images of Black girls being highly sexualized and referred to as “too fast.” No one is willing to open his or her mouth and say, “They are CHILDREN!” In this R. Kelly saga we saw that not even the girls’ parents did enough to protect them.
The R. Kelly story is not merely an occasion for spilling tea and pointing fingers. It is a call to conscience. We have to have honest conversations about sexual abuse, sexual predators, and sexual harassment in our homes, schools, churches, and communities. We have to teach our children (girls and boys) that their bodies are sacred and no one has a right to do things to them they do not want.
We have to teach them that they are not to keep adults’ secrets (e.g. “Don’t tell anybody about our special time together) and that their self-worth is not tied to whether or not they do things that please a more powerful person like a teacher, a pastor, or an older relative. We also have to be cognizant of what our children are consuming. Rather than dismiss all of their music as garbage we have to listen carefully to what they are listening to and have frank conversations about the message the music conveys. We have to talk about the movies and videos they watch so that they can understand the difference between Hollywood fantasies and real life. We have to do all of these things because we all have to survive!