The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are “bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,” plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, makes this point: one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different. — Jim DeRogatis
Last week, music critic and radio host Jim DeRogatis sat down to an extraordinary interview with the Village Voice’s Jessica Hopper about the problem of R. Kelly. R. Kelly is a Chicago-based R&B artist who, in the late ’90s and in the ’00s, was alleged to have raped a number of underaged girls. He was never charged with rape but he was prosecuted, and acquitted, on related charges.
As a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, DeRogatis investigated and reported on the charges. He takes them very seriously, and he is deeply troubled at the glib way many people and institutions in the pop music world have made light of them. He’s even more disturbed by the way in which some fans and critics appear to be, in his words, “liking Kelly’s music because they know” about the alleged sex crimes.
Here’s what he says about the allegations. A warning — his descriptions are graphic and extremely upsetting:
They were stomach-churning. The one young woman, who had been 14 or 15 when R. Kelly began a relationship with her, detailed in great length, in her affidavits, a sexual relationship that began at Kenwood Academy: He would go back in the early years of his success and go to Lina McLin’s gospel choir class. She’s a legend in Chicago, gospel royalty. He would go to her sophomore class and hook up with girls afterward and have sex with them. Sometimes buy them a pair of sneakers. Sometimes just letting them hang out in his presence in the recording studio. She detailed the sexual relationship that she was scarred by. It lasted about one and a half to two years, and then he dumped her and she slit her wrists, tried to kill herself. Other girls were involved. She recruited other girls. He picked up other girls and made them all have sex together. A level of specificity that was pretty disgusting.
I think in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, rock music, or pop culture people misbehaving and behaving badly sexually with young women, rare is the amount of evidence compiled against anyone apart from R. Kelly. Dozens of girls — not one, not two, dozens — with harrowing lawsuits. The videotapes — and not just one videotape, numerous videotapes. And not Tommy Lee/Pam Anderson, Kardashian fun video. You watch the video for which he was indicted and there is the disembodied look of the rape victim. He orders her to call him Daddy. He urinates in her mouth and instructs her at great length on how to position herself to receive his “gift.” It’s a rape that you’re watching. So we’re not talking about rock star misbehavior, which men or women can do. We’re talking about predatory behavior. Their lives were ruined. Read the lawsuits!
The case continues to haunt DeRogatis, in part because Kelly’s still-traumatized victims continue to contact him about the case — even though the incidents in question occurred over a decade ago:
The number of times since I began this R. Kelly story that I was called in the middle of the night, was talking to someone on Christmas Eve or on New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving. … Yeah, I got a call from one of the women after the Pitchfork festival review [earlier this year]. “I know we haven’t spoken in a long time,” and said thank you for still caring and thank you for writing this story, because nobody gives a shit.
It was a horrible day and a horrible couple of weeks when he was acquitted. The women I heard from who I’d interviewed, women I’d never interviewed who said, “I didn’t come forward, I never spoke to you before, I wish I had now that son of a bitch got off.” Jesus Christ. Rape-victim advocates — I don’t believe in God — they do God’s work. These young women who volunteer to be in the emergency room and sit with a woman throughout the horrible process, I don’t do that. I’m not saying I’m even in the same universe. But somebody calls you up and says I want to talk about this, or thank you about writing this, or, “I can’t sleep because I’m haunted, can you hear what I want to tell you?” We do that as a human being. I would like to forget about this story. I’m not saying I’m super reporter. I’m saying this was a huge story. Where was everybody else?
Hopper presses him about other pop artists — haven’t other rock and R&B musicians also done terrible things? DeRogatis admits, “A lot of art, great art, is made by despicable people. James Brown beat his wife.” But, he says, “The art very rarely talks about these things. There are not pro-rape Led Zeppelin songs. There are not pro-wife-beating James Brown songs.”
What troubles DeRogatis the most is the way pillars of the music establishment have continued to enable Kelly. For example, Pitchfork, which is the premier organ of pop music criticism and journalism, had no problem with Kelly playing at its music festival earlier this year:
To be clear, I think Pitchfork was cosigning it. I think each and every one of us, as individual listeners and consumers of culture, has to come up with our own answer. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. The thing that’s interesting to me is that Pitchfork is a journalistic and critical organ. They do journalism and they do criticism. And then when they are making money to present an act — that’s a cosign, that’s an endorsement. That’s not just writing about and covering it. They very much wanted R. Kelly as their cornerstone artist for the festival. I think it’s fair game to say: “Why, Pitchfork?”
There are also those super-creepy fans who seem to get off on Kelly’s heinousness:
Here’s the most sinister. This deeply troubles me: There’s a very — I don’t know what the percentage is — some percentage of fans are liking Kelly’s music because they know. And that’s really troublesome to me. There is some sort of — and this is tied up to complicated questions of racism and sexism — there is some sort of vicarious thrill to seeing this guy play this character in these songs and knowing that it’s not just a character.
