R. Kelly, the self-proclaimed Pied Piper of R&B, has been unapologetically crafting the soundtrack of sexual predation for more than two decades.
I admit that this is no disrespect to the parents, but this is my advice to you ’cause I’m also a parent. Don’t push your daughter in my face, and tell me that it’s OK. ’Cause your agenda is to get paid, and get mad when it don’t go your way.
It’s taken nearly 30 years, but for the first time, it looks like things aren’t going Kelly’s way. The song has been listened to fewer than 275,000 times. That’s a flop for a man whose catalog includes 13 solo albums — most of which debuted in the Billboard Top 10 — and managed to sell more than 100 million records despite a brand built on sexual exploitation — both in his music and in his personal life.
“I think he’s been pretty masterful in using the system and support around him to escape accountability,” said Gina Scaramella, executive director of Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.
Scaramella said Kelly has used his music and fans’ love of his talent to mask predatory behavior — and we’ve let him. When I flash back to my teen years, I think he was hiding in plain sight.
When Kelly’s 1993 debut solo album, “12 Play,” rocked the radio, I was a high school freshman. Everyone sang “Bump-N-Grind.”
My mind’s telling me no, but my body, my body’s telling me yes. I don’t want to hurt nobody, but there is something that I must confess.
A bunch of hormonal virgins playing grown-up, we slow jammed to “Your Body’s Callin.” A boy’s hand on your butt had been normalized by then. Even if you didn’t want it there, you laughed it off.
Baby no more stallin’, these hands have been longing to touch you, baby. And now that you’ve come around, to seeing it my way, you won’t regret it, baby. And you surely won’t forget it, baby.
The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard and stayed on the charts for 65 weeks.
A year later, we’d get “Age Ain’t Nothin But A Number,” by Aaliyah. He wrote it for the songbird when she was 14.
Age ain’t nothing but a number, throwing down ain’t nothing but a thing. This loving I have for you, it’ll never change.
These songs, like childhood games such as Hide and Go Get It and Seven Minutes In Heaven, were never harmless.
To Kelly, age really was just a number. He married Aaliyah in 1994 when he was 27. The 15-year-old used a fake ID. The marriage was annulled a few months later. In “I Admit,” he calls this love. That’s a child molester’s go-to description of their crimes.
You see how context makes it impossible to separate the man from his music?
And this was only the start of a still-growing mountain of mayhem built of sex and violence surrounding R. Kelly, teen girls, and women, even his ex-wife. Yet he defiantly stands atop it and sings while our aunties and uncles step in the name of love.
Many of the cases have been settled out of court, but the most famous and heinous act we know of, a video depicting him having sex with and urinating on an allegedly 14-year-old girl, didn’t get him jail time.
The tape, made public in 2002, hit bodegas and barbershops when I was a 22-year-old starting to understand the reality of rape culture.
Instead of people boycotting the singer, folks were buying illegal copies of child porn. A little black girl dominated by a man for entertainment, not outrage. Shocking, right?
Women of color are raped and assaulted at a higher rate than most. More than 40 percent of black women and American Indian and Alaska Native women are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking, according to a study on intimate partner violence by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reporting rape is hard for every victim, says Scaramella, who has worked to help survivors of sexual assault and rape for more than 20 years. But the hurdles grow higher when you add in factors like disability, orientation, language, and race.
“He’s been very effective at choosing folk who we as a society care about less,” she says of Kelly. “We have to look for whose voices are not being heard or being acted on in the same way. We have to be very purposeful in creating space for marginalized groups to ensure all survivors are heard.”
Despite hearing from more than a dozen witnesses verifying the relationship, he was acquitted of child pornography for the tape in 2008 because jurors never heard from the victim or her parents.
Let’s admit it. Even if that had been included, he may have walked. Black women and girls have been historically overlooked as victims. While black men were regularly and horrifically lynched for even looking at white women, or being thought to have touched one, black women — both free and enslaved — were legally raped. (Never forget Recy Taylor.)
For that reason, the Black Women’s Blueprint, a survivor-led advocacy group, was founded in 2008, the same year R. Kelly walked free. They protested his New York concerts earlier this year.
“We have to hold men like R. Kelly, Bill Cosby accountable and end behaviors that perpetuate violence against black women and girls,” says Sevonna Brown, assistant executive director of Black Women’s Blueprint. “We are up against cultural constructs and notions that place black women in boxes that say they are strong, they are hypersexual, and it’s the norm for black girls and their bodies to belong to their family and everyone but them. We are actively fighting against that.”
Kelly gave himself the Pied Piper moniker, claiming it had to do with the flute in his music and not the Grimms’ fairy tale of the piper who lured the children from their families to their doom. But we know the truth, and the melody is fading.
As the #MeToo movement takes center stage and the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are held accountable for their horrific resumes, R. Kelly is finding it harder to sing his way out of his crimes.
Earlier this year, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, along with director Ava Duvernay and the women of color committee within Time’s Up, joined the movement #MuteRKelly and called for those who profit from his music to cut ties and make justice be served. Spotify and Apple Music removed his music from curated playlists. A few radio stations quit playing his music. Shows have been canceled.
For standing up for ourselves, black women were accused of trying to lynch R. Kelly like Bill Cosby. In his song, R. Kelly compares himself to Cosby (and Hugh Hefner) and says women need to stand by black men because they go through enough. He claims he’s been representing and singing for his country for 31 years.
Kelly claims he himself was molested as a child in his latest release. He may be carrying painful memories through every line he utters. But that does not give him a pass to hurt women.
We must continue to mute not just R. Kelly, but all predators. Stop side-eyeing survivors and doubting their stories.
He deserves to go to jail, but if that day never comes, we still have the power to stop jamming to the blues of the brutalization of black girls on repeat.