On #survivingrkelly: deconstruction, accountability, and a #networkofpredation – The Feminist Wire

On #survivingrkelly: deconstruction, accountability, and a #networkofpredation

I finished Episode 6 of #survivingrkelly executive produced by dream hampton late last night. Full disclosure: I am a Black woman sexual assault survivor who used to love me some R. Kelly, and yes, even after his marriage to 15-year-old Aaliyah. I knew it was wrong but quite frankly, like too many of us, I grew up knowing a lot of folks just like R. Kelly and Aaliyah. The solicitation, sexual and otherwise, of twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-old girls by nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one year-old-plus boys and men in Black communities was, unfortunately, the norm during my youth. And no, I don’t think any of us thought this was right. I do, however, believe many of us found it to be culturally permissible. There’s a difference. And no, this is not a Black problem. It’s a borderless cross-cultural problem. Grown men have long preyed on young girls across racial, ethnic, national, and socio-economic-political lines and many of us have looked the other way. Heck, it’s in the bible. How telling is that? If nothing else, it speaks to the normalization of predation.

That said, I loved me some R. Kelly up until at least his 2003 release of Chocolate Factory. And like many, I knew he was a sexual predator, but in my mind, I hadn’t yet processed that he was a sexual predator. Meaning that I’d heard about the sexual assault tape but was so deeply moved by his sound, his music, his performances, and yes, even his good looks, I compartmentalized the visual and aural aesthetics, which produced pleasure, and separated them from the larger narrative. Truth is, Chocolate Factory made me dance euphorically and forget about the ugliness of life. Music has a way of doing that. It makes you move your feet and wave your hands while forgetting about the sexism, patriarchy, exploitation, and misogynoir of your favorite artist. And so there I was, stepping in the name of love to the voice of a man that objectified and hated us.

Thank goodness, around this time I was also in graduate school. Not that you need graduate education to see what’s wrong with R. Kelly. But it was my engagement in this space with womanist and Black feminist textual resources that pushed me to become not solely a cultural participant, uncritically stepping in the name of faux love, but also and simultaneously a critical cultural reader. As I write in my latest book, Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture (2018), when engaging the text Black Women As Cultural Readers (1995), by Black feminist Jacqueline Bobo, “[She] asserts that cultural production requires critical readers. She articulates the work of the cultural reader, one that moves beyond audience member to critical spectator, as a strategic intervention in the politics of interpretation” (60). The cultural reader strategically intervenes in and on cultural production, while not only attending to how cultural production makes meaning, but also while taking seriously how we bond with cultural production – for good or bad — and how such cultural production works on us.

Today, I am a Black feminist historian, researcher, and writer who has written about Black women, sex, sexuality, sexual identity, representation, rape, and #rapeculture as these things relate to North American slavery, plantation life, and plantation sexual politics and ethics, as well as Black communities, families, contemporary Black popular culture, and the Black Church. I have been engaged in this work for the past 16 years, critically and strategically intervening on culture and meaning making as it relates to Black life, radical ethics, and liberation. I should say up front, it’s fine to consume and enjoy culture. And, I’d be lying if I said I only enjoyed the liberative parts. However, becoming a cultural reader meant critiquing the bad parts, even if I enjoyed them. It meant exploring why I loved the trashy parts of culture, how it worked on me and others, and what drew me (and us) to it. R. Kelly isn’t still signed to RCA because he’s no longer selling out venues or records. He’s still signed because people are still dancing, despite knowing what we know. Because he has a hardcore fanbase still brazenly bumping his music. A critical cultural reader doesn’t just dance, however, she asks “why?” The short answer is sexual predation is so normalized we sometimes think it’s better to keep dancing rather than ask the hard questions.

I am no longer an R. Kelly fan. And I certainly do not dance to his music. In fact, the sight and sound of him makes me sick, though I do at times miss the melodious beats – but not enough to betray my love and support for Black women and girls. As much as we may want to, we cannot parse R. Kelly from Robert or his music from his terrorism. They are ensnared. Each gives birth to and influences and enables the other. In fact, R. Kelly’s lyrics provide several clues to who Robert is. And the lyrics might be okay if he wasn’t talking about exploiting, objectifying, and dominating Black and Brown minors and/or grown women. “It Seems Like You’re Ready” and Aaliyah’s “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” produced by R.Kelly, particularly when read together, tell us plenty. The question is, are we willing to critically listen? Robert has been telling us that age doesn’t matter and that our bodies are his playground for years. But just as he’s been grooming the women and girls in his stable to be his sexual playthings for decades, he’s been grooming us to shut up and keep dancing; to normalize predation. The question that comes to mind is this: Why have so many of us agreed to this? It’s not because we just love the music so much. I mean, maybe. But perhaps it’s because we too have been informed and impacted by predation. And this is what needs interrogating.

