author – activist – faculty – mom
This week, I am working on my 2nd novel, the sequel to my debut UPTOWN THIEF (summer, 2016). This new novel, due out in 2017, features Tyesha Couvillier, a black woman from Chicago. Her love interest is a Southern gangsta rapper who is turning over a new leaf and learning how to respect women.
One of the challenges as a writer is figuring out how to create and sustain romantic tension between two characters. Their deep attraction will always pull them together, but there needs to be something pulling them apart. I’m tired of silly misunderstandings. That was your sister I saw you out with? Golly, I thought you were cheating on me. Oops! I want romantic obstacles of substance and significance. What could be more significant than R Kelly?
I have been writing about R Kelly for over a decade. I first developed a spoken word piece about him in the early 2000s. I did a more recent video of that piece. Then I wrote about him and developed a series of #BoycottRKelly memes when the Black Panties album came out in 2013.
In 2008, when I began writing UPTOWN THIEF, the character Tyesha Couvillier came to me as a young black woman from Chicago who had moved to New York to get away from her chaotic relatives–a drama-filled bunch who were trying to sabotage her as the first one in the family to go to college. In UPTOWN THIEF, she’s a secondary protagonist. When I sold the book to Kensington Dafina, I got a two-book deal, and I knew the sequel would be Tyesha’s own book. I wrote the outline for the book about a year ago, and I added in the R Kelly plotline. It seemed perfectly plausible. An up and coming gangsta rapper would get tapped to collaborate with an aging pedophile (technically, Kelly is a hebephile, because he’s interested in 11-14 year olds). And when the rapper’s girlfriend found out about the proposed collaboration with R Kelly, she would be enraged. Because Tyesha is not only a black woman who’s concerned about sexual violence against women and girls, but a black woman from Chicago. Which is where R Kelly did so much of his damage. He was a serial predator who preyed on many, many girls. So young black women of a certain age in Chicago either knew someone or knew someone who knew someone who had been abused by R Kelly. Not to mention how many girls he would have had to approach in order to cultivate all those victims. So for the sisters from Chicago, this battle is personal.
But the love interest character isn’t from Chicago. And while he has turned over the new leaf, but he hasn’t been fully politicized about gender and rape culture. So when he gets the chance to do a big project with R Kelly, he takes it. However, when his girlfriend Tyesha finds out, she confronts him. When he doesn’t respond adequately, she cusses him out, and dumps him. The love interest isn’t particularly a rape apologist, but rather someone who thinks that happened “a long time ago” and doesn’t see why his own career should suffer because of what someone else allegedly did. This is a typical situation. Some men can’t see why they should miss an opportunity for advancement because of someone else’s mistake. In this case, the rapper doesn’t want to turn down a big, lucrative project, just because the other artist is a proven rapist (even if not a convicted one). But the love interest rapper gets a powerful lesson in solidarity from his now ex- girlfriend. When it comes to R&B child rapists, if their people come calling, you have two choices: you either boycot them or you implicitly give them legitimacy by being linked with them in public. There’s no neutral territory.
Back here in real life, I wonder will the PR handlers of R Kelly never learn? After last year’s disastrous train wreck, #AskRKelly. What was supposed to be a “chat” with his fans, turned into a justifiable dragging and meme fest about his sexual crimes. Yet the latest PR fiasco was sending him on to HuffPost Live to be interviewed about his flagging album sales. As Yesha Callahan from The Root put it, “In some corner of New York City, at this very moment R. Kelly is probably wishing…he had a better P.R. team that didn’t book him for a HuffPost Live segment on Monday.” And who did they have interviewing him? Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, whose journalism beat is “world news, women’s rights, politics…” It was amazing to watch Modarressy-Tehrani. She did her job: she asked the relevant context questions about him expecting support. She had integrity and a strong professional presence. She wasn’t a fluff reporter *gushes* “ooh, tell us about your new project you big strong famous man!” She was a journalist and asked hard questions. Or really half questions because he kept interrupting, belittling, mansplaining, condescending, and insulting her. Then he just threw a hissy fit and walked out.
I have loved the various black women commenting on him:
After this week’s fiasco, however, my novel will take a bit of a hit, though. It may become less than believable that R Kelly would even be part of a big blockbuster project. This botched interview may finally be the end of his career. Increasingly, he just seems like what he is: an entitled, bitter, defensive, aging creep. Because Kelly is most likely a sexual abuse survivor himself. It’s been documented in a long ago Vanity Fair article, before these things were available online. It’s a shame he’s never gotten any help. All these years of being an unhealed trauma survivor don’t look good on him. And the years of acting it out as a perpetrator look even worse. Which is why a word like “tantrum” is so fitting for what we saw on the HuffPost segment. These are the actions of a wounded little boy. But that traumatized boy can do immeasurable and irreparable damage when he walks around in the body of a famous, wealthy, powerful and entitled, grown black man.