When We Can't Root for Black People: Surviving R.Kelly
At the 2017 Emmy’s in a red carpet interview, when asked who she was rooting for that evening, Issa Rae said, “I’m rooting for everyone black.” At that moment she expressed a sentiment that every black person has experienced. We root for each other because we rarely see ourselves elevated to the status of greatness because in our community we are constantly fighting against the destiny of becoming another statistic. So when one of us makes it out, we close ranks around them. We root for them, we support their efforts, and we protect our own at all cost. After watching the Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly, I realized as black people increase in visibility and equality across various fields, we are faced with a moral question; how far can we extend our loyalty amongst our people? At what point do we stop rooting for and protecting black people?
For me, the answer is a no-brainer. Of course, I’m not rooting for a known pedophile and sexual abuser. As if I didn’t know this before, the Surviving R. Kelly documentary which provided further evidence and testimony from survivors of his manipulation and predation, made his crimes all too real. As gut-wrenching and hurtful as it was to watch the documentary, it was even more frustrating to go online and read the comments–primarily from the black community–who still defend him. It was also disheartening to see that after the first night that the documentary aired, R. Kelly’s music sales have increased.
Should I be surprised? Maybe not given the support that Bill Cosby received from the black community during his sexual assault case. Like in the case of Bill Cosby, R. Kelly’s support came in the form of victim blaming and finger pointing at white supremacy. Bill Cosby and R. Kelly have similar stake-holds in the black community. Bill Cosby played a seminal father figure during a time period when black families were being torn apart during the rise of the drug wars and the increasing incarceration of black men. Many credit Bill Cosby for providing a positive depiction of the black family and encouraged a whole generation of young black people to go to college after debuting The Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World. For R. Kelly, he was a musical “genius” who escaped an impoverished life in Chicago and went on to produce music that has cemented himself in our fondest memories, whether it be hearing I Believe I Can Fly at a high school graduation or stepping In the Name of Love at a family reunion. Both men have a crossover appeal that made them achievers of the American dream therefore earning the black communities unbridled loyalty.
The best part about being a member of the black community is being a part of a tribe that holds you up and locks in arms around you. A community is a necessary part of success for any group, but especially marginalized groups. In the black community, in particular, we rally to protect our black men, but at what cost? Music journalist Jamiliah Lemieux, who was featured in the documentary, stated that when someone like R. Kelly gets in trouble, the black community has a knee-jerk reaction to protect him from the system. However; R. Kelly’s crimes have been against black girls; how can the black community reconcile aligning themselves with a man who’s violated black girls in the worst way possible for the entirety of his career?
Black bodies have always been aged and held to a different standard than our peers. Black boys playing with toy guns are seen as grown threatening men, whereas white boys terrorizing high schools with actual assault rifles are seen as kids. The same is applied to black girls. Numerous times, R. Kelly’s victims were described as “fast girls” as if to say black girls skip the same cognitive development of their peers and therefore should be held accountable for sexual acts made against them. The late singer Aaliyah who married R. Kelly at 15 years-old, was described as looking very mature for her age, as if that excused R. Kelly’s illegal relationship with her. Black female bodies are sexualized and we are held at a higher standard for our sexuality and for this reason we should be protecting black girls even more.
Another excuse for R. Kelly and black public figures like him is that white men aren’t being tried for these same crimes that black men commit. Which is true,the justice system is unjust,that’s a fact; but the work that needs to happen to have an equal justice system is not to let certain groups of people off the hook, its to hold all groups accountable for their actions. In the age of #MeToo and the Times Up Movement, the tide is turning. To date Harvey Weinstein was indicted for sexual assault, he will be seeing his day in court. Other powerful white men in the industry have been swiftly taken down by #MeToo, if not by lawful means, at least they have lost their jobs and status. This list includes Les Munves, former chairman and CEO of CBS, actor Kevin Spacey, and comedian Louis C.K. Although acquitted for his child pornagraphy case in 2008, we can still do our part to #MuteRKelly, and provide the same form of justice that these men have experienced.
The black community can no longer be complicit to the likes of R. Kelly. We already have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as our white peers just to get a seat at the table; so when we align ourselves with morally compromised figures, we’re making it harder for the rest of us. In addition the black community must close ranks around our black girls. In Ja’han Jones biting critique of R. Kelly in his article for Huffington Post, he stated, “Black girls exist at America’s most damned intersection: They are black. They are girls. And as R. Kelly abuses them, we too abuse in our silence.” Our children our watching, our daughters are watching, victims of sexual assault and abuse are watching how we discuss R. Kelly and if we continue to root for monsters like R. Kelly, then monsters in our own homes who prey on our boys and girls will roam free.