R. Kelly and The Power of Survivors’ Stories

By Ali Bush ’19
Music Columnist

I learned over winter break that googling “R. Kelly accusations” is not for the faint of heart. Yet, I did this on a notably lazy day after I’d read Kelly described in articles and via social media as everything from a misunderstood artist, to a serial child rapist, to a broken man. I realized that this onslaught of R. Kelly news was arising from a documentary series that was released in January, “Surviving R Kelly,” which shared the stories of Kelly’s survivors to the public from the survivors themselves. After being protected for decades by the music industry and a complicit public, Kelly is now facing punishment for an obscene amount of crimes thanks to the brave words of his survivors.

The new documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” documents Kelly’s sexual relations with underage girls, marriage to the then fifteen-year-old R&B singer, Aliyah, and his current “cult-like” living situation in which he keeps girls under near house arrest in Chicago and Atlanta. The R&B singer was known to associate with young girls from the beginning of his career, yet his songs became huge in the 90s and early 2000’s with hits like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Honey Love.” Kelly has since produced and written songs for music royalty like Jay-Z and Lady Gaga over the years, but it is 2019 that will be the year that Kelly’s egregious acts will be recognized and condemned thanks to the fearlessness of his survivors.

The documentary series “Surviving Kelly” is not a shocking expose revealing new information, but a compilation of Kelly’s charges and accusations that have long been been known to a public willing to turn a blind eye.The entire series comprises of Kelly’s ex-friends, family, and most importantly, survivors, telling almost endless stories of Kelly’s relations with underage girls, many of whom were seeking career advice from the esteemed singer. Episode after episode, viewers are given the cold hard facts about Kelly’s past crimes via video tape evidence, past rape trial settlements, and eye witness accounts. The documentary does a fantastic job of compiling the heartbreaking stories of many of his survivors, and revealing the strength and bravery needed to simply encounter this man. Ultimately, the series does an even better job of pointing back at us, the public who danced along to “Ignition,” and allowed R. Kelly to continue to prey on young girls.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the whole docuseries is learning that Kelly himself was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. Psychologist Dr. Candice Norcott appears in the series and explains that children who are molested at a young age often search for power in their adult relationships in order to gain control over their victimhood and, “there’s no position more powerful in a sexual relationship than as an abuser of a child.” Realizing that Kelly’s monstrous abuse towards young girls stems from personal experience reveals the cycle that arises when children are taken advantage of. The series also points out the lack of support Kelly had as a child and calls for mental health support and guidance for black children.

However, the systemic abuse of Kelly’s survivors brings up another pressing issue: the public’s value of young black women. In an op-ed video for The Washington Post, global opinions editor Karen Attiah explains what is at the crux of R. Kelly crime’s: “If even a fraction of the allegations against Kelly are true, his continued success hinges on the invisibility of black women and girls in America… As long as black women are seen to be a caste not worthy of care and protection, his actions will not receive widespread outcry . . . . The saga of Robert Kelly says more about America than it does about him.”

Thankfully, Kelly has already faced a large amount of outcry from record labels to other artists. Already, Lady Gaga has apologized for and admitted to regretting recording her 2013 song “Do What U Want” with Kelly. The song has since been removed from Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. Sony Music, Kelly’s record label since 2012, has recently ended their working relationship with him, and Live Nation has stopped promoting his concerts.

Now, the FBI is investigating Kelly to ascertain if he transported a minor across state lines for the purpose of sex, something the survivors in the docu-series explain happened quite often. And all of this came in the wake of “Surviving R. Kelly.” This docu-series has shed light on how valuable survivor’s stories are. Seeing the pain and fearlessness of the women who carried on after his abuse is something that the world should have seen much earlier, but has ultimately inspired action against the flawed villain of the story. Hopefully, this series is not simply a fluke in which the stories of black women are heard and valued, but a promise to a new generation that black girls matter and will continue to be heard.