In the Wake of Weinstein and #MeToo, Why Does R. Kelly Still Have an Audience?

(Rex Features via AP Images)

At Rolling Stone, reporter Jason Newman recently revealed another round of sexual assault and abuse allegations against R. Kelly. The allegations are from one of Kelly’s former girlfriends, disc jockey Kitti Jones, who dated the singer from 2011 to 2013.

It was June 2011, and R. Kelly had just performed to a frenetic crowd at the Verizon Theatre outside Dallas, Texas. It had been nearly two decades since the singer’s raunchy lyrics and honeyed voice turned him into a R&B superstar and sex symbol. But despite multiple controversies over his alleged sexual relationships with underage girls, his still-dedicated fan base sent his latest album — the throwback soul LP Love Letter ­— to number six on the Billboard 200…

[Jones had] been into Kelly since she was a teen in the early 1990s, when she’d hide in her room with his music to escape her mother’s tumultuous romantic relationships. She’d buy every magazine he was in and, upon the release of his 1993 solo debut, 12 Play, took a limo to a third-row seat at her first Kelly show. She’d seen him in concert seven times since. “He was my Brad Pitt,” she says.

The story of Jones’s relationship with Kelly includes food deprivation, forced sex acts, and a dormitory-style, cult-like atmosphere with his other girlfriends. It echoes Buzzfeed’s July story, “R. Kelly is Holding Women Against their Will in a Cult, Parents Told Police,” reported by Jim DeRogatis, who has followed the cloud of allegations surrounding the singer since before his 2008 trial for child pornography.

Jones says she went to Rolling Stone to support the women mentioned in the Buzzfeed report, some of whom are younger than 21 and are, according to one woman’s parents “brainwashed” by the singer.

Reports of Kelly’s illicit, predatory behavior go back to his marriage to singer Aaliyah in 1994 when she was 15 years old and he was 28. (Vibe published an apparent marriage certificate in its December issue that year). Over the years I’ve personally heard from Chicagoans with memories of Kelly traipsing the halls of local high schools looking to befriend teenage girls. Much less clear than Kelly’s gleeful exploitation of women and girls — he calls himself the “Pied Piper” of R&B — is how and why he gets to keep an audience and a job.

Rolling Stone’s article came out just a week after accounts of producer Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior were first published in The New York Times and The New Yorker. The public responded with shock, outrage, and then action. Weinstein was fired from the company he co-founded, expelled from the Motion Picture Academy, and could face criminal charges. Some of his accusers, like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, are powerful Hollywood players, but regular women also stepped forward on social media to tell their own stories of sexual violence, using the hashtag #metoo.

Accusers of other powerful, predatory men soon followed: actor Kevin Spacey, Amazon Studios executive Roy Price, NPR’s senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes, former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, and ex-New Republic publisher Hamilton Fish.

In a tough news cycle, the courage of survivors heartened me. I’ve been the victim of sexual violence more than once. I know many women who can say the same, but often, it’s only behind closed doors, in voices thin with internalized shame that we speak of these things if we ever do at all. Also heartening, of course, were the consequences forced on many of the predators — the public shaming of them, the loss of deals, relationships, credibility.

Weinstein’s victims, that we know of, were mostly white — with the exception of Lupita Nyong’o, who published a detailed account of her experience with the producer in the New York Times. Bim Adewunmi, a critic I admire, wrote that black actresses, who get fewer roles for less pay than their white counterparts, were mostly saved in this instance because of their lack of desirability in the eyes of the mainstream. Weinstein was reported to have turned down actress Sophie Okonedo for a role because he doubted that she was “fuckable” enough to draw audiences. Adewunmi’s thinking didn’t sit right with me; sexually predatory behavior isn’t fundamentally about desirability. Also, women of color — especially indigenous women — have a higher lifetime incidence of sexual violence than white women and are less likely to report it to authorities or use social services to get help. We haven’t been saved from anything just because multitudes of us aren’t on one predator’s list.

There was a lot of silence after Nyong’o spoke up, and with R. Kelly’s victims, there’s been a similar silence. Perhaps it’s news fatigue: Everything is exhausting and heartbreaking, and one can only be outraged so much. Still, it’s curiously telling who the outrage and action follows. There are black women writers and activists who’ve tried to wake us up to the horror of Kelly’s behavior, yet he continues to tour and record music. Right now, on this very day, about half a dozen girls and women may be held in a weird, multi-city sex cult in R. Kelly’s homes. Some of their parents have asked for help. Aren’t they worthy of our collective fury, too?

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