The R. Kelly Conviction: Does it Move the Needle, or Is It the Same Old Song?
On this episode of democracy-ish, our hosts wind down after a long day — and a particularly long one for disgraced R&B star R. Kelly.
Multi-Platinum R&B artist R. Kelly was found guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking in a federal court on Wednesday after a six-week trial. The decision came after more than 20 years of allegations about Kelly’s sexual misconduct.
The trial exposed what has been an open secret in the music industry for years: Kelly’s agents, assistants and other associates enabled his sexual abuse of dozens of victims.
What does R. Kelly’s conviction mean in our post-#MeToo era, and how far have we come in preventing violence against women, holding abusers accountable and understanding the importance of consent?
This week, after a six-week trial and nine hours of deliberation by a jury, R. Kelly was found guilty in federal court in New York for a number of crimes related to his systematic sexual abuse of underage girls, women and men, including racketeering and sex trafficking.
“He lives like a king for years — decades. And now he’ll finish out the last years of his life in hell,” Toure says.
“I don't think R. Kelly is ever going to breathe free air again,” Danielle adds. “It’s so appropriate and fitting,” considering “the hell he created for his victims for years and years … It’s mind-blowing … if you have some talent, wealth and celebrity in this country, what people allow you to get away with.”
She thinks this case is notable because it exposes “the sexual industrial complex that allowed R. Kelly to survive,” she says. “It was the assistants and the managers and this entire trafficking industry he created. They actively went out and pursued and brought in woman after woman, girl after girl, child after child, over so many years.”
It makes Toure think about “why we have to say Black lives matter. Because our society doesn’t believe it until we say it.”
It’s not dissimilar to a popular slogan before Toure was born: Black is beautiful.
“That was not a rejection of whiteness. It was because we had been taught as a society that brown skin and curly hair and big noses and big butts and all that were not inherently beautiful. We had to have our own sort of reeducation campaign,” he explains.
Are we in the middle of a new reeducation campaign around accountability — and consent?
Episode Highlights –– R. Kelly Guilty
A literal federal case for a ‘true danger to society’
Danielle hopes that R. Kelly’s conviction is “ironclad,” unlike that of Bill Cosby, who served just three years of his 10-year sentence for sexual assault before being released from prison on a technicality earlier this year.
Toure thinks this is different, particularly because Kelly’s case is federal.
“If the feds were able to get nine people to testify that he molested or raped them, there surely are way more out there who they couldn't find, or they didn't know, or couldn't coerce to testify.”
R. Kelly has spent decades sexually abusing and violently assaulting underage girls, women, and even men and boys. He represents a “true danger to society,” Toure adds. “This is a true predator who used to drive around Chicago to high schools at recess and chat up the girls.”
He remembers that back in the ’80s parents were scared to let their kids go to concerts by provocative artists like Prince and Guns ‘n’ Roses.
But it turns out, year later, “we really were right to be scared to have our 14- and 15-year-old daughters, sisters, cousins … going to an R. Kelly show.”
The heartbreak of victims who are victimized further
Danielle is still stunned that “R. Kelly would drive his car, as an adult man, to hang outside of a high school. I mean, do you remember those videos about what a predator, what a rapist would do? Here, little girl. Here’s some candy. That is literally what R. Kelly was doing.”
What’s worse, Kelly targeted people who were experiencing poverty, including girls who we now know were victimized further by their own families — who sold their daughters to him and justified it because they needed the money.
Danielle has encountered some Black folks who approach R. Kelly’s criminal behavior with incredulity, thinking he might have gotten a bad rap because they haven’t seen him do anything wrong with their own eyes.
“So then it must not have happened, right?” says Danielle. “The fuck out of here.”
Kelly relied for years on a ‘universe of complicity’
When Toure thinks about whether or not any of those parents will face charges, he notes that
“there’s a whole universe of complicity” around Kelly’s case.
He doesn’t say that to express sympathy for Kelly or make excuses for him. But there are others who are to blame. His infamous, illegal 1994 marriage to R&B star Aaliyah (who died in a plane crash in 2001) could happen because someone in his inner circle falsified a birth certificate that claimed she was 18. She was actually 15 — and Kelly was 27.
Whoever procured that fake ID “coerced, through financial means … a person in the Cook County registrar’s office, who took that money,” Toure says. “There is the label, which did nothing. The streamers, who continue to play his music. The concert promoters. Even BET.”
In 2008, Toure interviewed R. Kelly for BET.
“I looked him in the eye and asked, Do you like teenage girls? And he did not immediately say no. His response was, How old are we talking? ”
Danielle interjects: “That was verbatim? How old are we talking? How old was he at this time?”
Back then, R. Kelly was about 40 years old. And he wasn’t alone: He was accompanied to the interview by a crisis manager, who had clearly prepared him beforehand. But not enough to prevent him from replying with such a damaging offhand comment.
Was BET an R. Kelly enabler?
BET aired that interview and scored sky-high ratings. The next day, R. Kelly's people called the network and asked it to stop running the interview. BET immediately caved, says Toure.