Let me make this plain: when we listen to, watch, or support R. Kelly, we are engaging with a misogynoirist terrorist who has a history of systemically capturing, exploiting, violating, and traumatizing Black girls and women. And we are not only helping to facilitate these efforts, we are emphatically endorsing them. It is up to us to choose against this; to resist and reject R. Kelly and the R. Kelly’s of the world rather than promote them. We are not powerless or unconscious cultural participants. We are not Pavlov’s dog. If R. Kelly’s victims were Black boys we would have stopped dancing decades ago. We wouldn’t dare blame the music, the artistry, or the so-called genius for still selling out his shows, buying his music, or caping for him. And we certainly wouldn’t attempt to make faux distinctions between the artist and the music. So then the question we must ask is this: Why are we okay with predatory practices when used against Black girls? Why do we look the other way when Black girls are violated? Why do we not care? Or worse, is it because we too violate and/or take pleasure in violating Black girls? How did this become our norm? And most importantly, how do we make it abnormal?

I’m partially deaf, so I chose to watch #survivingrkelly on my laptop, where I could not only deploy closed caption and more closely attend to language but also where I could rewind in order to do a close reading of body and other language. I was floored. Some of the details were already known. However, many were not. I’m not sure I was ready for the intricate layers provided in the stories or in the process of storytelling. I was overwhelmed by the courage of the Black women survivors. But I was also troubled by the desire for more and more details, and seemingly, the more explicit the better. At some points, the docuseries felt made for TV rather than made for their/our healing. The latter requires a critical balancing act, which includes a hefty dosage of Black feminist care, critique, analyses, and healing mechanisms. R. Kelly’s network of predators certainly needed a critical reading. Let them tell it, they were just doing their jobs when facilitating imprisonment, rape, and other “preferences.” I needed a visual, aural, mental, and emotional cleansing after watching their very triggering interviews. And it wasn’t just what was said, it was how they communicated what was said, it was tone, it was expression, it was the visual language of physical movement. I read not repentance but denial, negligence, brazenness, and at times, veiled enthusiasm.

As Angelica Jade Bastién writes in “Surviving R. Kelly Is a Necessary Awakening, But It Asks the Wrong Questions,”

“At what point does a documentary shift from honoring the voices of brutalized women to exploiting them for every salacious detail?”

“However, as Hampton and her team tease out the most stomach-churning details of these women’s experiences — their faces often streaked with tears and makeup — I realized it wasn’t the healing or reckoning they were interested in primarily, but the trauma.”

“But watching those testimonies, I often felt like I was stepping into a private moment, as the women pore over the details of what they experienced, the majority of whom were very young teenagers at the time of their abuse. Aesthetically, the documentary trades in the coarse rhythms of a tabloid.”

“Surviving R. Kelly is too interested in the particulars of what R. Kelly did to these women’s bodies to fully care about their humanity or grapple with the murky complexities of the bigger picture.”

This morning I awoke raw, angry, and sad. But as I commenced to doing my daily spiritual practice (and after several kisses to the face from the hubby), those feelings lessened, and I realized a few things. Namely, this kind of work requires aftercare, particularly healing rituals, continued education, and post-deconstructive work. But let’s first state the good: #survivingrkelly provides a contemporary mass-mediated televisual look at #rapeculture, and particularly as it impacts Black communities, and more specifically Black girls and women. More, it gives previous works and analyses a fresh, new lens as well as a particular gaze into the life and traumas of R. Kelly. That said, it does good and necessary, heart-wrenching and infuriating work. So I want to pause and give dream hampton and all others who worked on the series a full body bow for showing us, in a singular yet simultaneously collective story, not only how demonic R. Kelly is, but how #rapeculture works in real life with living and breathing examples. What is now undeniable, after watching this series, is that #rapeculture thrives due to #networksofpredation; systems and patterns of abuse; overlapping structures of oppression; failed social, political, religious, communal, and legal systems; and an overwhelming historical and contemporary disbelief of Black women’s and girls’ stories. The latter of whom, I argue in Jezebel Unhinged, are always already mis/read as sexually illicit, hyper, animalistic, immoral, and more. And this has everything to do with rape-ability.

