Content Warning: Sexual Assault and Abuse
In 2005, MadTV parodied R. Kelly’s urban opera, “Trapped in the Closet,” in a skit called “Trapped in the Cupboard.” Within the first minute of the skit, Jordan Peele, playing Kelly, sings, “A voice calls out ‘hey baby’ / My woman comes in the scene / I think ‘oh, damn girl I wish you were 13.’” The audience roars with laughter, and so did I.
I was eight and with my cousin when I first saw “Trapped in the Cupboard.” The skit parodies the episodic, melodramatic nature of “Trapped in the Closet,” which was common in the many parodies produced at that time. However, “Trapped in the Cupboard” was especially memorable because it made fun of Kelly’s controversial reputation. At the end of the skit,
Peele’s Kelly gets arrested and sings “So here we are now / at the end of the story / and I’m going to jail / This time not for statutory.”
“What does ‘statutory’ mean?” I remember asking my cousin as we held our stomachs in laughter. She defined it, explaining Kelly’s past in subdued, generic terms, and we laughed some more.
This January, Lifetime released a six-part documentary called Surviving R. Kelly. This docuseries features interviews from former employees of Kelly, music journalists, psychologists, and, most importantly, survivors of Kelly’s sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The interviews shine a light on the harrowing abuse that Kelly has subjected young black girls and women to for almost three decades—three decades in which his career continued to flourish.
Accounts of possible mistreatment against young girls first reached the media in 1995 when Vibe magazine published a copy of Kelly’s marriage license to the R&B singer, Aaliyah. The marriage certificate lists Aaliyah’s age as 18, but she was actually 15. Kelly was 27. The marriage was annulled a year later. Around the same time Kelly released, “I Believe I Can Fly,” and despite the clear offense of marrying a girl well under the age of consent, it became one of his universally-loved songs.
In December 2000, Jim Derogatis published a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, detailing allegations that Kelly had sexual relations with girls under the legal age of consent. A month later, a leaked videotape appeared to show Kelly urinating in the mouth of a 14-year-old girl—and then raping her. He was indicted in 2002 for child pornography, the same year he released “Ignition (Remix),” which is without a doubt his most successful song, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks. The trial didn’t begin until 2008, and the jury eventually found him not guilty. In the meantime, countless young girls and women continued to come forward with lawsuits and allegations against him. But no direct action was taken.
When the victims are black girls, no one cares.
Considering Kelly’s decades of abuse, his lack of accountability becomes clearer when we think about the ways in which society views black girls. In the second installment of Surviving R. Kelly, an older white man who was on the jury for Kelly’s trial states that he did not believe the girls who came forward because he did not like the way they talked, the way they dressed, or their hair. In other words, their blackness.
A 2017 study from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality reported that black girls are likely to be seen as less innocent than white girls from as early as age five. This perception, what the report calls “adultification,” leads adults to believe that black girls need less support, comfort, and protection than white girls. They are seen as more independent and more knowledgeable about topics related to sex. Black girls being viewed as older than our actual age matters because no one feels they need to protect us.
Kelly’s dozens of victims’ stories, as such, have gone unheard or been completely disregarded. The black community, Kelly’s largest fanbase, continued to buy his music long after the Aaliyah marriage scandal, the videotape leak, the multiple reports of abuse, the lawsuits, and the trial.
Rumors of Kelly’s abuse of young black girls have always been prevalent. I remember watching countless skits poking fun at Kelly’s allegations including “(I Wanna) Pee on You” from Chappelle’s Show and the aforementioned “Trapped in the Cupboard.” Shows like The Boondocks took a more satirical look at Kelly’s reputation and the way the black community largely ignored it in favor of dancing to “Step in the Name of Love” at every family function. One Surviving R. Kelly episode is titled “Hiding in Plain Sight,” and it is devastatingly true: Kelly’s abuse has never been a secret. We remain complicit in supporting a predator and sexual abuser. That must change.
I think back to a younger me who laughed at the tape scandal, a situation that was very real for a 14-year-old girl, and I feel immense shame. We must not continue to support Kelly by listening to his music. We, as a community, have to hold ourselves accountable by removing his music from our devices, by no longer playing “Step in the Name of Love” at family functions, and by supporting #MuteRKelly, a movement spearheaded by black women that aims to cancel Kelly concerts, stop radio stations from playing his music, and ultimately bring Kelly to justice.
However, Kelly cannot be brought to justice by black people alone. If you are a non-black person who has not heard of Kelly’s decades of abuse, it’s important to think critically about why. Despite the efforts of the #MuteRKelly movement, journalists like Jim Derogatis who has been following this story since 2000, and the numerous brave women who have come forward and told their stories, many people still remain blissfully unaware.
When the #MeToo movement took off, major news outlets and celebrities spoke out against predators like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. Surviving R. Kelly, however, was largely met with silence from the same platforms and celebrities that spoke out just a year prior. I scrolled through Twitter, browsed major media platforms, looked at my own friends here at Georgetown, and found the silence to be the most difficult part to process. When I would bring it up in conversation, most friends had no idea this docuseries was even airing. It’s incredibly telling, and endlessly frustrating, that the same outpouring of support for #MeToo is not present when the victims of abuse and assault are inner-city black girls. That must change.
Research Kelly’s past—don’t expect or wait for a black woman to explain it to you. If you can, as it could possibly be triggering for survivors of sexual assault and abuse, watch the documentary in its entirety. These women, these brave survivors, have been ignored for decades and we—all of us—owe them our attention.
I’ve been to enough Georgetown functions to know that “Ignition (Remix)” is a common song on playlists. Delete the song and any other Kelly song you may have on your devices. Follow the #MuteRKelly movement and spread awareness either through social media or personal conversations. Time and time again, black women consistently do the work to not only protect ourselves, but every other demographic in this country—whether it’s through voting or the #MeToo movement, which was started by Tarana Burke, a black woman, to help black girls a decade before the movement became focused on white women.
Black girls’ lives matter, and I urge people to do the work to uphold this fact. As a black woman, it is disheartening to see my non-black friends remain unaware of issues like this because they don’t directly affect their own communities. Enough with the silence, enough with the false ignorance, and enough with not caring about black girls. #MuteRKelly.
As of today, there are still families who have not seen their daughters in years because of Kelly’s abuse. We must mute R. Kelly, and we must ensure that black girls and women are listened to, are believed, and are protected. Black girls need support, too—so start giving us some.