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Monday 14 January 2019

His time’s up

The music industry and the business of black celebrity commercialised the hypersexual R&B star. Many young black women have paid the price

By Daniel Lewis

R. Kelly’s songs surged on streaming sites last week. After the first episode of Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part series looking into the long list of abuse allegations against the 52-year old R&B superstar, people reached again for his music.

I was one of them. The 16 per cent jump in Spotify listening was not nostalgia, nor an attempt to drown out the devastating testimonies of more than two dozen women with the sound of the singer’s honeyed tenor. It was, instead, a recalibration. A re-evaluation.

Surveying Kelly’s nearly three-decade career, his obscene private life seems to have left nothing untouched. Albums, singles, photos and videos pile up like damaged goods. Like evidence.

In 1994, he married his protege, Aaliyah, when she was 15 years old. The certificate was doctored to claim she was 18. He had just helped to record and produce her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.

After a swift annulment, there was heavy reporting in the Chicago Sun-Times of his alleged predatory behaviour. Then, leaked footage of sex with a 14-year-old girl (the “pee tape”). Following that, a litany of lawsuits in the late nineties and early noughties – some 21 counts of child pornography in 2002 – failed to deter either Kelly or his audiences. In fact, it may have brought them closer together.

As the allegations stacked up, so did the white-hot chart toppers. Step in the Name of Love, a feel-good family friendly anthem; Ignition (Remix), still the pre-eminent party-closer afterparty-opener of this century. The album, The Chocolate Factory, hit No.1 on the Billboard 100 in 2003. Its release came while Kelly was in and out of court. He escaped charges in 2004 thanks, it seems, to incompetent search warrants. He did so again in 2008 before a Chicago court. According to a juror interviewed in the documentary, the women simply weren’t believable.

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Such disbelief is what the documentary dispels. Surviving R. Kelly is the first time all the allegations have been gathered in one place. It is also the first time they have been taken seriously. The weight of 2018’s Year of the Woman is behind them. It seems Time’s Up for Kelly; he is having his #MeToo moment.

The story is stamped with the same features that have marked recent high-profile abuses: power imbalances, professional manipulation, legal SWAT teams, NDAs. However, beyond what Kelly’s (incarcerated) older brother calls “a preference” for teenage girls, the picture is more complicated.

It is about reclaiming the #MeToo movement, which, after focusing on high-profile cases involving mainly white women, feels like it is returning to black women. After all, it was launched by a black woman, Tarana Burke (who features in the documentary), and not Alyssa Milano, who popularised the hashtag on Twitter.

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It is about those who have made forgiveness of men like Kelly a virtue and a vice. They have been reluctant to give up the man, the message and the music, which stands for a heritage that is hard won. To some, it’s a different rights battle: they have been unwilling to hand over a black man to a system they see pitched against them. Yet it has become harder and harder to separate the art and artist without being further implicated in the systemic disregard of black women.

And it is about the entertainment industry and the business of black celebrity, which has commercialised men in the mould of Kelly, their hyper-sexualisation, their own experience of abuse and their exploitation of black women.

It is easy to assume the self-proclaimed Pied Piper of R&B has a lot of time for women and little interest in the consensual. “Your body’s calling for me”, he senses, whether you know it or not.

But one of the things R&B and soul has given to music history is exactly this heightened sense of sensuality, attuned to rhythms otherwise dulled by the daily grind of work and poverty. This gift, and Kelly’s brand of it, is something the black community, and particularly women, are reluctant to give up.

Spotify’s attempt last year to remove Kelly from their playlists, along with the late rapper XXXTentacion who also had a history of violence against women, met with fierce whataboutery. And failure. Banning him is much like blocking an escape route, one of the few black people are permitted to use. Attempts to close down his concerts have also struggled. If, to paraphrase (read, butcher) Malcolm X, black women are the most disrespected, unprotected, neglected people in America, then Kelly, at least while he is on stage, makes them matter. He makes them feel seen.

At the same time, he has exploited their invisibility. Had any of his victims been white, one wonders whether it would have taken a prime-time documentary to bring Kelly to some kind of justice; whether these young women would have had to make their own case. (Below: How could this have happened? by Mikki Kendall.)

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Tarana Burke, activist and founder #MeToo

But it’s worth flipping the script, too. What if Kelly were white? The story’s backdrop is the hyper-visibility of black men in pop culture. They are oogled and Googled and inspected but not respected. Obamas are rare.

