For almost his entire career, musician R. Kelly has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct and violence, many of them involving minors. And for almost his entire career, he’s avoided repercussions while accumulating Grammys and Soul Train Music Awards on his way to becoming an R&B icon.
This week, though, that all began to end. Reports floated that prosecutors in Georgia and Illinois were considering criminal charges against him. Radio stations cut him from their catalogues and recovering fans rewrote his lyrics: “It’s the remix to conviction/hot and fresh into prison,” went one new Twitter version of the 2002 chart-topper Ignition (Remix).
The force behind this turning tide is Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part documentary that quickly became one of the Lifetime network’s most-watched debuts when it ran last weekend. (It’s now re-airing, with the next episodes showing in Canada on Sunday and Jan. 20.)
The series is both captivating and unbearable – more than one woman alleges that Mr. Kelly locked her in a room or on a tour bus, sometimes denying her food or a bathroom for days. More than one met him when she was barely in her teens.
Yet, most of the information presented isn’t new. It’s all been reported on before: Mr. Kelly’s illegal 1994 marriage to the 15-year-old singer Aaliyah, when he was 27; his 2002 arrest on child pornography charges; his cash-for-silence settlements with numerous women; and allegations from multiple parents that he has kept their daughters captive.
Surviving R. Kelly is powerful. And it’s shameful that it had to be made.
The series brings to mind an enduring phrase by the late poet and icon Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
Mr. Kelly’s music often blatantly flaunts his depravity. In fact, some of his most outrageous songs debuted at points of controversy. Take Trapped in the Closet, a multipart operetta about sexual deviancy released even as his lawyers were stalling his trial (after six years of delays, he was acquitted).
I never watched the widely bootlegged video at the centre of his trial – in which Mr. Kelly allegedly urinates on a teenage girl – or Trapped in the Closet: though both were widely considered hilarious, including by the likes of Dave Chappelle and South Park, neither seemed very funny to me.
An expert manipulator, Mr. Kelly made people laugh at him (and at his alleged victims), then released gospel-tinged ballads, and was forgiven. He also made a lot of people a lot of money, which might be precisely why some of those who worked with him actively chose not to watch the video.
Looking away is a good way to ensure you don’t see: Before the 2016 U.S. election, at least two people assured me that Donald Trump couldn’t be racist because he was from New York. This despite his persistent “birther” conspiracy against Barack Obama, and older evidence to the contrary.
It’s embarrassing, really, how many people whose actions are finally being questioned aren’t any different than they used to be. For years, comedian Louis C.K. depicted himself as a curmudgeonly straight white man with too much privilege and a compulsive masturbation problem. And I did laugh, because I thought I was in on the joke.
Turns out he was just telling the truth: After five female comics accused him of sexual harassment, specifically exposing himself, he spent most of 2018 silent.
Any hope that he’d re-emerge contrite evaporated after a surprise comeback set leaked in December. In it, he apparently rants bitterly about transgender pronouns, Asian people and black people and complains that he can’t use the word “retarded.” With his fancy paint job peeling, he is now exposed to be a tired rust bucket, one no-longer pretending to be a smarter, shinier model.
There are multiple reasons Mr. Kelly’s alleged transgressions have finally boiled over. Particularly significant is that recent efforts are being driven by those who were most often his alleged victims: black women. That includes the founders of the protest movement #MuteRKelly, the documentary’s executive producer Dream Hampton, and many music critics and psychologists interviewed in the film.
Above all are the survivors, who are honest about their shame, their pain, their mistakes and their recovery – almost all of them are now involved with various organizations working to end violence..
Heard together, their stories make a once nebulous truth far easier to see. In their sobbing, shaking courage, these women are clearly telling us who they are.