“It aired one time … It wasn’t even a major conversation among executives. It was a quick decision: We will not run that ever again. Whatever you want. We go right back to running his videos.”
At that time, BET was basically the only television outlet that played “Trapped in the Closet” — which it did, so many times that it was “part of the complex,” Toure adds. “The complex of protecting him.”
He can understand why BET was reticent to boycott or even criticize Kelly, but he still wonders: “Did they think this interview would whitewash him? … They knew who I was. If they’d seen my work, they would have said, Toure’s gonna do a real interview, and he’s gonna screw up the party for everybody. What did they think was going to happen?”
‘Underage’ isn’t ambiguous
Danielle does find that surprising. After all, Kelly’s “character was already in question,” she notes, when Toure interviewed him.
“There had already been at least one trial,” he affirms. “I imagine there was the perception that the long-term R. Kelly business — video, performances — was better than the interview BET could air once or twice more.”
But he notes that BET “was all about protecting the artists, being there for the artists first — like, an old-school radio vibe.”
Toure remembers the interview itself with Kelly as “very contentious.”
Kelly was visibly nervous — “I remember his leg shaking,” Toure adds. “I kind of complimented him at the beginning, in terms of his music, to sort of loosen him up. And then I started to talk about the trial.”
When Toure brought up the subject of underage girls, “he was like, No, I don’t like 12- and 13-year-olds. That’s disgusting” — what Toure felt was “a rhetorical trick,” framing what he thought was and wasn’t acceptable, like underage “is something that you could play with the definition of.”
R. Kelly’s a ‘monster’… but not the only one
“You know, this is a guy who is illiterate,” says Toure of R. Kelly. “He cannot read or write. And yet, he's one of the great songwriters of his time.”
Toure thinks that creates a weird dichotomy: “There’s like one part of his mind that is hyper-developed: a great performer, great singer, great songwriter, producer, all of that. But as soon as you leave the studio, he’s a monster. He’s a child. He’s an idiot. He’s an imbecile. He can barely function in the world.”
Danielle thinks Kelly is a high-profile example of a bigger problem.
“He’s not the only monster. He is one of the biggest ones we have seen, with regard to pedophilia, to rape, to assault … But it’s the protection that his celebrity and the Black community gave him for so many years [that’s the issue].”
She wants to know if it’s because of how Black men are maligned by society, by the white mainstream at large. Or is it that — or also that — we just don’t protect women. And we definitely don’t care about Black women and girls of color. They’re abused in their churches, they’re abused in their homes, they’re abused all over the place, and we as a society do nothing.”
Internalized misogyny and pop-idol worship
Toure thinks the answer to Danielle’s question is that it’s both. Black men are maligned; women aren’t protected. But he remembers that after Chris Brown physically assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna, more than one Black girl tweeted things like, He could beat *me* up.
“We are reverent and loyal to our celebrities, especially our athletic and musical stars,” he notes. “They move us on a deeper level. They have mastered games we have cared deeply about in our small communities, in our large community. And we salute them.”
There’s no doubt that misogyny plays a role as well.
“When I bring up the Chris Brown example, that is not to indict the women,” Toure adds. “That is internalized misogyny: This is what my body is worth, and you can beat me up. Look, some people are into some things sexually — choking or what have you — and you can do that with consent. What Chris Brown did to Rihanna was just a plain old beatdown. There was nothing consensual, there was nothing fun.”
Danielle feels that “because these people can dance, because they make music, because they are artists, we just kind of turn the page.”
Sexual abuse and double standards
Toure doesn’t have any sympathy for R. Kelly, but “when we try to piece together why this happened,” we should note that Kelly was molested twice as a child, by a man and a woman, one in his family, one close to his family,” he explains.
“It’s tragic to think about the folks who have had this happen to them and turn around and do it to others,” Toure adds. “And it is no small number of people. That is part of why he became a monster: Because he was traumatized by adults who were close to him.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that “we don’t help people unpack their trauma, we don’t deal with it,” says Danielle. “There are reasons why people don’t speak out when they are abused. The reality is, nine times out of 10, nothing is going to happen [to the abuser]. Then, you’re going to be ostracized from your family if it’s something that happens in the family.”
On top of that, gender-based double standards have persisted for far too long.
“We had to finally make it illegal to use what a woman was wearing in order to say, she was deserving of being sexually violated. That’s not that old, right? And it’s crazy to think about it now. But we still look at women as being the problem: Well, Aaliyah — she must have enticed him. How many times I have seen something like they knew what they were getting into or why did they throw themselves at them? I’m like, Whoa, hold on. So the children, the teenagers, are the problem in this situation, not the grown-ass man?”
Putting the onus on girls and women
Danielle adds that “particularly in the Black community, we use terms like ‘fast’ and ‘hot in the pants.’ We tell young girls from a very young age: Pull down your skirt, close your legs, don’t entice the man in the room, whether that be your father, your uncle, your cousin, your brother, the family friend.”
The common thread? “There’s something inherently wrong about young girls and how we sexualize them,” she adds. “That if you do not shrink yourself in every type of way, then whatever happens to you is your fault. That’s what we set up. Then you have the repercussions of the R. Kellys of the world.”