#YouToo, R. Kelly? Why sexual predators are finally being outed
R. Kelly is just an extreme and high-profile example of how we've normalised preying on young girls and women
Lifetime, the TV channel known for its so-bad-they're-spectacular biopics on dead celebrities (Aaliyah, Elizabeth Taylor, Whitney Houston) kicked off 2019 by giving us something truly worth watching: a harrowing six-part documentary series called Surviving R. Kelly. Produced by, among others, legendary hip-hop writer and documentarian Dream Hampton, the docu-series has been a hot topic since it aired last week.
While not without its flaws, the series is a riveting - and often stomach-churning - watch that mostly uses the voices of women who have suffered abuse at the hands of Kelly to tell a story: the story of how a shy, abused and musically gifted young boy in Chicago became one of the most powerful and celebrated figures in modern US music history -while taking advantage of and abusing dozens of black girls and women.
And it's not as though Kelly's abuse was hidden - it was an open secret that both industry folk and his fans swept aside because of his undeniable musical genius.
WATCH | The trailer for Surviving R. Kelly
In the first episode, writer Mikki Kendall, who encountered Kelly in her teens, says bluntly: "People will say, 'Well, why didn't anyone notice?' The answer is that we all noticed - no-one cared because we were black girls."
Since he briefly married late singer Aaliyah in 1994, when she was just 15 years old to his 27, Kelly has faced accusations of everything from abuse to producing child pornography (the infamous "pee tape"), to rape and torture (such as tying up young women and leaving them for days without food or water as "punishment" for disobeying him).
Yet some of the most commercially successful moments of his career followed scandal: the Idols audition favourite I Believe I Can Fly came out in 1996, after the (brief) Aaliyah controversy; his biggest-selling album, R., was released two years later; the 2003 album Chocolate Factory debuted at No 1 on the Billboard charts - after Kelly was charged with child pornography following the release of a tape showing him having "sex" with and urinating in the mouth of a 14-year-old girl.
More recently, immediately after the airing of Surviving R. Kelly, streams of his music went up 16% on Spotify (which had previously removed his discography from its service, before reinstating it because in all honesty, it shouldn't get to decide what music lovers can and cannot listen to).
From the beginning (or at least from 1991, according to the documentary), teenage girls were Kelly's thing: he was often seen hanging around high schools, even attending the basketball games of teenage girls. Teenage girls were in the recording studio with him, whether they were singing backing vocals on his tracks or having sex with him in the recording booth, as alleged in the documentary. He nicknamed himself the Pied Piper, a reference to the fairytale character who would lure children to him by playing his flute.
Fast-forward to 2002, when the "pee tape" scandal hit the news and the authorities charged Kelly with child pornography. The trial took place only in 2008 and Kelly was found not guilty. An elderly jury member tells documentary producers that he found Kelly not guilty because he didn't like the women who testified against him: "The way they dressed, the way they act - I didn't like them. I disregarded all what they said (sic)."
Shortly after the trial, Kelly was interviewed by journalist Touré on the music channel BET. The most famous part of the interview (it's often shared on social media) is when Touré asks Kelly: "Do you like teenage girls?" There's a pause and a pensive Kelly briefly looks away before answering: "When you say 'teenage', how old are we talking?"
Even after his scandals and controversies, Kelly continued to be in demand: he's worked with artists such as Jay-Z, Celine Dion and, very recently, Lady Gaga. The latter's collaboration with him stings the hardest: their 2013 duet was a tasteless track called Do What U Want ("Do what you want with my body" Gaga declares to Kelly, whose history of taking advantage of young girls and women was already well-documented by that point).
They simulate sex in the video that accompanies it, and in the live performances that followed (Gaga must have forgotten that, at age 27, she would be much too old for him anyway).
For some fans of Gaga - herself a sexual assault survivor and activist - this felt like a massive betrayal from a woman who would shortly after go on to write the theme song for a harrowing Netflix documentary about rape. She, like many celebrities, disregarded the accusations against Kelly and ignored the voices of his victims, choosing instead to capitalise on his "dirty man" image.
Kelly is the clearest example that separating the art from the artist (a topic various writers have explored in the pages of this publication) is impossible. His "escapades" inspired a lot of the music he wrote, whether he wrote it for himself or for others.
He is said to have written the Michael Jackson classic You Are Not Alone for a 17-year-old after she miscarried his child. He wrote and produced Aaliyah's Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number, in which a teenaged Aaliyah implores an older man to sleep with her. This song perpetuates the dangerous idea that many an older man has been powerless against the charms of a "precocious" teenager.
