I watched it. Not the tape of him having sex with a 14, 15, or 16 year old child. At the time that tape came out, I considered it child pornography and did not want to watch or even have it in my possession.
I watched the enormously painful documentary mini-series, Surviving R Kelly, “executive produced by cultural critic, filmmaker and passionate activist dream hampton, Tamara Simmons, Joel Karlsberg and Jesse Daniels for Kreativ Inc.” I watched the pain of girls and women who have been touched by R Kelly’s woundedness. Watched the pain of their families and his family. And, yes, watched the pain of R Kelly, the manchild at the center of series.
I call R Kelly a manchild, not to provide any cover or excuse for an adult’s abuse of children, but rather to recognize the rape and molestation Robert Sylvester Kelly experienced as a child–something he has acknowledged occurred when he was approximately 6 to 13 years old. The mini-series presents Robert, the child, as a timid, sensitive, and talented person who was sexually assaulted. In the documentary, Kelly expresses how his sexual awakening was prematurely jumpstarted and kicked into overdrive as a result of those violations by his “people.”
But it is just as important to consider what gets stopped or stagnated in the development of a child who has endured such abuse. The ability to form relationships based upon mutual respect, care and concern, feel empathy, and set boundaries in relationships that are mutually beneficial can be corrupted and difficult. Add to those challenges the advantages of power, celebrity, and wealth: the financial resources to obtain the unobtainable; people who want to please you so that you continue to provide them with an income; and a cult of personality that hides or minimizes all of your faults, flaws, and weaknesses and tells you how amazing you are.
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
It’s a toxic recipe. But not the whole recipe. There’s also another ingredient–the intergenerational trauma in Black families that Joy DeGruy calls post traumatic slave syndrome (PTSS). PTSS makes Black families and their members vulnerable to abuse, the denial of abuse, and the collaboration with abuse.
When R Kelly’s younger brother expressed in the documentary that he did not feel safe enough to tell an adult that he was being molested as a child, the vulnerabilities of Black families under PTSS and the modern manifestations of settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy are evident. When R Kelly’s older brother minimized child sexual assault by classifying girls as young as 12 and old as 16 as young women and questions why people would have a problem with a 20-something, 30-something, or 40-something year old man having sex with them, it is evident.
When a mother and father talked about how they introduced their daughter to R Kelly by taking her to one of his concerts and allowing him to pull her on stage with him during the performance after knowing he had been tried for child pornography and had been rumored to prey on girls, it is evident. When R Kelly’s former backup singer shared how she introduced her 14 year old niece to R Kelly so that he could help the child rapper with her career after knowing that R Kelly had sex with and married 15 year old Aaliyah, it is evident. When R Kelly’s former personal assistant describes how he had papers forged indicating that 15 year old, pregnant Aaliyah was 18 years old so that R Kelly could marry her, it is evident.
Beyond this incredible documentary, PTSS and misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey and Trudy aka @thetrudz to describe “an historical anti-Black misogyny and a problematic intraracial gender dynamic that had wider implications in popular culture,” have long been at play in how people mishandled and responded to the allegations of child sexual assault and abuse against R Kelly. Chance the Rapper explained his own decisions to do business with R Kelly in the face of those allegations thusly:
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) January 6, 2019
The documentary makes clear how much of R Kelly’s catalogue serves as a musical confessional that has been the soundtrack of so many people’s lives–offering us positive personal associations with music that was literally made before, during, or after the sexual assault and/or abuse of a Black girl oftentimes in a building that has served as both studio or torture chamber. So many of us are not willing to sacrifice the emotional connection we have to R Kelly’s music in the interest of standing up for Black girls and women. No sacrifice is easy and every sacrifice comes with a personal cost. PTSS and misogynoir have made the cost of affirming the lives of Black girls and women too high for some but not all of us.
The Music Industry and Sexuality
The music industry has made an industry out of sexualizing boys, girls, teenagers, and adults to sell music. Male pop music stars performing to a sea of screaming young girls is so common that it is unquestioned. The music industry preys upon the evolving sexuality of girls (and queer boys) in a society in which there is no comprehensive, developmentally appropriate sex education, denies that the development of sexuality can start in childhood, and that commodifies everything including sex.
The sexualization of pop music stars doesn’t just have negative consequences for fans. Raz B of B2K has for years talked about the abuse he endured as child who along with other members of the group became a musical sensation. I use that term sensation deliberately.
For things to change, our communities have to create and maintain systems of accountability. Our organizations and institutions must organize ways of holding people to community standards and principles, offering resources for restorative justice and truth, healing and reconciliation, and providing spaces for individuals and families to discuss PTSS, misogynoir, and child sexual assault in open and authentic ways.
In the case of R Kelly in Chicago, there is no way I will ever listen to Louis Farrakhan talk about protecting and supporting the Black community without thinking about the rape and abuse that has been alleged to have happened for over two decades in the city in which the Nation of Islam is headquartered. But given the relationships Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan’s religious father, had with several teenage girls who later became his wives, and Louis Farrakhan’s defense of these relationships, perhaps he is not a credible messenger nor in a position to use his considerable resources to hold R Kelly accountable.
As someone who has had and continues to have lovers and sexual partners that are in their early 20s and early/mid 30s for much of my adult life, I also have a personal responsibility to continue to interrogate the nature and ethics of my desires and sexual choices. Why is much of my sexual interest and attention among this age group? As a sexologist, I know sexual desire is complex, complicated and multi-faceted. There are no linear, simple relationships between attraction and any one aspect of someone’s life.
As I look at my own sexual development, I can acknowledge that my early 20s and 30s were a period of tremendous learning and identity development. During that period, I learned to embrace my sexual fluidity and kinks. It was an important period of identity development for me as a person in the world as well. There was, of course, pain, and hard work, and difficult experiences during that period as well for me but I’ve associated powerfully positive, emotionally satisfying, and erotically charged feelings to that period.
So perhaps, I also associate people who are in that age group with the same things and therefore find people at that age attractive more often than people in other age groups. Or perhaps, there’s another reason or set of reasons. Or perhaps it’s a combination of reasons. But if I don’t take the time to critically self-reflect about my desires, I can be unintentionally engaged in harm to others and not have a clue about it.
I take seriously my responsibility to be ethical in all of my relationships including in whom I choose to be in relationship, the kind of relationships I co-create, and how I treat people in those relationships. There are few easy answers and a lot of work to do to maintain fidelity to that responsibility.
To learn, heal, and grow, we have to have honest, authentic, uncomfortable conversations with ourselves, members of our families, and members of our community. We have to be willing to engage in rigorous truth telling, not the kind that masks woundedness, abuse, and verbal violence under the guise of keeping it real, but rather a sincere attempt to give voice to our experience and to bear witness to the experience of others. And we have to do this most difficult work in the face of interlocking systems of domination and oppression that put pressure on us to check out, be distracted, deny reality, and silence the sources of difficult truths even when they are within us.