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We all gave R Kelly a free pass – why has it taken the Lifetime documentary to change that?

Women’s stories still carry very little currency in society. And black women’s stories? Even less

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 09 January 2019 14:35 GMT
Survivng R Kelly: the docuseries - trailer

It’s taken a painfully long time for the voices intent on keeping the palatable aspects of R Kelly’s legacy alive to be eclipsed by those detailing allegations against him, but in the wake of the six-part Lifetime documentary, Surviving R Kelly, it seems we’re finally reaching a turning point.

Forty-eight hours after the release of the last episode in the docuseries – on the 52-year-old R&B singer’s birthday, no less – TMZ revealed that as a direct result of Surviving, a devastatingly candid foray into decades-long allegations of sexual assault against R Kelly, mostly by young black women, Kelly is under criminal investigation in Georgia.

According to the report, “investigators were flooded with calls once the docuseries aired”, soon after which the Fulton County District Attorney’s office began to probe into accusations against the singer, reaching out to some of the survivors featured in the documentary.

If the allegations are true, this is great news – for the survivors, for the overall #MeToo movement and, at least in my view, for millions of black women around the world who have long had their stories dismissed because of the myths society associates with black womanhood.

This is a man who, for years, has rested on the laurels of his almost 30-year reign in the music industry and his pull with the black community in particular. Kelly has almost been untouchable up until this point, even with allegations of running a sex cult full of teenage women, his lengthy child pornography trial, his marriage to the then 15-year-old singer Aaliyah, even name-checking her on his 1991 debut single “She’s Got That Vibe”, a song about sexual attraction to a slew of women.

He has songs older than I am about encouraging girls to lose their virginity (“Seems Like You’re Ready”) and more recently (as with his 2013 collaboration with Lady Gaga, “Do What U Want”) singles in which he shamelessly vows to do what he wants “with your body”, never mind the whispers of the Chicagoan’s alleged history with black and latina preteens, teenagers and grown women alike.

What’s happened here? In my view, as the almost inevitable pushback against the surface (or resurface) of women’s allegations against exploitative figures tend to demonstrate, women’s stories still carry very little currency in society. And black women’s stories? Even less.

Which is why I can’t stop thinking about what it means that the world needed on-camera interviews of these women in order to publicise their allegations. Looking at things from a social standpoint, it makes sense that this documentary – unlike other attempts to wade into the particulars of Kelly’s public-private life – has made the waves it has.

This is the first time, to my mind at least, that I’ve been forced to think about the weight of the string of public allegations against the backdrop of the music Kelly was making at the time. It’s also the first time I’ve realised just how complicit the wider machine – from radio stations that still support him, to anyone who ever considered the child pornography he was accused of appearing in as nothing more than a harmless celebrity sex tape, as I myself once did as a teenager – has been in terms of keeping his career afloat. And it’s because, as well as fighting against the legal constraints of publicly lodging accusations against him, survivors of Kelly’s alleged abuse have had to fight to be seen as victims in the first place.

In part of the documentary, one of the jurors from the trial admitted that even after being forced to view that tape, and hearing from a number of predominantly black witnesses at the trial, he “just didn’t believe them, the women.

“I know it sounds ridiculous. The way they dress, the way they act – I didn’t like them”, he said.

In a clip from an interview in May 2018, Chance The Rapper too admitted that the reason he “didn’t value the accusers’ stories” was precisely “because they were black women”. And as painful as admissions like those were to hear as a black woman myself, they somehow validated what I knew all along – that girls like me don’t matter, or are almost deserving of the treatment survivors of Kelly’s alleged abuse say they faced.

When it comes to the way the world views black women, the sad truth is that it makes complete sense that it took nothing less than six hours of harrowing interviews, analysis and heart-wrenching attempts to reunite young girls with their parents to grab people’s attention. We often have to break to be taken seriously; even then, it’s not always enough.

Just as Kelly’s popularity in just about every facet of black culture as he could possibly dominate – from the church to parties, graduations to weddings – explains the strength of our compulsion to defend him for so long, it also shows why outrage in the wider world, especially from non-black people, has been severely lacking. We’re only now beginning to understand that Kelly’s flourishing career, and arrogance to the point of relying on his usual formula to redeem himself through song, is no longer acceptable.

Kelly himself has vehemently denied all allegations against him. It’s not yet clear what this investigation, perhaps the biggest threat to his career in years, will yield. But I can’t help but feel hope that, thanks largely because of black women themselves (as usual), this could be the beginning of the end of the reign of the former king of R&B.

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