But this is also what I wanted the series to contextualize, historicize, and problematize. To make it plain, R. Kelly could not become the monstrous sexual and otherwise abuser that he is without his #networkofpredators and #systemsofpredation, namely, his family, friends, managers, lawyers, the police, security, drivers, runners, flight purchasers, hotel bookers, phone answerers, marriage license forgers, music executives, RCA, business partners, fans, and the American judicial system. And while no one is guiltier than Robert, Robert can’t do what he does without his networks and resources. And he surely can’t enact decades of abuse towards Black women and girls without patterns of oppression and structural, institutional, and representational abuse and dehumanization already in place. For those asking how he’s gotten away with this, here is your answer. We have been taught that Black women and girls are unworthy of care, respect, autonomy, and safety — in history, in our music, on television, in film, in politics, in our faith traditions, in our communities, in our schools, in our criminal justice system, and in our homes. Now is the time for unlearning.

What’s clear to me is this: R. Kelly and his handlers – given the history of Black women and girls in America and his history of legal and cultural absolution – believe they have a right to own and abuse Black women and girls, and partially because America has said so. To them, R. Kelly’s behavior is normal and thus acceptable. It’s the rest of us critics who have a problem. In Jezebel Unhinged, I refer to this as the residue of plantation sexual politics. However, Robert and others have decided to take those politics and re-appropriate them; to possess them, if you will, for themselves. All of this in mind, Surviving R. Kelly is not a personal problem and/or story. It’s a historical, cultural, social, political, and a particular problem. And all of this needs analyzing and deconstructing. To this end, I suggest turning our attention, simultaneously, to some folk who’ve been doing this work for a very long time. And while the movement against sexual violence is over a century old and extends beyond Black women and girls, I’d like to place emphasis on the latter. Because if we look at the historical works of Black women movement workers and Black feminists and womanists who’ve been doing this work forever, we’ll see there’s a pattern of erasure, legally (see Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work noted below) and culturally (see Jezebel Unhinged), in terms of who is seen as justifiably rape-able and who isn’t and thus who gets justice and who doesn’t.

There are key national and international works/laborers that require naming and revisiting. I break them down by looking at testimonies, activists/organizers, researchers/writers, and the contemporary mass mediated iteration grounded in both social media and social movement. I call attention here because these works collectively tell us “why, Black girls and women.” They reveal why men like R. Kelly get away with abusing Black girls and women and not others. They interrogate how #networksofpredation come to be, get normalized, and continue to thrive. They provide a critical mirror for why some of us keep dancing. And more, they detail a lineage of abuses that help us make sense of and provide context for the current moment. Before 1960s/1970s social movements or 1990s/2000s media works (television, film, videos, social media, etc) against sexual violence, there were enslaved and newly freed Black women who resisted and called out rape. We can learn quite a bit from slave narratives and other primary sources, and not solely in terms of testimony but practices of healing, resistance, accountability, and justice.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is a good start. The WPA and the Slave Narrative Collection, and specifically The American Slave collection, edited by George P. Rawick in 1977, are a good follow-up for primary sources. There’s also Recy Taylor’s story. On September 3, 1944, Taylor, of Henry County, Alabama, was abducted and gang-raped after leaving a church service by six white men who confessed to the crime to authorities but were subsequently never indicted or charged. The crime, though clearly not seen as a “real” crime to the justice system, was extensively covered in the Black press, however, and was an early catalyst, thanks to Rosa Parks’s work on the case, for the Civil Rights movement. These her-stories are important. Robert Kelly’s story of sexual abuse and lack of accountability did not begin in the millennium, with Aaliyah, with his sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl on video, or even with Robert himself. The American context has always been fertile for shameless sexual violence sans justice, particularly towards Black women and girls. Simultaneously, Black men (and many women) have to reckon with their participation.

All of this in mind, I also suggest the written works by Black feminists such as: The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970) by Toni Cade Bambara, “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist” (1983) by Angela Y. Davis, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6 (July 1991) by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History (1994) by Darlene Clark-Hine, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997) by Saidiya Hartman, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (1998) by Tera Hunter, and At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (2011) by Danielle L. McGuire (not a Black feminist), just to name a few. Crenshaw literally provides the historical argument and grounding for Black women’s and girls’ legal erasure as victims in the American juridical system. I also write about this in Jezebel Unhinged.

