Art by Rachel Hood.
Written By Keryce Chelsi Henry.
When R. Kelly was tried for child pornography, I was 14 years old — the same age as the girl in the tape seen being assaulted by the then-35-year-old Kelly. I was aware of the case but, for the most part, I barely thought about it. After all, Kelly had made significant contributions to the soundtrack of my formative years. I sang along to “I Believe I Can Fly” endlessly as a toddler because it opened my favorite movie, Space Jam. My friends and I reenacted Kelly’s spat with Ronald Isley on “Confessions” countless times. Dancing along to “Step in the Name of Love” was a given at every family gathering. Plus, he produced major hits for boy band B2K, headliners of the first concert I’d ever attended. Sure, the allegations against him made me uneasy, but Kelly’s music was incredible, inescapable, and ingrained in my life. That meant he couldn’t be that bad, right?
Wrong. Learning more about Kelly’s nearly three-decade history of statutory rape, child pornography, and sex trafficking now turns my stomach when I hear his songs, especially those inspired by his interactions with minors. (Even the cover art for Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number makes me uncomfortable.) I’m embarrassed that I once supported someone who preyed on girls like me, because there is more to Kelly’s crimes than him taking advantage of young girls, as #MuteRKelly and Surviving R. Kelly have revealed: Kelly has gotten off scot-free for nearly three decades because he’s been exploiting the lack of protection provided to Black girls.
How can justice be served if not only Kelly needs to be held accountable, but also society as a whole? For Kenyette Barnes and Joslyn Jackson, two of the figures behind #MuteRKelly, the answer is straightforward: Change the way we think about Black girls and sexual abuse.
“It’s not just about shutting down his concerts,” says Barnes who co-founded #MuteRKelly with Oronike Odeleye in 2017, after decades of Black women’s efforts to get Kelly and his enablers to face consequences. “It’s about changing the narrative around and perception of Black girls.” There are different aspects of this narrative, one being the erasure of Black girls and women from social justice movements that are supposed to be supporting them. “If R. Kelly’s victims were white girls, you’d have feminists around this country trying to take him down,” Barnes says. “If he was a white man, he would have civil rights activists around the country trying to take him down,” she says, noting that another major aspect is “[Black women’s] historic need to support Black men because of the history of false accusations and the unjust treatment of the criminal justice system.” (I saw this firsthand when I covered Terrence Howard’s history of domestic abuse, which elicited comments from readers who felt as though it was distracting from Empire’s history-making debut.) It was clear that to some, protecting a Black man trumps his transgressions.
Not only are Black girls neglected in favor of more dominant groups, but they’re disproportionately assumed to be capable of fending for themselves, according to a study by Georgetown Law that Barnes references. “Black girls are viewed more emotionally, developmentally, and cognitively mature than their non-Black counterparts,” she says. “With adultification comes a lack of protection, so you hear the narrative, ‘Well [the victims] knew better than to go over there in the first place.’” Add to this the fact that girls are shamed for natural act of embracing their sexuality during adolescence, and Kelly’s victims are subjected to even more criticism. “We are too comfortable with the narrative of manipulative women and fast girls that we don’t allow a space for the possibility of manipulation against them,” Barnes says. Adds Joslyn Jackson, former Chief of Staff to the Board of Commissioners Chairman of Fulton County, Georgia, and an unsung hero of of #MuteRKelly, “If we were more active about viewing children as children, the issue would not be as prevalent.”
Kelly has gotten off scot-free for nearly three decades because he’s been exploiting the lack of protection provided to Black girls.
There’s a cultural aspect to the perception of Black girls as well, with sexual assault being normalized in the Black community. “You can’t deny that there are a large population of people within the Black community who find absolutely nothing wrong with R. Kelly’s behavior because they’re doing the same thing,” says Barnes. “Over 60% of Black girls have experienced sexual assault before their 18th birthday.” Kelly’s actions are so common in our community that they have become a punchline. I look back regretfully on the times I laughed along to the well-known Chappelle’s Show skit that parodies Kelly with the song “Piss On You,” not knowing that I was feeding a narrative crafted against me. Even worse, as Barnes recalls, the child pornography tapes were actually shared in plain view. “When I moved to Philadelphia around ‘99, I remember the bootlegged copies [being sold] under the el train,” she says. “These were grown men selling bootlegged copies of child pornography. I am a survivor of child pornography, so that was triggering.”
But #MuteRKelly is actively debunking this idea. Shutting down Kelly’s concerts and having his music removed from airwaves and streaming services helps establish that young Black women deserve to be protected and heard, and to not do so should result in dire consequences. By directly attacking Kelly’s pockets, he can no longer profit from his abuse or pay “his high profile attorneys who have gotten rich servicing NDAs to underage girls,” as Barnes puts it. Tarana Burke had been talking out against R. Kelly for years,” Barnes says. “Before #MeToo became [what it is today], her group would send letters to radio stations asking them to stop playing his music.”
Local governments have stood by #MuteRKelly as well, further validating the cause. The Board of Commissioners of Fulton County actively supported the group’s first attempt to shut down one of Kelly’s concerts in August 2017, and held a press conference urging the singer to be investigated after local police received a tip that he was holding women against their will at his home. That press conference was “pivotal,” according to Jackson, because it inspired action in other cities where Kelly’s concerts were canceled over the following year.
“We have been able to mobilize elected officials in Detroit, Michigan, and in Greensboro, North Carolina,” says Barnes. “In Detroit, they wrote a resolution in support of the #MuteRKelly movement.”
In the week since the release of Surviving R. Kelly, the message of #MuteRKelly has been further amplified, with Illinois’ Cook County joining Fulton County in encouraging Kelly’s victims to come forward, and celebrities like Chance the Rapper and Common openly regretting their complicity with the failure to protect Black girls. As for me, I’ve not only realized how I’ve contributed to the narrative surrounding Black girls and women, but have also been victimized by it: I now recognize how certain interactions with older men in my teens fed into the adultification of Black girls that #MuteRKelly speaks against.
This all proves that there’s more at work here than the actions of one man; there is an entire system in place that benefits from neglecting Black girls. As Barnes, Jackson, and the entire #MuteRKelly movement insists, justice will only truly be served when this system dismantled.
Keryce Chelsi Henry is a writer, editor, and culture-obsessed human who was born and raised in New York City. Check out all the cool things she’s done at kerycechelsi.com, and follow her ever-changing hair color on Instagram @keryce.chelsi.
Art By Rachel Hood.