Allegations regarding R. Kelly’s obsession with sex and underaged girls are well documented. In 1994, Vibe Magazine discovered a marriage certificate that said he married Aaliyah when she was 18 and he was 27, when she was actually 15. Two years later, Tiffany Hawkins sued him for $10 million, claiming she had a sexual relationship with the singer when she was 15, which she settled in 1998. Patrice Jones alleged in a lawsuit that she met the singer at a Chicago McDonald’s in 1998 when she was 16, and had a nine month relationship with him that ended in a forced abortion. Tracy Sampson filed a civil suit against the singer in 2000, which they settled out of court in 2002, after claiming Kelly became controlling after a sexual relationship when she was 17. The following year, Jim DeRogatis, a Chicago-based music journalist, received an anonymous tip about a sextape involving R. Kelly and a teen who over a dozen witnesses confirm was 14 years old at the time. The singer was indicted with 21 possession of child pornography charges and received 12 additional charges when police found evidence of Kelly having sex with a minor on another camera the following year. In 2008, he was found not guilty of all charges.
The allegations are common knowledge at this point, so why does R. Kelly still have a career? Why has he so far escaped the reckoning sweeping through the entertainment industry and beyond? The answer lies in his targets and why the public treats the trauma of black women as a footnote in sexual assault’s conversation.
Just last year, DeRogatis investigated claims for Buzzfeed that the singer was holding six women hostage in sex cult at his Georgia home. According to the piece:
Three former members of Kelly’s inner circle—Cheryl Mack, Kitti Jones, and Asante McGee—provided details supporting the parents’ worst fears. They said six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.
Per DeRogatis’ reporting, the women are his “babies,” and he’s their “Daddy.” He allegedly replaces their phones with new ones, only to be used to contact him. If the house rules are broken, there are consequences that are reportedly punishable by claims of mental, physical, and sexual abuse. In a new BBC documentary, Jones, a former girlfriend and house member, alleges that he refers to these women as “sex pets,” using them for the sole purpose of being groomed to please him. “He’s still doing it because people make us feel bad for coming forward,” she tells BBC’s Ben Zand. “There’s this unspoken thing in the black community that makes us feel like we don’t like to take our black men down. They have power.”
In an interview following his performance at Coachella last weekend, Vince Staples reignited the conversation surrounding the allegations against the singer: “So if piece of fucking shit R. Kelly didn’t go to jail for being a child molestor, peeing on people, and having a human trafficking ring in Atlanta, then I’ll be alright.” Shortly after, Kelly made headlines with allegations from a new accuser, who claims the singer gave her a sexually transmitted disease after an eight month relationship when she was 19. Earlier this week, Time's Up's Women of Color group announced that it has thrown its support behind the #MuteRKelly campaign, calling for a thorough investigation into the allegations against the singer that have so far gone overlooked.
R. Kelly is still touring because his victims aren’t wealthy white actresses. As DeRogatis said in a Salon interview last month, “I think it’s because these victims are not fabulous, famous white actresses. I think they’re black girls nobody cares about. They’re not even famous black girls.” The victims are black girls who lived on the South and West side of Chicago, and they don’t generate the same amount of national concern. Even at 51, R. Kelly's infatuation with younger women doesn’t cause mass outrage like it should because America has a funny way of compartmentalizing the elements of race, class, and gender—and when those elements intersect, the country cares even less.
There is a long lineage of erasing black women, in both in their activism and in their victimhood. American history tells us that if you make enough of a mess, black women will be expected to clean it up. To erase the role black women played as activists is to erase history. Their roles as activists have often been written (if written at all) in history books reducing them to secondary characters in Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, and Black Power movements. We talk about Susan B. Anthony, but not Ida B. Wells. We refer to Coretta Scott King as just the wife of an orator. Photos of the Black Panther party show militant men with afros and all-black ensembles when women like Elaine Brown were core to their movement.
Today, women are the brains behind movements like Black Lives Matter, standing on the frontline for the state-sanctioned deaths of black people—mainly unarmed men. Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, is also black, and the organization has been around for over ten years. However, the campaign only started to gain traction in earnest once the victims were wealthy, white, or both. The silencing of black pain is written in the DNA of this country with white men historically using assault as an excuse to protect white women. Violating black women and placing the blame on black men became a tactic to lynch and demonize men in the community. Women were so used to shrinking their pain when assaulted by white men, that their first instinct was to protect black men even when they were their predators. We want so badly to avoid further criminalizing the men who have beat the odds, men like R. Kelly, that for nearly 30 years it was OK if that meant black girls weren’t safe. It’s why the cries of dozens of women with accusations against R. Kelly were silenced with settlements and non-disclosure agreements.
America does not value every person as worthy of protection. Last October, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Rose McGowan came forward with allegations against Harvey Weinstein, prompting at least 30 additional women to speak up about similar stories with the producer. Black dresses and Time’s Up pins filled the Golden Globes and it was a sign that not only was the world listening, but they believed them. The world listened again when Larry Nassar, former Olympic doctor, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years for child pornography following the accusations of 140 young gymnasts including Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, and Mckayla Maroney. It took famous Olympians speaking out about their abuse for Nassar to be punished. When it's anonymous black women abused by a staple in R&B, it seems like people would rather just ignore the problem. Both groups of girls were 17 years old or younger, being violated by men they trusted, but gold medals grant more sympathy. The new developments in R. Kelly’s laundry list of accusations doesn’t ignite the same uproar as #MeToo, because America is a sucker for tradition. In this case, tradition says it’s okay to dismiss the pain of the average black woman on a national scale.
The whitewashing of movements like #MeToo makes black women hesitant about recounting their stories of assault. In 1991, attorney Anita Hill watched as Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, even after the details of her sexual harassment allegations against Thomas made national news. In October, in a poignant letter for the New York Times, Lupita Nyong’o spoke about the sexual advances she received from Harvey Weinstein about two weeks after the after a wave of white actresses began to do the same. In response to those accusers, Weinstein offered a vague statement that did not address any one individual. But in the case of Nyong’o, he specifically denied her claims. Weinstein previously directly denied misconduct claims from Ashley Judd, but Judd is one of many white women to accuse Weinstein, whereas Nyong’o is one of the only women of color to come forward with accusations against the former Hollywood giant. A month later, Lena Dunham received backlash after defending her colleague, Murray Miller, when biracial actress Aurora Perrineau opened up about an alleged sexual assault that happened with Miller when she was 17. White American society is less inclined to believe the accusations of black women. History has told us this repeatedly. To believe that society protects all women equally is to reduce these instances, and all the ones like it, to a tale of “he said, she said.” And when ignoring the accounts of black women becomes habitual, it’s an unspoken rule for women who identify as such that their voices don’t matter.
For the black girl who has no control over the curves that sprout from her body earlier than her peers, we will do better by you. We won’t make jokes that trigger your pain. It won’t take a dozen of girls who look like you to go missing before anyone cares. We see you, we hear you, and your stories are as valid as any woman in Hollywood.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.