This is not a think piece.
I don’t need to think about how I feel about R. Kelly.
I’m not trying to land on a position, I’m not weighing the information, and I’m not taking a little time to process.
He’s trash. Full stop.
This is not a think piece.
There have been enough of them written, as well as exposés and articles and timelines about the horrendous sexually predatory behavior of Robert Sylvester Kelly. I don’t want to talk about him. I want to talk about them. The girls. The Black girls who he has stalked, preyed on, manipulated, terrorized, abused and discarded for the better part of two and a half decades.
The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated and they are “bitches, ho’s, and gold-diggers,” plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, makes this point: “One white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different. No, it was young black girls, and all of them settled. They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn’t have a chance.”
This quote is from Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago reporter who has spent the better part of a decade writing about and exposing the sexually deviant behavior of the R&B singer known as R. Kelly. This week DeRogatis published another exposé on the Buzzfeed platform alleging that Kelly is operating a “cult”-like commune where he is holding barely legal Black girls at homes in Atlanta and Chicago under the guise of mentorship and preparation for becoming recording artists. The details are horrid but not surprising. Ever since the first story surfaced about 28-year old Kelly marrying then-15-year old singer Aaliyah the allegations against him have grown more and more grotesque and depraved.
R. Kelly is an outlier in that he has the money and resources to hide behind civil suit settlements and non-disclosure agreements. He can tuck these girls away in suburban mansions and pay folks to make sure they do his bidding. But in many ways he is also a proxy for the scores and scores of other men who also prey on, manipulate, terrorize, abuse and discard Black and Brown girls daily. This is what trafficking looks like.
Sexual violence is pandemic right here on American soil, with trafficking underage girls and young women right at the center. Black and Brown girls bear the brunt of it because of exactly what DeRogatis said: “Nobody matters less to our society than young, Black women. Nobody.”
I don’t want to paint R. Kelly as an anomaly, because he is not. He is just in the spotlight because of his celebrity, but there are many R. Kelly’s in every ‘hood in America, and if we cared about and held on to Black girls the way we hold fast to R. Kelly’s catalog of music our girls might have half of a chance. As a community we have to be proactive in supporting the young girls within our reach when we have opportunities, but first we have to come to a collective agreement that they ARE girls. In June the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law released a study called “Black Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girl’s Childhood” that explored the ways in which we cast Black female children as adults prematurely. In the study they note this important qualification from author and researcher Monique Morris: “Another important aspect of adultification for Black girls lies in culturally rooted fantasies of Black girls’ sexualization. The commonly held stereotype of Black girls as hypersexualized is defined by society’s attribution of sex as a part of the ‘natural’ role of Black women and girls.”
This is evinced in most conversations about Kelly where the girls are often blamed for being involved with him in the first place. When the Village Voice article came out in 2013 detailing all of the gory details of Kelly’s exploits over the previous 20 years, including his videotaping himself having sex with and then urinating on a 14-year-old recent junior high school graduate, the reaction in the Black community was — unbelievably— split. Kelly supporters, many of whom are Black women, blamed the victims, the teenage girls.
We can easily agree that children should not be judged in a court of law as adults, even at times for heinous crimes, but we struggle to understand how a 14-year-old, whose brain is still developing, could be manipulated by the rich, (arguably) handsome, entertainer who is all over their radio and television.
We need a reckoning. We need a collective “come to Jesus.” We need Spike Lee to run across the campus screaming “WAKE UP!!”
So, this is not a think piece.
This is a clarion call. A call to action. A plea for the humanity of Black girls.
We need to stop stepping to this man’s songs and stop singing along to his lyrics, and somebody, anybody, please … sing a Black girl’s song.
Ways to take action in support of Black girls:
1. Do not support the work of R. Kelly in any shape, form or fashion. Take money out of his pockets that could be used to further prey on Black girls and make a statement about your belief in them.
2. Support LOCAL girls organizations, especially those focused on the health and well-being of Black girls and girls of color. Often-times these are the organizations that will plant seeds that make it less likely for a girl to be manipulated by a predator like Kelly, and/or will provide support if and when it happens.
4. Donate to an anti-trafficking organization like G.E.M.S. that works directly with survivors of sex trafficking and is working to end it.
5. Believe Black girls. Believe their stories. Believe in their right to make mistakes like young folk do. Believe in their strength and resilience while also supporting their vulnerability. Believe love can save them. And believe they will save us.
Tarana Burke is the Senior Director of Programs at Girls for Gender Equity. She is also an anti-sexual violence advocate who is working on a documentary about Black and Brown survivors called “me too.”