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Why we need to talk about R Kelly’s immunity to the #MeToo movement

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Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
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R Kelly wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses, standing against a tan glittery background

The public takedown of Harvey Weinstein has changed the cultural landscape irrevocably – yet R Kelly remains unaffected by even the most atrocious allegations. Here, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff asks why women of colour are being ignored.

We’re in a state of flux right now. On television, on Twitter, in our offices and on our streets, the world has changed seismically over the past few months, and still it continues to shift. It all began with a wildly public takedown of one of the most powerful, predatory men in Hollywood, and has erupted magnificently into a global movement, demanding that those who have engaged in abusive tactics for years are unearthed and made to pay.

But there is one man who, up until now, has proven almost untouchable by the rallying roar of #MeToo. A man who has seemingly side-stepped rape allegations, subtly settled horrifying lawsuits out of court and is widely known for his toxic treatment of women. R Kelly, in my opinion, is a monster of today – hiding in plain sight.

The singer has seemingly flown under the radar for decades, but a recent BBC documentary, R Kelly: Sex, Girls & Videotapes, took an in-depth look at some of the allegations – sexual abuse and a sickening penchant for underage girls – that have dogged him for years. Alongside the fact he married popstar Aaliyah when she was just 15, other unsavoury aspects of the singer’s life were unearthed, such as the 1996 lawsuit that alleged he had group sex with underage girls (settled out of court) and his infamous 2008 acquittal for taping himself having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Yet while the documentary hammers home Kelly’s seemingly manipulative, vicious behaviour, only a handful of women have ever spoken to the press about their experiences with him. 

So why hasn’t Kelly, whose alleged crimes are as heinous as those of Weinstein, faced a public backlash brutal enough to bring him down?

Getting away with it

I started to take notice of the 51-year-old singer about three years ago, when I came into my own as the designated Spotify DJ at house parties. Often one of only a handful of ‘urbanite’ black people in white, middle-class circles, my Noughties throwbacks were R&B inflected. R Kelly was a staple. But like anyone else who keeps up with the news, I knew about the rumours surrounding R Kelly. Because of this, Ignition (Remix) – one of the defining party songs for the millennial generation – was always played guiltily. By streaming his music, I was contributing to his million-dollar bank balance.

But I was aware of his behaviour. Kelly’s sordidness is a known entity. Lovell Jones, the singer’s close friend and collaborator, has even said that the singer’s liking of young girls was “common knowledge in the camp”. Yet as a society we seem to have simply let him get on with it. As racial justice campaigner Tracey Corder put it on Twitter, Kelly has been allowed to “dazzle underage girls” with his “lullabies” for a very long time without facing any kind of retribution. He is still signed to record label Sony, being booked for gigs and recording with prominent – young – female stars such as Jhené Aiko and Tinashe. Instead of facing any repercussions, in recent weeks he has been posting selfies with Mariah Carey and singalong videos with DJ Khaled, and preparing for concerts in Chicago and North Carolina.

How? The most obvious answer is that Kelly appears to target marginalised, vulnerable women – African Americans, often from low-socio-economic backgrounds. The type of women who weren’t always listened to as the #MeToo movement swept across the world and seemingly reached its crescendo at the end of 2017, even though African-American activist Tarana Burke was its founder and has made it her life’s work to support women of colour who had been the victims of sexual violence.

Ironically, it was Jane Fonda’s voice on the issue of intersectionality that was heard most clearly after Weinstein. 

“It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them,” she said. “This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of colour, and it doesn’t get out quite the same.” 

Of more than 50 women who spoke out against Weinstein, the vast majority were white (actors Lupita Nyong’o and Paz de la Huerta being two notable exceptions).

Fonda was right. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, sexual violence affects black American women at higher rates than other ethnicities and more than 20% of black women in the US are raped during their lifetimes. 

“The stakes are higher in a lot of instances for us than they are for a lot of other women,” said Burke, who noted the fact that fewer women of colour had spoken up following #MeToo than white women. Indeed, when Nyong’o revealed she’d had an unsettling encounter with Weinstein in 2011, he quickly denied doing anything inappropriate, after days of silence following similar accusations by famous white women. 

Author and activist Feminista Jones subsequently argued that Weinstein’s denial of Nyong’o’s allegations sent the message to black women “that they can’t be harassed, they can’t be assaulted”.

Power play

Jerhonda Pace is one of the few women who has come forward publicly against Kelly. She gave her story to Jim DeRogatis, the reporter who originally broke the Kelly story 20 years ago. It ran on BuzzFeed for six whole weeks before the Weinstein story came out, with Johnson saying Kelly allegedly physically and sexually abused her when she was underage. 

In a follow-up, Pace was “livid” at the lack of publicity her case received. “When their stories came out, they received so much attention,” she said about Weinstein’s victims. 

“It was just crazy, and I was like, ‘What about R Kelly’s victims? What about us?’ Nothing happened for us.”

The same goes for Kitti Jones, a DJ and writer who was one of Kelly’s girlfriends between 2011 and 2013, and who first spoke out against him in October. “It makes you feel like, as a black woman, your voice doesn’t matter,” she said in the BBC documentary, where she detailed allegations of Kelly’s ‘sex dungeon’ and being made to have sex with other women against her will. She claimed she was told what to wear, when and what she could eat and even when to go to the bathroom. 

“There’s this unspoken thing in the black community that we don’t like to take our black men down that have power,” she said.

 R. Kelly performs at Little Caesars Arena on February 21, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan

Although its roots are clogged in the mud of racism, this is perhaps another key reason why Kelly hasn’t yet faced his Weinstein moment. As with OJ Simpson, Bill Cosby and Chris Brown, there has undeniably been a reticence from black Americans to let go of the few successful, rich male heroes they have, even if they have been accused of awful things by people inside their own community. In the attempts to subvert racism, some sections of the black community have revealed both their misogyny and their ‘misogynoir’ – misogyny specifically directed toward black women – and it’s not a pretty sight.

Beyond Kelly, however, the music industry as a whole is still waiting on its #MeToo moment. Similarly to the film industry, within music, sexual harassment and the abuse of women have long been open secrets. A slew of men have faced accusations over the years that haven’t dampened their star status but instead have damaged that of the accuser (think Dr Luke and Kesha). The numbers don’t help, either. In the UK, women make up only 30% of senior executives in the music industry with similar figures reflected in the US. A telling statistic.

If handled in the right way, Kelly, who has an estimated net worth of $150million, could be the catalyst the music industry needs to start talking about its problems with sexual harassment and abuse. But that’s only going to happen if we start championing the voices of young black women.

Images: Getty