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Film / TVMusic

r. kelly reminds us to protect our black girls

January 9, 2019
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“You need to go up and put on some real pajamas,” my mother whispered at me, nodding toward her own brother in our kitchen. He was staying with us for the summer. I had come downstairs for breakfast in the same white cotton nightgown I always wore around the house. But something about his presence made my normal breakfast attire unacceptable.

My mother frowned. I was 12. We never discussed it.

That same year, I notice my father noticing men, noticing me. I see the way my father’s expression changes. We never talk about it.

If the conversation surrounding dream hampton’s expansive six-part Lifetime documentary series on R. Kelly has shown us anything, it’s our own unwillingness to look at the ugliness lurking in our own families, our own houses. The ugliness in our brothers and our play cousins. The ugliness we can’t bare to grapple with, so we shut our eyes and call it everything except what it actually is: 12-year-old girls having breakfast at their own kitchen tables are dressed inappropriately. Little Black girls are “fast.” Black women and girls are looking for fame, or attention or a paycheck. All of these rationalizations are easier than asking uncomfortable questions about what we’ve actually allowed to go on inside our own homes, and worse, what we’ve accepted as tolerable in our own minds.

Over the phone, dream hampton tells me she remembers older men being dates at her prom. I do, too. But neither of us recognized it as fucked up at the time. Why?

As bad as that commonplace occurrence was, hampton is careful to point out that R.Kelly is worse.

This isn’t about someone having “barely adult consenting partners,” she tells me. It isn’t about gawking at the juicy dirt in his closet. It’s about exposing a predator with a 30-year pattern of systematically preying on Black girls. One who reveals details of his own horrific childhood sexual abuse at 7, but does so to further manipulate his victims. He is so brazen, hampton reminds, that he picks up an underaged girl outside his trial for raping another underaged girl. He wasn’t hiding in plain sight. He did it out in the open and he knew he could get away with it because his victims were Black girls.

Each time someone in Surviving R Kelly calls one of his victims a “woman,” when the abuse happened when she was a literal child, it’s a painful reminder that Black girls aren’t afforded a childhood. As kids, Black girls are expected to have more emotional and mental maturity and accountability than adult men twice their age. A study called  “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood”  by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Equality, found that Black girls aged 5-14 are seen as more adult than their white counterparts, needing less support and inherently know more about adult topics like sex than other girls the same age. You would think this is a painful and unfair stereotype white people lay on Black girls, but we’re doing it to our own sisters and daughters each time we scold them for being “fast” instead of holding adult abusers accountable.  As Marc Lamont Hill put it, “Ain’t no teenage girl ‘fast’ enough to catch a grown man who ain’t attracted to children.”

I ask hampton if the music industry enabled Kelly to abuse girls for years, but  she says it’s much deeper. “That might make a good soundbite, but it’s more than that.” Of course, the industry saw R. Kelly in his heyday as a cash cow, even now his record label RCA hasn’t said anything about the documentary, even as it has sparked criminal proceedings in Georgia.

But beyond that, Surviving R. Kelly turns the lens on ourselves. What are we willing to tolerate? Why? Who are we willing to blame for our own abuse?

I ask hampton if  we separate the art from the artists. She brings up Miles Davis. Davis, a brilliant artist, wrote about the physical abuse he hurled on his wife Cicely Tyson.  

“Miles’ horn has nothing to do with the abusive person he admitted to being in his own autobiography. That’s not true with R.Kelly.”

Surviving R Kelly makes it clear that music is a big part of his MO. He preys on young girls who dream of music stardom, like the niece of his protegee Sparkle who was later the victim in the infamous tape. His inspirational breakout hit “I Believe I Can Fly” on the Space Jam soundtrack signaled to audiences he was a good guy.

He also wrote songs disregarding the concept of an age of consent and growing up, “age ain’t nothing but a number” became a familiar refrain of men trying to have sex with women too young to consent.

It was never “hiding” in plain sight. It was never behind closed doors. It was right out in the open, in the songs we sang to on the radio.  

His music and his horrific deeds are forever linked.