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On Sept. 27, 2021, after decades of allegations and a documentary series, singer and known predator R. Kelly was found guilty on charges of racketeering and sex trafficking that spanned over the years of his storied career in music. The singer could see anywhere from 10 years to life in prison, and his sentencing will occur in May of 2022.
I remember hearing of one of Kelly’s early assaults at around 10 years old and being disgusted, I wondered how and why an adult man would find it appropriate to do that to a young girl, so close to my own age. I wondered why adults and kids laughed at it, said the girl probably wanted it, made all manner of excuses for the adult man in the situation.
These days, I don’t have to “wonder” why men behave in these ways toward underage girls anymore. I’ve had my own experiences with men who have violated me. I’ve confronted the history that I shoved down for years in order to survive, I know how men get away with this behavior now. It certainly helps to be rich and talented like Kelly, but you surely don’t have to be either of those things to find protection from sexually assaulting young girls. Especially young Black girls. Now that we are a few years into the MeToo Movement, stories are coming to light. Yet there were still women and men outside of the courthouse playing Kelly’s music with prayers in their hearts for him to “beat the charges.”
Victims of sexual violence have to deal with the culture of silence that exists for them. When you are raped, molested, touched, harmed, you have to shove it down and move on. If you don’t, you’re “playing the victim” or “being stuck in the past.” Very little is made of the emotional terrorism that is rape, that is sexual violence. These things are seen as a cost of living and not as the horror they truly are. It is true that anyone can be the victim of sexual violence, but for this piece, I will use the term “women and girls” a lot, because they are the majority of the victims (though not the only ones) that Kelly targeted.
Very little is made of the emotional terrorism that is rape, that is sexual violence. These things are seen as a cost of living and not as the horror they truly are.
I think it is not an exaggeration to say that R. Kelly is, was, beloved in the Black community. He had a lot going for him: he had a powerful voice, was handsome, and sang songs that spoke primarily to Black women of love and care and seduction.
Public perception of Kelly only truly started to change after Surviving R. Kelly, and his subsequent interview with Gale King. King staying poised and calmly repeating “Robert” over and over again was juxtaposed against Kelly standing over her, crying and screaming about his legacy. I could not stomach watching Surviving R. Kelly, I think it’s an important watch but one that is important for those who still support him, who still don’t believe his victims. When the docuseries came out, people of course started talking. There were think pieces and personal essays abound. They asked, how could he have gotten away with this for so long?
The truth is, men like Kelly get away with rape because no one sees the Black girl as a victim. She is instead seen as a kind of temptress, someone who has brought on sexual attention from men by merely existing. We’ve all heard of the “fast” Black girls who were only guilty of existing in their own bodies. Growing up, when a Black girl developed “too soon” it was scandalous and she was marked as a tease. These girls are seen as unworthy of protection. The men in their families and in the larger world who would violate them were only being men, a function of their sex.
With R. Kelly facing serious jail time, I can only think of how the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence factors into conversations about prison abolition and restorative justice that have been renewed in the face of police killings of Black men and women. How can a person believe that prisons shouldn’t exist while simultaneously thinking that the R. Kelly decision is good? I think it is possible. You may disagree with me, and that’s fine. As someone who has taken her rapist to court, I know that justice looks different for everyone.
My rapist was a white man with family connections. I wanted to see him go to jail, to suffer a little bit the way I had suffered under him. The way I was made to suffer by having to talk to police officers, detectives, ADAs, and DAs about the excruciating details of my assault. How my life was invaded, the police calling my friends for their statements about my disclosure. I wanted him to suffer.
The entire court process is your legal team preparing you for the onslaught of victim-blaming questions, and the defense hitting you with an onslaught of victim-blaming questions. It is a harrowing and exhausting process. To survive that is remarkable. I commend the women that went through that process, had their names dragged through the media and probably through private social circles. It takes a certain level of bravery and self-love to seek justice after an assault, and my heart burns for them. I’m happy if this brings them an end to their years of suffering.
R. Kelly is Black, and that may change things for some. It’s a hard reality that many Black men end up in prison for things they did or did not do, and that they suffer in solitary confinement or at the hands of guards. R. Kelly is guilty, let there be no doubt about that. When I reach down inside myself I find conflicted emotions about his possible prison sentence. Yes, the harm he has done needs to be rectified, but will his days in a cell translate to real justice for his victims? I don’t know, and it’s not for me to say. If this news brings even one of the women he hurt peace, then it has done some good in a world of harm. When big trials around rape and violence against women get news coverage, I reflect on my own time and how I feel like I didn’t get the justice I deserved. I felt silenced by the people that were supposed to amplify my voice. I can relate, but I can’t put myself in the shoes of the women Kelly hurt. To tell them that wanting him in jail should give them pause is unjust.
Justice for victims is often not in our hands. We may get to read a victim impact statement, but the judge and jury rarely take into consideration what we want. One of the stipulations of my rapist’s probation was he had to go to therapy. I thought “good, find out what the fuck is wrong with that guy.” But going to therapy doesn’t guarantee that he is always honest with his therapist, that he tells the truth just as he didn’t tell the truth in court. Restorative justice practices like mandatory counseling rely on the fact that the rapist faces the fact that they are a rapist, which some go their whole lives never doing.
That is the legacy of R. Kelly. A man that had so many doors opened for him to escape into.
Some members of the Black community, I’m thinking specifically of Gen X-ers, our aunts, uncles, and cousins, will probably admonish Kelly’s victims and anyone that rejoices in his sentencing for celebrating the “downfall of a Black man.” But Black women have been made to carry that burden for too long. I have swallowed stories of rape and assault by Black men because I didn’t want them to get in trouble, because they were fathers, brothers, and sons. That is not a weight Kelly’s victims should have to carry; it is senseless and sickening. We all know now the kind of effect trauma has on the body. It can make you physically ill. Staying silent doesn’t guarantee anything but rapists going on about their lives, leaving scarred women in their wake. That is the legacy of R. Kelly. A man that had so many doors opened for him to escape into. Whose money and power kept people, his victims, and their families, from telling the truth of the matter. Even those that spoke out from early years couldn’t be heard over the rallying cries of his supporters and fans.
Black women often bear the violence of Black men silently. When we do speak up, it is a chorus of “you should have fought back,” “why didn’t you leave,” and “I’d never let a man do that to me or my sister/daughter/mother.” Everyone wants to theorize on how they would have behaved, making the survivors out to be weak. Men especially like to say they’d kill or harm anyone that would harm the women in their life — but when that man is a family member, a friend, or is famous, that bravado slides off like a coat.
If you heard that R. Kelly might get life in prison and your immediate thought was “good, throw him under the jail,” I completely understand that. I empathize. It’s not my job to evangelize about restorative justice when real harm has been done to countless women. The situation is more complex and nuanced, especially for the survivors of Kelly. If they want to see him in jail let that be the reality they rejoice in. I didn’t write this because I had all the answers about how to seek justice in a post-police world, I don’t have that knowledge. I wrote this to defend the women that went through a trial in order to seek what would bring them peace.