In addition to first-hand testimony and Black feminist writers and researchers, there are media and movement works and workers that we need to be engaging. For example, Aishah Shahidah Simmons’s NO! The Rape Documentary (2006), which in many ways is the precursor for #survivingrkelly, Crenshaw’s #SayHerName and the African American Policy Forum, What About Our Daughters, founded in 2007 in response to an Oprah Winfrey show entitled “After Imus: Now What,” Scheherazade and Salamishah Tillet’s A Long Walk Home, The National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault (SCESA), Black Women’s Blueprint, INCITE: Women and Trans People of Color Against Violence, Women of Color Network, and so on. #MeToo, founded by Tarana Burke, provides a new, mass-mediated, and undeniably necessary entry point and platform on the 100-plus year continuum of Black women’s resistances against sexual violence. We need ALL of these works and workers to be in conversation in order to move toward deconstruction and healing. The latter is where I feel #survivingrkelly ultimately falls short. Of course, no cultural production can do it all. Still, I found myself longing for next steps, more critical unapologetic Black feminist analysis, more historical grounding in terms of race, sex, and gender, and more balance between survivors’ testimonies and what at times felt like braggadocios pornotropic locker room tales of rape and cults of predation. To be sure, the deconstructive and healing archives are there for our taking.

Telling our stories is the first point of healing and resistance. But it’s not enough. And if we aren’t careful, such storytelling could become cheap entertainment or even pornographic. We need to be in conversation with the historical works of both tragedy and healing but also those individual and collective works and workers who engage the possibilities for socio-political-cultural-structural-institutional deconstruction, resistance, education, and accountability. We must engage and attempt to end the structures and politics that lead to and enable sexual dominance and violence. And such a lens must make central the place and role of patriarchy, sexism, toxic masculinity, and racism, and how each enable rape culture and specifically Black women’s and girls’ rape-ability. Such a discourse requires that we imagine, build, and demand structures, politics, and ethics of accountability in our day to day living; that we name and demolish not solely harmful individuals but institutions and institutional politics and networks.

Obviously, R. Kelly is a useful symbol of #rapeculture. However, #rapeculture is irreducible to R. Kelly. Also, the necessary and powerful #MeToo movement cannot and does not totalize the movement against #rapeculture and sexual violence. Identifying it as such limits the larger social movement against sexual violence to not only a singular set of aims (storytelling and Black girl joy) but a singular person. Truth is, we can’t get to joy without doing the critical work of structural, institutional, interpersonal, communal, and personal deconstruction and resistance. Meaning that this work is as local as our individual homes and communities and as broad as our racial and ethnic subgroups/ideas/values, our nation/state, our criminal justice systems and laws, and more. For example, in 2015, the Department of Justice reported that there was an average of 321,500 reported cases of sexual assault in a five-year period (2010-2015), averaging approximately one person every 98 seconds. It was estimated that only 15.5% to 30% of sexual assault cases are even reported. Unfortunately, those most likely to not report or to be ignored are the most vulnerable: women of color, in general, and Black women and girls, in particular. Rape is an epidemic; a social, cultural, and political problem.

And more, as we see with Recy Taylor’s story and with survivors of R. Kelly, prosecutors are less likely to pursue criminal charges against the assailant when the victim is Black, and jurors are less likely to believe a Black woman’s or girls’ account of sexual violence – if the case even makes it to court. More, police are less likely to take sex crimes seriously, especially when Black women and girls are involved. In 2000, the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed the Philadelphia’s Sex Crimes Unit (or “The Lying Bitches Unit” as former unit detective Roscoe Cofield termed it) for burying nearly 2,000 cases of assault on low-income Black women between 1995-2000. And not to mention, some of the most vicious, systemic, and violent abusers, assaulters, and rapists of Black women and girls have been police (and here and here). The contemporary state sanctioning of #rapeculture and more precisely, the seemingly state authorized rape and assault of Black women and girls requires a different sort of critical gaze — one that values storytelling but also requires structural analyses and forms of collective resistance.

Given these interlocking networks of predation, it is no wonder Robert was acquitted and continues to abuse Black women and girls. No wonder he pleaded not guilty (though he can be seen on that assault video tape plain as day) and continues to live his best life as a free man. No wonder he defiantly uses mechanisms of control seemingly taken straight out of Iceberg Slim’s rulebook for pimps right under our noses (without any sort of accountability or legal ramifications). For example, making his captors call him daddy; not allowing the girls and women to speak, look at him or others, eat, use the restroom, brush their teeth, or shower without his permission; locking them in rooms and cars for hours; cutting them off from their families; filming sex acts without their consent; introducing sex partners, underage and otherwise, and directing sexual encounters without consent; demanding a strict dress codes; forcing them to sign false self-incriminating letters and egregious contracts; and systematically using punishments like starvation, forcing them to face the wall, slapping them in the face, and maintaining no-eat lists for those who “disobey daddy,” etc. No wonder the juror in the docuseries laughed and smirked as he recounted not liking the way the witnesses and survivors dressed and looked and thus found them unbelievable and R. Kelly not guilty.

