TWIL: Why People Still Support R. Kelly

TWIL: Why People Still Support R. Kelly
'#MuteRKelly' sign from Wednesday night's protest outside of his Chicago studio | Photo Courtesy of NBC

I, like many people, was enthralled and enraged by Lifetime’s docu-series Surviving R. Kelly last week. We knew about his history, but to hear the details directly from those affected was quite an experience.

Watching everyone respond to it in real time was a huge part of that experience. So many people from the Chicago area talked about the well-known stories of R. Kelly’s frequent visits to Kenwood and other high schools, giving firsthand accounts or recounting stories told by their mothers, cousins, aunts and friends who were in middle and high school in the 90s. I thought about all the creepy men and older boys who had watched me, followed me, and tried to flirt with me starting when I was about 12, and saw how many women had similar stories. I was reminded of the times I would ride by his house in Olympia Fields and feel a sudden sense of dread and mild anxiety knowing what happened there, and as a young girl at the time, being afraid of it happening to me. We were all shaken.

Seeing so many people share the same negative feelings was somewhat of a comfort while watching it. While feeling angry, afraid, sad, and frustrated that he was allowed to do all that he had been accused of and not face any consequence, it felt better to know that so many of us wanted to do something about it.

But somehow there are still people who won’t let him be dismissed. I can’t even call them all fans, because a number of them will argue “I’m not saying I support him, but…”

The main defense is that we have to hear both sides before we can make any assumptions. But I’d argue, we already have heard both sides. For years he’s maintained his innocence, even making songs about how “not guilty” he is. In case you missed that weird 19-minute doozy of a song he posted to Soundcloud, he gives his side of the story. So where do we go from there?

What I’ve found is that a lot of people are afraid to push away from his music. Chicagoans especially have a hard time letting go. “He’s a genius” people say. “No one can replace his talent.” Therein, I think, lies the problem. We’ve been so busy concerning ourselves with how he entertains us that we’ve turned a blind eye to what type of person he actually is. (I use “we” loosely, as I’ve never considered myself a fan of his and, even though an occasional song may find its way into my head, I don’t consider his discography to be that dazzling. Fight me.) This is scary, particularly because the way he’s charmed people with his music is the same way he’s charmed his way into the hearts of his victims. He manipulates people into loving and supporting him, and it works so well.

I’ve written before about separating art from its artist, and used him as an example of how it can’t be done. A lot of people want to believe they can, but when the artist makes sexually-explicit music when the issue is his sexual deviancy, or music that directly addresses things he’s been accused of, there is literally no way to make that separation. The art is typically a reflection of the artist - their beliefs, their passions, their problems, etc. This may hold true for some artists more than others, but, in this case, he’s laid it all out for us to see; it definitely applies.

It’s baffling to see people say that this is all just a matter of R. Kelly having “haters” who just want to bring him down. He’s had a career that spans nearly three decades; why would we be trying to bring him down now? The way that the stories of these survivors are dismissed for the sake of protecting some goofy, “sexy” music is appalling. It makes other survivors afraid to come forward. It shows them that, if the monster that put them through whatever they went through has enough of a support system, it doesn’t matter what they did. In sticking up for R. Kelly, in continuing to support his music, in continuing to humanize him and try to rationalize why he is the way he is, we are showing survivors of abuse, sexual assault, and young (BLACK) girls and women that we just don’t care. And that is dangerous. And what makes it unfair is that, the culture that scares these girls and women into holding on to whatever happened to them is made up of the same people who will, down the line, ask “Why didn’t she say something sooner?”

We are also showing other predators that they have a chance to do what they do without being held accountable for it. Not once has R. Kelly taken a step back to even say “I’m sorry I made anyone feel hurt.” He hasn’t even given a phony apology that doesn’t take responsibility for anything. He maintains that he’s done nothing wrong, even with evidence that proves the contrary, and that’s enough for a lot of people. Instead, the responsibility is placed on the women he’s hurt.

Why didn’t his ex-wife do anything?

Why are all of these women coming forward now?

They knew who he was, why did they go with him in the first place?

We were shown, very explicitly, that the women and girls who went with him were either fans themselves, like the people who dismiss the allegations, and learned firsthand who he was and what he was about, or they were talented girls who were promised a path to stardom, but were then sucked into something they shouldn’t have been. They were manipulated, and he’s the one at fault. He’s the manipulator. The concern, for the most part, should not be how these women got themselves into this situation. Ultimately, what matters is what he’s done, what he’s doing, and how and when he will be held accountable.

To an extent, I can understand wanting to know all the facts before believing something about someone you like or support, or even simply don’t actively dislike. Wednesday, there was a rumor circling that Jason Momoa was a child predator and that there was a video circulating that showed him inappropriately touching a young girl. Momoa has said some questionable things in the past, and I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a big fan of his, but I stopped and said “well, that can’t be right.” It wasn’t necessarily that I dismissed the claims, but I wanted to know more about the situation before jumping straight to “canceling” him for it. As it turns out, the video was of him embracing his children, both his son and daughter, his arms awkwardly dangling over their shoulders and his hands hovering limply over their chests. His hand movements were awkward, but it wasn’t what people were making it out to be. But people who dislike Momoa, especially for his past comments, would probably immediately jump to “I knew he was a monster.”

The difference here, I think, is that Momoa doesn’t have a documented history of being a predator. The things R. Kelly has done have been on display for the world to see for decades, and have been dismissed on technicalities such as current victims being of age. We should all, largely, be in accord, but for some reason we’re not.

I think we’re collectively, slowly but surely, waking up to the reality of who R. Kelly is, and we’re making progress in making people examine their support for him. Past collaborators like Lady Gaga publicly renouncing their past work with him and apologizing for being passive while all of this was happening is a huge step. Realistically, I don’t believe that every one of his supporters will stop supporting him. But I do think it’s irresponsible to allow the allegations against him to be swept under the rug for the sake of protecting art that is problematic in its essence. We all have work to do in regards to being honest with ourselves about the way black women and girls are not afforded the same level of sympathy as other women, especially white women, believing survivors of sexual assault and abuse, and dismantling ideologies that both encourage and ignore the objectification and harming of women and girls.

We also need more people like John Legend.

For more information on A Long Walk Home, a non-profit organization that uses art to "educate, engage, and empower young people to end violence against girls and women," you can find them on Twitter or on their home site.

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