Hypersexuality was one of the things that made Kelly’s celebrity. There was, apparently, a more innocent time when you could pick up bootleg versions of Kelly’s infamous sex tape at the local grocery store. One of the episodes argues the singer was “hiding in plain sight”, laying bare his personal life with his lyrics and “outrageous” image. But to what extent was a turbo-charged libido both an expectation and a marketing ploy?

There is no major label in existence that has not profited from the bad boy, playtoy stereotype.

Decades of tastemaking and media representation have meant many black men fail to recognise the abuse they hand out to others as well as that which they receive from a young age.

At the beginning of Surviving R. Kelly, we are shown a clip from an interview in which the singer talks, briefly, about losing his virginity at the age of 14 to an older woman in his family. It is an episode he also recounts in his 2012 autobiography. He normalises the abuse as early pubescence, even a sign of prowess; it “awakened” him to sex earlier than others, he says.

It is a conclusion many other black men have drawn. When Chris Brown, another R&B singer who hospitalised his then girlfriend Rihanna in 2009 among other alleged offences, revealed he had lost his virginity to a 15-year-old at the age of eight, he did so with pride.

Experience of child sexual abuse in African-American communities is among the highest in the US and fairly even between genders – around one in four girls and one in six boys. These statistics come from a 2005 report. Their sheer scarcity shows just how unrecognised and underreported this type of abuse remains, particularly for men.

To make this point in the context of Kelly is to run the risk of entering a game of oppression oneupmanship. It is crucial, though, in throwing light on a cycle of abuse, whose prime byproduct is toxic masculinity – an anathema to many but a trap to a vulnerable few, including the women who populate this series.

Surviving R. Kelly offers no solutions to breaking that cycle. But, then again, why would it? A show on Lifetime is only a cog in the media machine that asks people to bare all, and sexuality is its bread and body butter. Inadvertently, just by being what it is, this series demonstrates the extent of the damage Kelly is doing not only to black women but men, too. All-too-familiar epithets for the black male ricochet across its six parts: predator, monster, manipulator. Not all black men are made in this image, and those who are should no longer be by communities or the entertainment industry.

The same goes for the suffering black female. To watch “survivors” break down while getting molecular about their “relationships” with Kelly is one of the main reasons more than two million viewers tuned in last week. We still have to grapple with that fact.

If we want an answer to why Kelly survived for so long, perhaps this is it. Sex sells; so does abuse.

Top picture by Getty Images

“How could this have happened?”

By Mikki Kendall

As the six hours of footage in Surviving R. Kelly played out on Lifetime TV in America, an old question was repeated on the news, in homes, and online: “How could this have happened?” For others – those who were old enough to remember the first reports in the mid-1990s – the questions were different. “How does this keep happening?”, or “How in spite of the evidence does he still manage to work when so many other offenders after MeToo have faced criminal charges, been fired, or been forced out of the public eye?”

Race is the answer to both questions.

Not just R Kelly’s race (after all sexual violence isn’t unique to any community). The race of his victims provided a peculiar sort of insulation. Because his targets were young black girls, they were seen as less worthy of protection, as less valuable, as too hypersexualised to be victims, as studies show that cultural messaging around black youth position them as older and less innocent than similarly aged white peers.

As a result of that cultural conditioning even inside the black community, the fact that the girls were in places where they could be preyed on somehow meant that they were “fast tailed” and thus were seeking out sexual attention from adults.

“Celebrity seemed to give R Kelly the power to harm his alleged victims, and insulated him from even the most basic of consequences”

As a result, when he went on trial for child pornography there was far less outrage than you would expect given the history, the scope of the charges and the video evidence. Celebrity seemed to give R Kelly the power to harm his alleged victims, and insulated him from even the most basic of consequences. He didn’t just survive his trial, his career thrived after it.

As recently as 2013, when Lady Gaga (among others) continued to work with him, there was a kneejerk tendency to defend him instead of disavowing all connection to him. Perhaps a misguided desire to avoid appearing racist for attacking a black man collided with a lack of empathy for black girls and crafted a loophole that allowed his career to go on for years after the offenses were first spotted.

The lack of white feminist celebrities and organisations joining the movement to stop Kelly has contributed to the overarching problem. In the wake of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo and the #TimesUp campaign, perhaps we can finally start asking better questions – ones that centre on the safety of victims and allow for the cultural shift necessary to listen to the first victim instead of waiting for the number to be in the dozens.  R Kelly and those like him shouldn’t be able to survive, much less thrive.