This Is the Remix to Conviction: the R-Kelly Documentary (#MuteRKelly)


I’deyah Ricketts “Step In the Name of Love” and “Ignition” merged hip-hop with R&B while the power ballad “I Believe I Can Fly” showcased gospel nuances. Sung and written by Robert Sylvester Kelly, stage name R.Kelly,, the celebrated music releases and artist collaborations boosted him into stardom from a young age. But under the guise of money, awards, and fame, Kelly hid his alleged sex crimes—child pornography, running a “sex cult,” and his illegal marriage to R&B superstar, Aaliyah—behind closed doors. The six-part Lifetime documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, rehashes the survivors’ accounts of physical and psychological abuse. At the same time, it attempts to answer the question: if R. Kelly has pursued underage women for 25 years, why are people just now acknowledging the allegations and bringing his sickness to light? The first episode of Surviving R. Kelly delves into Robert’s childhood as a shy child recognized for his musical ability. At home, Kelly grappled with molestation from a female family member between ages 7 to 13. Kelly projected his trauma onto the young girls—most aspiring artists—he recruited around high schools and McDonald’s. By luring them into his recording studio, Robert took advantage of and trapped the girls, as they were vulnerable to his charm. Jovante Cunnigham, Kelly’s former backup singer, recalls witnessing the sexual violation of her close friend as “[Kelly] had [her] in the booth with him and she wasn’t of age.” Cunningham also recounts the night that Kelly, then 27, had sex with his budding protege Aaliyah, then 15, on a tour bus. The continuous concealing of Aaliyah’s age, marriage papers forged by Demetrius Smith, and quick ceremony in Chicago highlights the apprehensive nature of the entertainment industry to reprimand Kelly. Aaliyah “looked worried and scared,” but companions of Robert turned a blind eye to him preying on a helpless, young girl. By marketing Aaliyah’s adolescence towards the older, male demographic, society romanticized her relationship with Kelly and worse, condoned it. Episode two and three of the docuseries explores Andrea Kelly’s involvement with Robert Kelly from the age of 19. As Kelly’s backup dancer, she was prohibited from speaking to anyone else on his tour but “never looked at it as controlling.” Drea sympathized with the “intimate places of brokenness” he shared and hoped to teach Robert how to read or write. But Kelly isolated Drea from the world once they were married by chipping away at her self-esteem with intemperate abuse. His wife of 10 years, Drea was “ready to jump off her balcony” as Kelly drove her to the brink of suicide. In 2002, the now-infamous tape of Kelly raping and urinating on a 14-year-old girl surfaced. Stephanie Edwards or “Sparkle” revealed that her niece, an aspiring rapper, was engaged in a sexual relationship with the singer at the time. In Surviving R. Kelly, Edwards shared that the girl on the “pee tape” was her niece. Lisa Van Allen, privy to Kelly’s deceptive charisma, also participated in sex acts with Kelly and an alleged minor. Although she and Edwards testified against Kelly in 2008, he was acquitted of all child pornography charges. The failure to call the woman from the tape to court ultimately swayed the decision: Robert was guilty. The subsequent episodes of the documentary unveiled reports of Kelly isolating and grooming females into a sex cult for his personal pleasure. Jerhonda Pace was swept into Kelly’s repulsive behavior which was, in her mind, just chasing after a charming celebrity. Robert coerced Jerhonda into lying about her age, abiding by his “rules” (dressing in baggy clothes, turning over her phone, getting permission to eat) at his Olympia Fields home, and signing fraudulent letters to hide their relationship from her parents. Dominique Gardner was trapped in Kelly’s clutches as he forced her to be his “boy toy” by shaving her head, dressing in masculine clothes, and wearing a beard while living with the singer. Kelly also infected Faith Rogers with an STD as Lizette Martinez contracted mononucleosis from him while apart of his cult. Junior, Cindy Ramirez, expresses her reaction to the series:

“I watched the entire documentary, and I was appalled by the entire thing. It wasn’t just that R. Kelly had done all of these horrible things, but that I didn’t know about any of them and was still listening to his music. I think people are talking about them because of this documentary. The U.S. has a history of not listening or caring about black women. That reality, along with the fact that R. Kelly is a celebrity meant no one cared or wanted to hear about these victims. This documentary puts all of the evidence in our faces and forces us to reconsider our opinions.”
So, again, how is it that R. Kelly faced no repercussions for 25 years? Kelly’s ubiquitous influence in the music industry allowed him to evade charges in spite of the alarming evidence against him. He used every inch of power and wealth to distract from the eyewitness accounts of intimidation, molestation, and abuse. Kelly was never shaken in his ability to entice girls; his male privilege and financial backing protected him from societal pushback. Meanwhile, Robert’s team—producers, tour managers, personal assistants—stood beside him without hesitance. They capitalized on the girls’ fragile sense of judgment by paying off Sparkle, writing Lizette’s mother a check for $1000, and sending Faith Rodgers threats. His team flew the girls across the country, booked hotel rooms, and arranged Kelly’s parties with underaged girls. The mindset that “this is what he wanted as so this is what we were supposed to give him” was ridden with toxic indifference (Demetrius Smith). Robert’s brothers, Bruce and Carey Kelly even aided in the procurement of teenage girls from malls; their complicity helped Kelly brainwash dozens of women while pushing them further into the shadows. Now, the question is: where were the parents? Why didn’t they intervene? Many of the survivors Kelly recruited had unstable or severed ties with their family. But for anyone, once they were involved with Kelly, it was hard to get out. The problem came down to the communities, and holistically, the society that systemically silenced black girls. Black women have been blatantly disregarded for their lives, safety, and stories as no institutions strive to protect them. In the documentary, Juror John Petrean explains that “I just didn’t believe the women. The way they dressed, the way the acted; I didn’t like them. I voted against them.” Similarly, Chance the Rapper recently stated that “I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were black women.” The sensitivity towards black male oppression has masked the oppression and sexual violations black women face. Society chose to ignore the over-sexualized and seductive lyrics of Kelly’s music as objectifying women for monetary gain took precedence. But for too long, black women have been conditioned to internalize their grief and feed the egos of their spouses. For too long, society has assumed that black women fabricate their stories of assault. This isn’t condonable and it surely isn’t a “public lynching” as many have called it. Supporters of Kelly try to obscure history and misuse blacks’ fear of oppressive systems to deflect the serious allegations. But watering down the trauma black women have felt for years to protect Kelly’s legacy does nothing. It is society’s job to hold Kelly accountable and to stop framing him as the real victim. Arguably, the reputations of Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby are forever tarnished as most of their accusers have been white women; earning the same respect has been more exhausting for the black women and girls of Kelly’s case. For Rose Branson, right now is “a time of reckoning for men who have used their fame and/or social advantages to hide their abuse of women for too long.” Rose believes that “as people become emboldened and empowered to share their stories, as more and more men are indicted by society, it comes as less and less of a surprise. This is an excavation that needs to happen; cleaning the wounds of our society might sting, but it’ll end up saving us from a long, festering demise.” “We see you. We feel you. Because we are you.” The Women of Color coalition of the Time’s Up Campaign has issued this statement calling on music corporations to #MuteRKelly. Time’s Up, which has been devoted to supporting women in the aftermath of sexual abuse, now stands alongside the brave survivors of R. Kelly. For them, it is about teaching women that sexual abuse should not be kept under wraps. It is about turning down R. Kelly to amplify their voices. It is about assisting women in demanding justice and change. The women of Surviving R. Kelly are not just “victims” or “accusers”; they are the survivors that persisted with resilience in the face of fear. ]]>