Many of us are changing the way we deal with the R. Kelly story and how we feel about the man and his music. We are changing the way we deal with sexual assault and abuse in our communities as a whole. I, for one, am no longer allowing myself to have cognitive dissonance when it comes to celebrities who are harmful to our communities. Things are different now.
Of late, on my social media pages, people often say things like, 'Why do people want to crucify him now—and not ten years ago when he was [allegedly] doing the same things?'
This is a valid point. And, to be totally honest, I belong to the group of people who, until recently, was happily stepping in the name of love. I was one of the people who thought I could condemn his actions and still contribute to his musicianship.
But I was wrong then. And I’m urging others to see the light as well. It took me a minute to get here.
For many years, I’ve known just about everything there was to know about R. Kelly—and more. As a journalist with more than twenty years in the game, I had interviewed many of the major players in his sordid stories, including some who would later appear in the Lifetime documentary.
I remember interviewing Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards. R. Kelly was nearby, sharply correcting her every time she misspoke about a song title or a part of her story. I remember feeling sorry for her. And I remember wondering if he was in any way abusive towards her. I chalked it up to him being a pushy Svengali like I’d heard about so many others in the music industry.
I even saw the grainy copy of the infamous tape at the center of R. Kelly’s child molestation trial. It showed up at the office of the magazine where I worked. My co-workers and I huddled around a tiny television and we all came to a quick conclusion: it seemed like it was R. Kelly on that tape. And the other person on the tape seemed to be an underage girl. I felt nauseated and yet, like most in that time period, I separated the act from the actor. I knew he was a probably a horrible person and likely responsible for unspeakable crimes...but he was still one of my favorite musicians and I continued to see him perform. I didn’t speak up to his label Jive/RCA and the people I know there. I didn’t refuse to write about him for the magazines I wrote for. I didn’t discuss it with those in my circle. And I definitely didn’t consider doing anything like #muterkelly.
It’s hard for me to imagine it now because that’s just not the world I live in anymore. But I honestly thought that that supporting his music was different than supporting him.
I know better.
So. What changed? Well, I became a parent.
I’m a mother of two daughters and parenting has always been first and foremost about safety. With both of my girls, I started talking about stranger danger very early. And I made it clear that unfortunately, true danger is often much closer—and not a stranger. We talked about trusting your instincts and not being afraid of walking away from a situation that feels wrong.
These conversations started at five years old. Many believed it was too young. But it’s not. Many believed that it’s young boys and men who should have these conversations. True. But I’ve always felt I had to do my part as well.
With every step they take, from a sleepover to an ice-skating adventure, I close my eyes and pray my girls will be okay. I know that I can’t control their every interaction. I can only hope they are always alert.
Ten years ago, before she started summer camp, I told my older daughter what happened to me at the same age. She watched me, in fear, as I told her about being sexually assaulted by a counselor when I was her age. We talked about what she could do differently that I didn’t know how to do at the time. (Such a fun way to start the summer!)
So, with my two daughters, I was protective but not overly so. They could go to sleepovers, (although their father was not thrilled with the idea). Summer camps and class trips and play dates had strict rules.
Here’s where the story shifts.
I feel like I was doing my best with my then-young daughters. But I have a responsibility to more than just my two daughters. I have two informal god-children and scores of nieces, nephews and younger cousins. My family is relatively small and I am among the older kids so I’ve always taken it upon myself to be protective of all them.
But a few years ago, I was incredibly lax. And although nothing went wrong, it could have.
I got a phone call from a friend in the music industry. R. Kelly was performing nearby and she wanted to know if I wanted free tickets.
Of course I did! Again, this is a time when I had a long way to go to get where I am.
I got a babysitter for my two girls and made plans to go to the arena. I had my niece visiting from out of town and I asked if I could have a ticket for her. Not a problem. My niece was in her late teens at the time. And when I told her she was going to the R. Kelly concert, she practically fainted. We drove down to the stadium and picked up the tickets. And then my niece asked if she could meet up with her friends who were also at the concert.
For a bit, I hemmed. She was close to an adult. But still. Did I want her at the show out of my view? How would my brother or her mom feel about that? Would I let my daughters go? The answer to that was no.
My pre-teen had just recently attended her first concert for a band called My Chemical Romance. She had her ripped tee. She had her makeup popping. And she also had her mom standing right behind her. (I still remember how bad my feet hurt.)
My niece made it clear that everything would be fine. She’d stay in touch. She wouldn’t leave. She’d stay with her friends. Still, I wasn’t sure.
But I let her go.
I never even remembered going to that concert with my niece until I began watching Surviving R. Kelly. The idea that I would send my niece to an R. Kelly show without me nearby (or to the show at all) is just inconceivable now. Completely unbelievable. Some of the women who allegedly fell victim to R. Kelly were introduced via concerts and studio sessions. My niece had full backstage access with her ticket. She could have ended up with anyone in R. Kelly’s camp and I would not have been able to get her back.
It is really hard to write those words down. Nothing happened to my niece. She saw the concert, she hung out with her friends and came home without incident.
But it could have been different.
I think of myself as overprotective. And there was a part of me that silently judged some of the parents who somehow ended up with their children staying with R. Kelly. But that could have been me. If my niece had been pulled on stage during the show and then asked to hang out backstage. Anything could have happened and because something happened to someone else, does not mean the parents of those girls didn't care. That they didn't do their best or what they thought was right. A predator will always find prey.
And this is R. Kelly we’re talking about. I knew his reputation! It wasn’t like I set her free at a Beyoncé show. Of course, something could happen anywhere. But when I actually think it through again…I let my teenage niece go to an R. Kelly concert without me nearby?
This is exactly how we got here. People separated his music from his behaviors. People like me thought R. Kelly the artist could be safely separated from the R. Kelly I reported on for many years. If my friend could offer me tickets, then she was separating the music from the artist, too. If my friend who sang backup for him could continue to tour with him, she was separating the music from the artist, too. We all were. Most of us know better.
The lesson: my daughters are older now. They still need me to set parameters but for the most part, I have to be hopeful that they have the right framework for a variety of situation they may come across.
What’s more important is that I give them the cues that I missed when it came to R. Kelly. I need them to know why dancing to his songs at the family reunions was problematic. We talk about not just how to avoid sexual assault. But how to avoid sexual assaulters and the community that gives them space.
I want them to stand up and be heard.
I also need to them to stand up and be heard for others.