Column: It’s time we cancel R. Kelly for good

With the release of Lifetime’s R. Kelly docuseries, a lot of questions have been answered surrounding Kelly and his alleged sexual abuses of young, black women. However, one remains: Why haven’t we canceled him yet?
Lifetime’s R. Kelly docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” features many victims speaking on behalf of their stories with R. Kelly. Courtesy of IMDb

Roshae Hemmings is a first year journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about civil rights.

On Jan. 3, Lifetime released its highly anticipated docuseries, “Surviving R. Kelly.” When I initially heard about the series, I was intrigued. In fact, all I’ve ever known about R. Kelly has been centered around his hypersexual performances and alleged lewd acts with minors. Needless to say, I went into the documentary detached from Kelly and intrigued by the stories.

Unlike many others who tuned into the series, I had no emotional connection to Kelly or his music. Like most, I am familiar with some staple hits in his discography such as “Ignition (Remix),” “Step in the Name of Love” and “I Believe I Can Fly.” However, I have no fond memories associated with his music.

The series, which consisted of six episodes and concluded on Jan. 5, took a deep dive into the sexual assault allegations against the R&B singer and included more than 50 testimonies from victims, colleagues and activists alike.

Having taken a day to watch all six episodes back-to-back, I was more than emotionally exhausted. The stories were simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating, disappointing and perplexing.

It left me wondering: How has Kelly been able to get away with his abuses for so long? This question was an underlying motif of the series, with former members of his camp seemingly alluding to an answer by detailing the part they played in helping Kelly coerce and abuse his alleged victims. Furthermore, the series detailed the artist’s 2002 arrest, subsequent trial and alleged sex cult in an effort to further examine Kelly’s known alleged offences and lift the veil on hidden ones.

While the acclaimed series brought widespread outrage against Kelly and his disturbing actions, there has still been very little done in the way of seeking justice for his victims. In addition to this, streams for Kelly’s music saw an increase after the series was released and fans continued to express their support on social media. So once again, I ask, why has it been so hard to cancel Kelly and how has he been able to get away with this for so long?

One of the biggest reasons has to do with who his victims were: young, black women.

In Malcolm X’s “Who Taught You To Hate Yourself?” speech, X asserts that, “The most disrespected woman in America, is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the black woman.”

Despite the speech being given in 1962, it is still relevant. Sexual assault cases are known to be very subjective and difficult to try in court. Among other factors, the race of the victim plays a role in the sentencing.

Studies have shown that assaults committed against black women see the most leniency in their sentencing. This has been proven to be true in the context of Kelly and his allegations, as he has been found not guilty of any prior charges.

Another factor discussed in the series was Kelly’s ability to reinvent himself and the black community’s ability to so easily excuse potentially suspect behaviors. In 1994, a 28-year-old Kelly and 15-year-old singer Aaliyah got married under a forged marriage license, claiming the underaged singer to be 18 and Kelly to be 27. The marriage was later annulled, with Kelly marrying Andrea Kelly in 1996.

Soon after their marriage, however, Andrea Kelly filed a suit against R. Kelly, his management and label in which she claimed she sustained emotional and physical damage as a result of a sexual relationship with Kelly. In theory, these two major events would lead to the scrutiny of Kelly and wavering support from fans. However, the release of the gospel-inspired hit “I Believe I Can Fly” only helped to strengthen Kelly’s image. With the song finding its way to graduations, weddings and church services, Kelly’s alleged history of sexual violence seemed to be expunged by the black community, without any consideration for the stories of his victims.

With the series out and a heightened awareness about Kelly and his alleged acts, the most logical question to ask next is: How do we as a society move forward? How do we signal to Kelly, and others like him, that the things that have been done are unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated?

First, we have to cancel his music. There has long been a debate about whether or not it is possible to separate the art from the artist. This discussion has led to some claiming that it is reasonable to support the music without supporting the person behind it; I, however, beg to differ. In a society where a dollar is a vote of support and that support elevates people, companies and ideologies to power, giving money to an artist is supporting who they are, what they’ve done and what they stand for. One of the main reasons that Kelly was able to do what he has done for so long was because his music afforded him money and clout that made him irresistible. Even with songs that appeared to give hints about his alleged sexual explorations and the nickname “The Pied Piper of R&B” that blatantly alludes to his manipulation of young women, he was still able to get away with his crude acts because of his name and money. Letting go of his music, no matter how difficult it may be, is taking a strong stance against Kelly and for his victims.

Second, excuses have got to stop being made for Kelly and his actions. Of the numerous participants in the documentary, Kelly’s brother Bruce helped to give personal insight on his brother. During a segment about Kelly and Aaliyah, Bruce stated how, "Robert likes younger women. You have people who have fetishes about different things. I like older women. Go figure, you know. But that’s just a preference. ... Everyone has preferences. So what is the big deal? What's the big issue with my brother?” Rhetoric like this has continued to be used in support of Kelly, in addition to Kelly’s victims being “fast.” There are numerous things wrong with both of these statements. One, a “preference” isn’t just a preference if rooted in pedophilia and two, stating that the victims were “fast” shifts blame.

Finally, and most importantly, knowing what we know now, it is essential that we support Kelly’s victims. What Kelly did was wrong and is not at the fault of victims. With this being said, I still find a lack of empathy afforded to these young, black women in comparison to that of their white counterparts. This isn’t to say that one group deserves more support than the other. This means that individuals who have been sexually assaulted don’t deserve to be silenced, told that their stories don’t add up, that they’re too “fast” or that they shouldn’t have left the house wearing what they were wearing. They deserve to be supported, uplifted, loved, listened to and validated.

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