BY EMILY ROLES FOTSO ’21
Content warning: This article contains explicit references to sexual assault.
Robert Sylvester Kelly, commonly referred to as R. Kelly, is an R&B artist known for hits such as “Ignition (Remix),” “Bump N’ Grind” and “I Believe I Can Fly,” but also, more recently, for a horrific history of abuse, pedophilia and sexual assault allegations dating back to the ’90s. These crimes, made public by Black women and survivors but long ignored by mainstream media, have resurfaced with “Surviving R. Kelly,” a documentary series that aired on Lifetime in January. The series details the crimes Kelly committed over his years in the music industry and aims to lift up the voices of survivors as they share their stories of abuse and trauma.
Kelly first publicly demonstrated reprehensible behavior in 1992 when the lyrics to his song, “She’s Got That Vibe,” contained a small flirtatious nod at then 13-year-old actress and singer Aaliyah. Two years later, at age 27, he married her in a secret ceremony. Though she was only 15 at the time, the marriage certificate stated that she was 18, a lie to circumvent the illegality of the marriage, which was annulled before Aaliyah’s parents found out about it. Throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, after years of similar behavior, the singer faced multiple lawsuits, most famously when a tape was released to the Chicago police with footage of the singer urinating on a seemingly underage girl. In spite of numerous other examples of misconduct, Kelly evaded serious punishment for years, settling for money in some cases and escaping completely unscathed in others.
In July of 2017, Buzzfeed published an article claiming that Kelly had held groups of teenage girls against their will in what some referred to as a “sex cult.” In the wake of the article, many other victims came forward with similar stories, all while Kelly continuously maintained his innocence, claiming that the accusations stemmed from some vendetta against him. Finally, in 2019, following the #MeToo movement and subsequent conversations about sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood, Lifetime released “Surviving R. Kelly,” calling attention to the singer’s disturbing history.
One of the biggest issues raised by the docuseries is the question of how Kelly has gotten away with so many egregious crimes with little or no consequences. “I think that [Kelly] was able to get away with what he did for so long because the world, and America specifically, does not care about Black women,” said Tumi Moloto ’20. “It does not care about what happens to Black women, what happens to Black women’s bodies. You can see that throughout the series as they share their experiences and as you see how many people both in the industry and their families knew about what was happening but simply didn’t care.”
Many are inclined to agree; “Surviving R. Kelly” illuminates the lack of protection, support and safety for Black women in both the entertainment industry and day-to-day life. Hundreds of celebrities spoke on the issue — actress Jada Pinkett Smith was notably confused by the spike in Kelly’s streaming numbers following the release of the series. “I really don’t want to believe it’s because black girls don’t matter enough. Or is that the reason?” she asked on Instagram. Chance the Rapper voiced similar sentiments after he faced backlash for being quoted saying, “I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were black women.” He later defended himself on social media, saying the quote was taken out of context, but that “the truth is any of us who ever ignored the [Kelly] stories, or ever believed he was being set up/attacked by the system (as black men often are) were doing so at the detriment of black women and girls.”
To many like Pinkett Smith and Chance, the disturbing and far-reaching nature of Kelly’s crimes are signs of the corruption, racism and sexism that have run rampant in the music industry and the world for far too long. The series has sparked debate over whether art can be separated from the artist, or whether Kelly’s music should be taken off streaming services such as Spotify and Apple music. The #MuteRKelly movement, founded partially by those who starred in “Surviving R. Kelly,” encourages people and companies to stop streaming and buying Kelly’s music, as it contributes to his power and fame, enabling his behavior.
Due in part to the success of “Surviving R. Kelly,” Kelly is currently under criminal investigation in Georgia for the allegations of sexual assault and abuse raised against him in the docuseries and prior. Many hope that this time, justice will finally be served. “These survivors deserved to be lifted up and heard,” said singer and songwriter John Legend. “I hope it gets them closer to some kind of justice.”