"Surviving R Kelly"
Does the #MeToo movement ignore women of colour?
By Eloise Barry
Illustration by Lauren Drinkwater
The gruelling docuseries, “Surviving R Kelly”, has forcibly dug the public and the music industry’s heads out of the sand regarding the allegations of sexual abuse against one of the most powerful forces of modern R&B.
Despite featuring a damning compilation of dozens of testimonies, the programme is not an actual “exposé” of Kelly’s behaviour, because many of the severest allegations had already been documented by Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch in a Chicago Sun-Times Story in 2000. Unlike the result of the New York Time’s 2017 piece on Harvey Weinstein, which uncovered crimes against white female celebrities, DeRogatis and Pallasch’s exposé of Kelly’s behaviour against young African-American women did not result in the end of the perpetrator’s career. As “Surviving R Kelly” explains clearly, the victims’ race and the associated stereotypes and discrimination is why popular culture felt it could ignore, explain, and permit Kelly’s crimes for so long.
The R Kelly case has shown that Malcolm X’s observation in 1962, that “The most disrespected, [unprotected and neglected] person in America is the black woman”, remains true decades later.
Black women face oppression from a myriad of areas, most commonly with regards to race, gender and economic status. These intersections come together to form huge amounts of bias and discrimination against women of colour.
The figures alone prove this: a study from Brandeis University found that while US prosecutors pursue seventy-five per cent of sexual assault cases brought by white women, only thirty-four per cent brought by black women are investigated. According to African-American sociologist, Patricia Hill-Collins, the stereotype of black women as “promiscuous”, which was used pre-Civil War as justification for white slave-masters raping slaves, still exists to this day.
This helps to explain why sexual and physical assaults against black women are less likely to be believed, as the blame falls on the supposedly seductive victim. Given this societal and judicial bias, it is not surprising how many of Kelly’s economically vulnerable victims and their families accepted payments and lawsuit settlements in exchange for their silence. R Kelly systematically abused and exploited black girls from working-class backgrounds as he knew they were less likely to be believed and held less power than any other societal group.
The industry which allowed Kelly to abuse the vulnerable is also trying to evade accountability. Affiliated artists, Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper, have insured their reputations by removing collaborations with Kelly and releasing apologetic statements retrospectively, as if they were oblivious to the well-known allegations before the docuseries.
Despite pressure from the #MuteRKelly campaign, which raised over 75,000 signatures for its petition, RCA only dropped Kelly from their label following the huge popularity of “Surviving R Kelly”.
Even this is for show; Kelly is still profiting from past releases with the label and has experienced a sixteen per cent increase in streams since the series aired. These tepid responses in the music industry against Kelly are a far cry from Hollywood actresses’ fashion-inspired show of solidarity for the #TimesUp movement at the 2018 Golden Globes, in the wake of the Weinstein exposé.
However, many hope that in the wake of the docuseries public pressure will mount on the judicial system to take Kelly’s survivors more seriously. This February, Kelly was charged in Illinois with ten counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of minors. Michael Avenatti, the attorney who represents Kelly’s victims, is confident of a guilty conviction: "It is high time that you face justice for the conduct that you have engaged in for the better part of two decades.” This time round, Kelly has been unable to afford bail. This hints at the economic damage inflicted by the allegations in the documentary, which could prevent him from silencing any of the victims involved in this case with money.
What the R Kelly case has taught us is that #MeToo only works for women and men of all backgrounds if the intersectional factors of race, gender and economic status and the effects they wield on victims of sexual abuse are considered. While black women were finally given a voice and could see themselves represented in “Surviving R Kelly”, the music industry must fully renounce Kelly to atone for the many years of complicity.
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