By Ernest Owens
This past weekend, as millions watched and weighed in on executive producer Dream Hampton’s six-part docuseries on Lifetime, boldly titled Surviving R. Kelly, you could feel, across social conversations, there hung a collective sense of guilt. The three-night special covered the over 25-year history of sexual abuse allegations against the R&B superstar who has continuously denied claims and avoided justice, despite the still-increasing evidence and testimony of his crimes against black women. It featured countless activists, musicians, legal experts, licensed psychologists, and accusers who bravely shared their perspectives on Kelly’s ability to abuse his victims while the world around him was complicit. In its wake, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office in Georgia has launched an investigation into the allegations made against Kelly.
For three nights, the Lifetime series documented the rise and fall of R. Kelly’s career through candid interviews with nearly 50 people. We heard from women like Lizzette Martinez, who says she dated Kelly at age 17, eventually miscarried, and was paid $1,000 for her silence after allegedly contracting mononucleosis from him. Another survivor, Jerhonda Pace, alleged that she was recruited to join Kelly’s sex cult after first meeting him during his 2002 child pornography trial. Kelly’s accusers — which included his ex-wife, previous collaborators, and several fans who shared stories of their sexual relationships with Kelly, most while underage — were labeled survivors on-screen as they gave devastating accounts of the trauma they endured from a musician many of them initially described as a “genius.”
The docuseries also featured never-before-seen testimonies from the men in Kelly’s life — his brothers, collaborators, employees, and industry peers — who often enabled his obscene behavior. Bruce Kelly, R. Kelly’s older brother, attempted to defend his sibling’s alleged pedophilia as simply being “a preference,” and later expressed joy when he was acquitted on child pornograpy charges back in 2002. Kelly’s former assistant, Demetrius Smith, also admitted to having coordinated the forgery of the late R&B singer Aaliyah’s marriage license during her wedding to Kelly when she was only 14-years-old. We were told by Kelly’s producer Craig Williams that “everyone knew” of the singer’s penchant for propositioning underage girls in high schools.
Despite all of that documentation, R. Kelly continues to deny all allegations launched against him. Since the docuseries’ close, Kelly’s team has been adamantly discrediting his accusers and denying any of the revelations unmasked during those televised six hours. It should also be noted that Kelly threatened to sue Lifetime prior to the series airing and has plans to create a website called Surviving Lies to contest his accusers.
I don’t believe or support R. Kelly, and neither should anyone else.
Black women have been leading the rallying cry against Kelly, whose alleged actions are really just one manifestation of the general mistreatment of black women in culture. For decades, they have simultaneously been open about their lack of support. The growing chorus of men speaking in solidarity is slowly growing, but even more crucial to progress is the need for us as men to start holding ourselves accountable for the biases we personally hold. There must be a reckoning with the misogynoir that we allow to run rampant in our own lives. It’s time for more men to finally speak out against sexual abuse and violence. Where have we been? What were we doing? Why were we silent?
These were the questions I asked myself as I watched each episode. Though I personally stopped supporting R. Kelly years ago, I began to ponder why men weren’t as vocal during the rise of the #MuteRKelly movement, myself included. No other excuse could come to my mind other than the fact that I presumed it was just a women’s issue and I should simply fall back. As women’s voices have continued to be amplified during the #MeToo movement, I often struggled to figure out my role. I didn’t want to center myself as a man or take up too much space when other women could be given the spotlight. Unfortunately, as a result, I instead chose inaction rather than exploring proactive ways to get involved. But several Black women activists and voices on social media — individuals such as like Tarana Burke, Feminista Jones, Jamilah Lemieux, Leslie Mac, and countless others — have underlined an important point: Falling back is a disservice to Black women. Especially when CDC data reports that more than four in ten Black women experience physical violence from an intimate partner during their lifetimes.
To simply put the responsibility on Black women to fight against the misogyny they face alone — even though they also fight for civil rights for everyone else across the aisle — is selfish and unfair. Misogynoir, the term coined by Black queer feminist Moya Bailey, expresses how misogyny directed towards Black women is often more severe because the intersections of both their race and gender is being targeted. According to a 2018 crowdsourced study from Amnesty International, statistics show that Black women were 84 percent more likely than white women to be disproportionately targeted online with one in ten tweets mentioning Black women was “abusive or problematic,” compared to one in 15 for white women. What we are doing by turning to a blind eye towards the trauma Black women face is only furthering the problem afflicted. In this regard, silence becomes violence.
While the media often covers these issues impacting white women, Black women are usually given less attention. It took years before #MeToo founder Tarana Burke was finally acknowledged on a national level for her important work in raising awareness around sexual harassment and abuse. It’s time for all men to work towards resolving these disparities.
Contributing meaningfully to the cause will require men to make the sincere decisions to shut down toxic masculinity in public settings, call out and cut off misogynistic friends and family, report known abusers in your workplaces, support Black women who are telling their stories through film, music, and other media, and take R. Kelly off their playlists. It will call for us to financially contribute to nonprofits and institutions, such as Burke’s #MeToo movement, that are more equipped to help women survivors in ways that are outside of our scope. We must adapt to a lifestyle that works to end misogynoir in pop culture and society at large — which calls for us to divest from systems working to further such abuse. We must support Black women around us with full conviction and accountability.
Black women and girls are still surviving R. Kelly. Now it’s time for men to step up and support them.
It’s on all of us to stand up against sexual assault. Find out more at metoo.mtv.com.
Ernest Owens is an award-winning journalist and CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC. His work has been featured on CNN, BET, USA Today, NBC, NPR, and Philadelphia magazine.