‘Surviving R. Kelly’: It takes a village to fail a child
This normalized violence is so much larger than the crimes of Robert Kelly.
Editor’s Note: This essay contains discussion of sexual violence against minors.
I didn’t learn much new information from dream hampton’s Surviving R. Kelly Lifetime docuseries. I have been writing and writing about the singer’s crimes for some time now. I’ve poured over the timeline of his inappropriate behavior with teenage girls more than I would have liked and read numerous reports with ugly details about the cult of young women he now keeps under his abusive rule. The six-hour three-night series felt like more of a review of all the unfortunate bits of knowledge I often wish didn’t live in my head.
When we look back at how R. Kelly treated the girls and women around him during the earliest days of his exploits, it makes sense, for lack of a better phrase, that he would end up resembling a cult leader. At their core, people who become leaders of cultish groups are duplicitous and predatory. They are narcissistic—pathologically so—entitled, exploitative, and charming. Kelly was already displaying the kind of manipulative behavior that charismatic cult leaders use to attract followers and keep them subjugated while demanding their reverence and presenting a virtuous image to the public.
His ability to be so calculating and ruthless even as a young performer, as well as how his predatory behavior and music career are indelibly entwined, is made exceedingly clear by the docuseries. But what it clarifies more than anything is just how horribly these girls were failed by seemingly everyone around them.
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The women in the documentary echoed a lot of the feelings that many survivors of sexual assault have, including blaming themselves. “I was so naive,” several of them said, but their lack of experience was not the issue. It was never the issue. R. Kelly knew what he was doing was wrong, he was cognizant of his actions, and actively made moves to protect himself from consequences and suppress the information from the world.
The fault was never in the naivete of the girls he victimized, but in his intentional predation on them and the complicity of other adults, and it is absolutely imperative that we state this plainly and loudly.
How many interviewees said in one way or another that they were horrified and uncomfortable with the things they saw and heard about what was happening, but did and said nothing to prevent or challenge it? How many adults knew of his past, the allegations against him, or actually witnessed his treatment of girls and women, but still allowed girls in their care to be “mentored” by him? Parents offered him their daughters. Others offered him their nieces. And for many, his violence didn’t matter to them until it happened to their own flesh and blood.
R. Kelly not only had people around him who remained hushed about his crimes all this time, he also had/has people around him actively helping him to abuse girls and women. Someone is/was organizing the travel of the women under his rule. Someone is helping him craft his narrative and public persona on social media. Someone called in a terrorist threat to shoot up the premier screening of Surviving R. Kelly, which then had to be canceled. Someone helped set up and operate the short-lived “Surviving Lies” Facebook page designed solely for the purpose of discrediting the women who appeared in the documentary. Whoever is performing these duties and whatever else is needed to keep his diabolical operation afloat is also responsible for the pain he’s caused.
Not a single one of these adults did a damn thing to protect children from R. Kelly. Instead, many of them knowingly helped walk them directly into the lion’s den while the others stood by and watched as he fed on them. I cannot stress enough how important it is to place the blame exactly where it belongs in this situation and every other situation where Black children experience sexual violence, because this normalized violence is so much larger than the crimes of Robert Kelly.
We need to tell the truth about who is to blame and make it very clear that there is significant reason for blame in the first place. Because people like Bruce Kelly exist, who asked the interviewer without shame, “What’s the big deal?” and insisted that his younger brother simply has a “preference” for younger women.
And we need to tell the truth about the lesser known narratives, the things that only get said in hushed whispers, or in a drunken/stoned haze, or in therapy sessions if we can afford them. We need to be honest about the children who were slut-shamed in their own homes, and the children who were blamed when they were harassed, coerced, or manipulated into sex by older kids and predatory adults.
The children who lived under constant sexual-body terrorism, who learned to hate their body and fear sex from the adults around them. The children who grew into sexually repressed, emotionally stunted adults, now perpetually self-critical, overly self-conscious, anxious, and suffering in unhealthy/abusive sexual relationships because they never learned about their right to autonomy and pleasure.
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Identifying how the people around the abuser in these situations—whose apologism, defense, active support, or neglect helped allow the abuse to continue—sometimes means also coming to terms with the times when we may have also been complicit in someone’s abuse. Sometimes it means reckoning with our own failure.
These reckonings will be uncomfortable, and excruciating, and tedious. They are supposed to be because they are full of truth, weight, and ruin. We have a responsibility to endure them anyway.
We have a responsibility to the women who survived and are still surviving R. Kelly, and to those surviving other types of sexual violations, to be clear about where the blame belongs, even if/when it belongs to ourselves. Only then can we better protect our children and contend with the moments when the community has failed them.