No wonder.

Yes, it’s because they are Black and America could give not one damn about Black women and girls or their right to sexual autonomy and safety, but it’s also because America is, at its core, shamelessly, unapologetically, and categorically a #rapeculture. Rape is the foundational glue to the #networkofpredation from which Robert rises and operates. And it’s not just America or the criminal justice system that keeps letting Robert off the hook. It’s all of us. It’s those still dancing to his music, buying his records, and attending his concerts. It’s parents who keep leaving their daughters in his care, hoping they will find money and stardom. It’s those who uncritically laugh and make jokes about his history of sexual abuse without any care for his victims. It’s those who continue to communicate to their children, loved ones, and social circles that he’s innocent. It’s Black collectives, communities, and institutions that keep him relevant and refuse to hold him accountable. One such example is the Black Church on the south-side of Chicago, who, after Robert’s arrest for child pornography in 2002, allowed him to do a sing along, hours after posting bail, with kindergarteners.

Be clear: this goes well beyond Robert Kelly. We cannot deconstruct #rapeculture or #networksofpredation by looking the other way, silence, ignorance, dismissal, making excuses, or by focusing solely on Robert. More, surviving is not enough. It’s a necessary start. We need education and non-negotiable politics of resistance – in our homes, in our schools, in our barbershops, in our beauty salons, in our religious communities, in our social organizations, and so on. So many Black girls and boys have stories that begin with them not having language for consent, not knowing how to say no, and learning sexual assault and abuse from a family member. And the history of Black hypersexualization and animalization does not help. At the same time, Black boys too often interpret manhood in terms of sexual conquest. And much too often Black girls interpret access to safety and sexual autonomy in terms of “proper womanhood” and not being hos, promiscuous, or fast. We know how the story goes with the latter. Fast girls don’t get raped because they are always asking for it. Their stories of violence are hardly ever believed. Times up for these labels functioning as tools of denial. We never call Black boys fast. Times up for reading Black sexual experiences and identities through these lenses. Times up for rape (and avoiding rape) serving as the subtext for coming of age in America.

Healing requires accessible and mass-mediated frameworks for deconstruction and resistance, from multiple angles, and more, ground rules for believing Black women and girls (and boys) and understanding that bodily autonomy is a right. Systematized #networksofpredation will continue to breed and thrive otherwise. And R. Kelly and the R. Kellys of the world will continue to terrorize and exploit Black women and girls, thanks to the normalizing of said systems and networks. We will continue to confuse the lines between what is right and what has been culturally permissible. And we will carry on with false dichotomies between entertainment and real lived violence (R. Kelly v. Robert). And more, we will continue stepping in the name of faux love as Robert and the R. Kellys of the world violently play on this bridge called our backs. It’s time for our unlearning, and for not only calling out those who ultimately say, through their actions and words, #rapeculture is okay, violating Black women and girls is okay, predation is okay, and grown adult sexual interest in children is permissible, but dragging them and their systems of predation for dear life, and making them perverse and therefore intolerable, regardless of how they make us feel, dance, or wave our hands.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been revised from an earlier version to further engage select themes.

About the author…

Tamura Lomax received her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Religion where she specialized in Black Religion and Black Diaspora Studies and developed expertise in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Black British and U.S. Black Cultural Studies. In 2018, Dr. Lomax published her first single authored monograph, Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture (Duke University Press). She also organized and guest edited the special issue, “Black Bodies in Ecstasy: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Politics of Pleasure” (Black Theology: An International Journal, Nov 2018). In 2017, Dr. Lomax curated #BlackSkinWhiteSin, a discourse on sex, violence, and the Black Church. In 2014, she published Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Cultural Productions (Palgrave Macmillan), a co-authored edited volume with Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant and Carol B. Duncan. She is currently at work on her latest book, Raising Non-Toxic Sons in White Supremacist America. She is the co-founder, CEO, and visionary of The Feminist Wire. For more or to conact, visit Bios.