“He stole my life from me.”
— Lizette Martinez, who says she was controlled and abused by R. Kelly as a teenager
For decades, R. Kelly has enjoyed astronomical fame despite consistent and disturbing claims that he has sexually, mentally and physically abused teenage girls.
Last week, Lifetime aired a six-part documentary series titled “Surviving R. Kelly” to monster ratings. In it, many people who knew him — including numerous women who claimed they were abused by Mr. Kelly as teenagers — gave wrenching accounts of their experiences.
“R. Kelly has been preying on young and vulnerable women — black women mostly — and he has built an ecosystem around his predation,” dream hampton, executive producer of the documentary, told WNYC’s “The Takeaway” this week.
[Read more about the decades of sexual abuse allegations detailed in the documentary.]
Mr. Kelly, 52, has denied all these allegations from the beginning. But the documentary was enough to prompt investigators in Chicago and Atlanta to look into current claims that Mr. Kelly has established a sort of sex cult, holding girls against their will, in homes in those cities.
While he’s never been found of wrongdoing, the question remains: How could so many have continued to celebrate him and his music, and given him the benefit of the doubt, for so long? Here are five possible reasons.
“Sexual predation as an inconvenience in pop music is so old.”
Ann Powers, a pop music critic who was interviewed for the documentary, spoke about our culture’s collective view that it’s natural for male musicians to woo girls.
The music industry has a long history of adult male musicians mentoring, dating and marrying young girls — and music itself has long paid tribute to underage girls, she said. The Beatles sang: “She was just 17, and you know what I mean.” Elvis Presley met Priscilla when she was 14, and Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin Myra Gale Brown when she was 13, though it devastated his career.
“It’s a situation ripe for men taking advantage of young girls,” Ms. Powers said in the documentary. “Sexual predation as an inconvenience in pop music is so old. It’s been going on for decades, centuries.”
“I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were black women.”
When Chance the Rapper said this in the final episode of the documentary, he was speaking to a greater problem: that black girls are not believed when they speak up, and that they experience “adultification” — meaning they are perceived as older and less innocent than white girls, so there tends to be less shock when they are sexualized.
This has been supported by research, most notably in a 2017 study published by Georgetown Law which found that adults see black girls as “less in need of protection as white girls of the same age,” according to Rebecca Epstein, one of its authors.
A Times Opinion piece this week brought up the film “NO! The Rape Documentary,” created 20 years ago by the filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons. It was initially rejected by distributors, and in 1998, an executive from HBO told Ms. Simmons: “Let’s face it, very unfortunately, most people don’t care about the rape of black women and girls, and therefore we’re concerned that there won’t be many viewers who will tune in.”
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“Playing sex for laughs.”
In an essay this week, my colleague Aisha Harris, a television editor, examined how “two cultural touchstones” helped keep people laughing at Mr. Kelly, thus helping to shape the public’s perception of the accusations.
The first was a 2003 sketch from “Chappelle’s Show” called “(I Wanna) Pee on You,” which parodied a widely distributed sex tape that appeared to show Mr. Kelly urinating on a 14-year-old girl. The second was a 2005 episode of the animated series “The Boondocks” titled “The Trial of R. Kelly,” in which a main character, a boy named Riley, defends Mr. Kelly, saying: “I’ve seen that girl! She ain’t little. I’m little.”
Mr. Kelly had no part in those shows, but in 2005 he began to release “Trapped in the Closet,” an episodic, bizarre and often comical operetta. “I think at some point he probably figured out that playing sex for laughs was a way that he could continue to avoid absolute condemnation for what he might have been doing behind the scenes,” Ms. Powers said.
“The black community rallied around him.”
The way that Mr. Kelly managed to stay in the public’s good graces was a remarkable balancing act, but perhaps it was not so surprising given his hero status and the blind adoration of millions of his fans.
Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, who was interviewed for the documentary, said that his songs were the soundtrack to the lives of many black Americans — played at weddings, graduations, birthdays — and people were not ready to give that up. “The black community rallied around him,” Burke said. “They believed he was innocent.”
As Ms. Powers put it: “Nobody wants to give up the music they love, and nobody wants to think badly of the artists they love.”
In 2002, the year he was indicted on charges of child pornography, he performed at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics — a duality that spoke to the level of his fame.
In the six years that he waited to go to trial, he released albums including “Chocolate Factory,” which included the commercial smash “Ignition (Remix),” and the gospel-influenced “Happy People/U Saved Me.”
“There’s this knee-jerk instinct to protect him.”
Also important, said Jamilah Lemieux, a culture critic interviewed for the documentary, was the idea that attacks on famous black men are part of a larger racist conspiracy to keep them from succeeding — a defense that was used by Bill Cosby and Justice Clarence Thomas, who called the 1991 sexual harassment accusations against him by Anita Hill a “high-tech lynching.”
“When someone like R. Kelly gets in trouble, there’s this knee-jerk instinct to protect him from the system,” Ms. Lemieux said. It feels, she said, like protecting Kelly and his ability to make music and entertain fans meant more than what he did in private with these young black girls.
By the numbers
That’s how many counts of child pornography R. Kelly was charged with in 2002 for allegedly engaging in and videotaping sexual acts with a 14-year-old girl. He pleaded not guilty. The proceedings dragged on for years, in which time seven of the counts were dropped. The trial started in May 2008. In June, the jury decided that the girl, who did not testify, could not be identified with certainty, and Mr. Kelly was found not guilty on all counts.
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From the archives, 2002: ‘I hate to see that happen to him.’
The overall sentiment in the Times article about R. Kelly’s arrest in 2002 was one of hesitancy. Even Terry G. Hillard, superintendent of the Chicago police at the time, said: “It’s unfortunate to see Mr. Kelly’s talents go to waste.”
An area radio station director said: “We are going to continue to play the music because that is where the listeners are at.”
“We all make mistakes,” another man said.
Jacqueline Rayford, 36, was quoted the most in the article. “Anybody can make those tapes up,” she said. “I feel like they’re doing that because this brother has money.”
“I don’t believe that because he came to our church and he dedicated a song to the women in the community,” Ms. Rayford went on. “It was, ‘You Are So Beautiful,’ and that always stuck with me.”
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