Pitchfork is the premier critical organ in the United States for smart discussion of music, books, and artists, but it doesn’t have this discussion. The site reviews his records but doesn’t have the conversation about, “What does it say for us to like his music?”
This interview was provocative and distressing to me on a number of levels. First of all, I’d somehow managed to ignore the specifics of Kelly’s alleged crimes. Now I know, and I’m horrified. These are Roman Polanski-level atrocities — only worse, because in Polanski’s case, there was only one victim that we know about, but there are many more victims here.
Second, this hits me where I live — and I mean that quite literally. My apartment is two blocks away from the Kenwood Academy, where Kelly trolled for victims. I may well have seen these young women on the street. I may unknowingly run into them from time to time to this day. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those poor girls. There must be a special quality of horror in being, not just a victim of sexual violence, but a victim of someone who is extremely powerful. And not just a victim of a very powerful person, but of a famous person, whose name and work will keeping coming up in public, for years, in ways you can’t control.
Third, I am beyond creeped out by the music industry’s continuing support of Kelly and its blithe insistence on looking the other way. The hipster boys at the premier critical organ of rock criticism, Pitchfork? They give the guy a pass. Extend him an engraved invitation to their musical festival. Worse, this oh-so-intellectual crowd doesn’t even seem to believe that Kelly’s alleged crimes, and their impact on his music and how we react to his music, are even topics worthy of discussion.
But Pitchfork is far from alone. What about Lady Gaga? She’s described herself as a feminist, and many women look up to her as a role model. And yet, there she is, singing a duet with Kelly on her new album. It’s a really good album, too! At the moment, however, when I think about playing it, I feel sick.
The sad fact is, when it comes to R. Kelly, the responses of Pitchfork and Gaga are the norm — it’s DeRogatis who’s the exception. In this world, most people do not care to let their minds linger over painful subjects like sex crimes and the trauma that results from them. Most people, too, side with the rich and powerful. In a conflict between a world famous pop star vs. a young black girl from the South Side of Chicago, I’m afraid there’s little question as to where most people’s loyalties are going to lie.
The question remains, in situations like these, what does one do? Boycotting R. Kelly’s music and his concerts seem like a good start, but it hardly seems like enough. It’s not going to bring him to justice, and it certainly won’t undo the great harm that’s been done to his victims.
But by speaking out against Kelly, we show solidarity with the victims, and that may be of some comfort to them, however remote. And by resisting rape culture, we can actually help reduce the incidence of rape. Research shows that “challenging rape myths means less rape.”
Ignoring or making light of terrible crimes like the ones Kelly is alleged to have committed helps rape culture flourish. By insisting on the seriousness of rape, and above all, by letting the victims and the predators alike know that we will not forget, we can help create a climate that will make rape much less acceptable, and thus much less likely. It’s the least we can do — even though it hardly feels like enough.
UPDATE: Jennifer Pozner’s Salon article on this subject is also excellent. Among other things, she gives a better summary of the case than I did. Here’s what she writes:
So what, exactly, does that underreported history entail? In short, that Kelly has allegedly subjected dozens of young black girls to coercive, illegal sex in a pattern documented in one chilling court filing after another, from 1996 through the mid-2000s, all settled with hush-money to families and payoffs to witnesses, allowing him to perpetrate again and again. In court documents and DeRogatis’ reporting, Kelly’s accused of utilizing the techniques of practiced pedophiles: hanging out at or near schools, grooming kids with attention, cash or gifts such as sneakers, controlling and exploiting them sexually, then discarding them after they were no longer young enough to suit his tastes. He allegedly coerced girls into recruiting their young friends to fill his appetites, and made them have sex with him and with each other. One woman says he picked her up on the night of her prom, and later forced her to get an abortion. Some of Kelly’s alleged victims have been so traumatized that they’ve attempted suicide, showing DeRogatis the scars on their slashed wrists.
She also mentions actions that are taken to hold Kelly responsible:
It’s not too late to expect some form of justice for Kelly, though. To that end, the Brooklyn organization BK Nation has launched this petition “calling on radio stations, video channels, music publications and websites, members of the entertainment industry, and men and women of all backgrounds to sign our petition completely boycotting R. Kelly’s musical and artistic career until he is completely honest about who is, publicly apologizes for this behavior cited from many sources, gets extended counseling, and takes a very public stand and actions against sexual violence in any form.” Kevin Powell, president and cofounder of BK Nation, “is especially asking men, including Black men, to join us in taking a very public stand against any form of sexual violence and assault against women, girls, and children” because “ silence is this matter is agreement and support.”
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