author – activist – faculty – mom
R Kelly is a violent sexual predator. He preyed on young black teen girls, cultivating them with gifts, cash, and attention. He knows just where young poor and working class girls are vulnerable. We grow up without our dads, or if they’re physically present, we don’t feel we fully have their love. We grow up hungry to be special. Many of us lack material resources in a community where young people judge and attack each other viciously if our poverty shows on the outside. Maybe the designer clothes and expensive hair and nails can be the difference between being targeted in high school (or junior high) and having friends. Or maybe his cash could be the difference between eating and going hungry at home.
He knew what to offer those girls to reel them in. His new album “Black Panties” shows he also knows what to offer grown women, and where adult women’s vulnerabilities lie. In misogynist culture, heterosexual adult women—as a group—are so hungry for something positive about our bodies, our sexual pleasure, our sexual empowerment, that grown women—women who should have known better—got reeled in by the predator.
In rape culture, women are so beleaguered that a male artist could win a legion of adoring female fans for writing a song called, “only fuck her if she says yes.” The bar has gotten that low. I looked up the lyrics for R Kelly’s “Marry the Pussy,” this supposed “magnificent ode” to female sexuality, and I didn’t find any of the adoration or affirmation I might have hoped for. The writing was a strategic move that stole from Beyonce. The narrative alludes to commitment, but actually offers nothing but sex, and not a kind of sex that offered anything very far outside the realm of sexual objectification. It was the kind of sex a guy could brag about in a locker room to his boys and get called freaky instead of whupped. Granted, Kelly offers cunnilingus as part of his sexual bag of tricks. But is the bar that low? Really? A little cunnilingus makes a magnificent ode? Particularly when, in the song, Kelly also says that if he wants a ménage a trois (not that the woman wants it, or that they decided together) the woman will get “another pussy” involved. And finally, the language and images he uses to describe intercourse are harsh and aggressive. But this is how predators act, alternately sweet and cruel.
Not only do those who prey on teen girls seduce their victims, they seduce someone else: the grown women who are gatekeepers to the girls. All the women who fell for R Kelly’s bullshit are the archetypal pathetic mother of sexy teen fiction/film icon Lolita to R Kelly’s Humbert Humbert. Most of you have forgotten the mother’s name. It’s Charlotte. I had to look it up. And Lolita is an appropriate reference for R Kelly, because in the book/film, the real story in patriarchy of older men abusing young girls is twisted into a story about love and seduction of an older man by a teen girl.
The predator needs the grown woman as the beard, the cover, the age/gender approved partner he’s screwing to cover his tracks. Lady Gaga, Kelly Rowland, Isha Aran from Jezebel, any and all other women who gave “Black Panties” a good review, not to mention Kelly’s female fans are all complicit in the rape of those girls. Beleaguered and unloved grown women are desperate see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear. They are the mothers who call the daughters sluts, whores, and liars when they tell mom what her boyfriend did to them. Or the mothers who never have to say anything, because the girls already know where mom’s allegiance lies.
I have compassion for them, too. They are that confused and beat down and desperate that they would pimp out their own flesh and blood. Just as I have compassion for R Kelly. Yes, underneath all that monster, he’s only a boy who got sexually assaulted by his neighbor, and didn’t have anyone to help him heal from that. So instead, he figured out how to spin his trauma into a softcore deviant brand that could go mainstream. He figured out how to get a whole industry committed to keeping him free to make hit records, and to provide an endless supply of hush money to the girls he rapes.
For him, life is an endless loop of film with a black teenager getting fucked and pissed on by a grown man. And he is desperate to be the adult in the picture, not the teen. He is desperate to re-create the scene again and again with girl after girl, so he doesn’t need to be the “girl,” the sexually vulnerable one, given gifts and attention and then abused and ashamed and alone. The compulsion is so strong, that he has to brag about it on the album covers with the faceless teen-looking female bodies. Part of me wonders how he could put out those album covers. How come he isn’t ashamed? But of course R Kelly isn’t ashamed. He has carried the shame of being molested his whole adult life. The humiliation of being victimized by a grown man. To him, being a grown man in the victimizing role seems like something to brag about.
While I insist that he needs to be held accountable, I will always hold him with the compassion of context for his actions, as a black man. Our community has never healed from the sexual violations of slavery: sexual violence against both women and men, forcing of blood relatives to breed, and sexual violation of children. I will always hold R Kelly not as a monster of his own making, but a man whose sexual power has been twisted by his personal history of sexual abuse and the overwhelming collective trauma of slavery and colonization that black people carry as a community.
I’m not offering excuses for his behavior; I’m identifying the root of his behavior. His behavior needs to be stopped. We need to boycott his work. He needs a serious psychological intervention. The music/entertainment industry and mainstream media need to stop enabling, excusing, and euphemizing his rape history, and the proceeds of his music need to go toward creating healing and justice for his victims. What an incredible healing it would be for the African American community if he could get help. A public defiance of the legacy of slavery that would have us believe ourselves and behave like beasts and monsters—a deep reclaiming of the truth of our humanity.