One of Kelly's most vocal survivors is Jerhonda Pace, who met the crooner during his child pornography trial in 2008 when she was just 14. She became his lover when she was 16 after they "bonded" over their shared history of molestation as children.
In the documentary, Pace describes her first sexual encounter with Kelly, which took place at his mansion: "He grabbed me, and we started kissing. He started fondling my breasts. I stopped him and I said 'I'm a virgin' and he said, 'That's perfect - that means I get to train you and I get to take your virginity.'"
Watching Surviving R. Kelly, one cannot deny that Kelly caused a lot of women harm, but Pace's case opens up a different - and very important - discussion around agency, age and consent. She actively pursued R. Kelly. She believed in his innocence. She showed up outside court for his appearances (there are pictures of this, and pictures of the two of them together). She chose to go to his mansion after he was found not guilty. She lived with him.
As feminist scholar and writer Tamura Lomax posted on Facebook: "Yet, she was still a victim. We have to make room for the girls who 'want it' but don't want to get raped and/ or sexually exploited, statutorily or otherwise."
WATCH | Jerhonda Pace on allegedly being trained to please R. Kelly sexually
Feminist activist Lerato Motaung says: "Men exploit this desire for their own predatory reasons. A 14-year-old with feelings is still a f***ing child. And they go after children because they are easily manipulated. The idea yokuthi umuntu 'uyazikhulisela' is part of this problem. Me having a crush on Will Smith at 13 years old does not give Will Smith the right to act on that. He is still the adult in that situation … If a toddler wants to put their hand on a hot stove, we know that they don't know better, so we don't let them put their hand on a hot stove."
The phrase umuntu uyazikhulisela means that, to put it bluntly, you can mould a young person into the lover you want them to be. Because it's not just R. Kelly - nor is it just David Bowie, Woody Allen, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Jerry Seinfeld. Kelly is simply an extreme and high-profile example of a culture as old as time - that of older men taking advantage of women and girls much younger than they are.
In 2011, Westworld actress Thandie Newton revealed she'd had a six-year affair with the director John Duigan when she was just 16 and he was 39. She told InStyle magazine that "in retrospect, although it was legal because I was 16, I was coerced." This "coercion" Newton speaks of doesn't fit the Law & Order idea of what coercion looks like, but that doesn't make it any less harmful than more stereotypical forms of sexual violence.
Watching Surviving R. Kelly has been triggering for a lot of women, including me.
It's a reminder of how, growing up, lots of older guys called young girls like me "mature"; it's a reminder that some of us were preyed upon but didn't realise it - we thought we were making a choice. When I tweeted this, one woman replied: "I remember a girl that I went to primary school with bragging about her boyfriend who was 20+. Being preyed upon at such a young age, she thought she was cool and mature because she had an older boyfriend."
Writing in the Independent, Fiona Sturges says: "It's only when we are older that we begin to understand these exchanges between young girls and older men, the power play at the heart of them and the damage that can be done …[those relationships are] also emotionally and intellectually unbalanced and potentially exploitative."
PROTECTION FROM PREDATORS
While young girls should be able to exercise their agency, we need to at least try to protect them from predators. One method is to call them out rather than hide or ignore the men around us who have a "preference" (as R. Kelly's brother puts it in the documentary) for very young women.
That's the action a 32-year-old man I spoke to has taken regarding one of his close friends, a man also in his early 30s who until recently dated teenagers. While these girls weren't underage, they were still more than a decade younger than him.
He says: "I eventually told him: 'You know what, I won't hang around with you and these girls. Stop doing this. Why don't you just go for someone else?' Sometimes when we would go out I would point out women closer to his age."
He thinks that older guys preying on young girls is more about the guys' self-esteem: "It's not only about dating or sex … Maybe when they were young they didn't get that chance [to date girls they wanted to date] … so now they're trying to make up for it. Now they can go and do what they wanted to do when they were younger. They go back to young ones because they have the power now."
Another man, a 34-year-old, thinks men like Kelly have got away with their predatory behaviour for this long not because of power or money, but because their behaviour was more acceptable two decades ago than it is now.
Men like Kelly have got away with their predatory behaviour for this long not because of power or money, but because their behaviour was more acceptable two decades ago than it is now
"Older guys preying on young girls is one of those things where it was accepted that it is wrong but it was done so prevalently that it was 'normal'. And by that I mean completely unremarkable," he says.
"So when I grew up, I saw it everywhere. And it's clear that that wasn't unique to me. Because if it was, R. Kelly would have been called out and shamed two decades ago.
"It's vastly different now. It is done in secret. It's akin to domestic abuse and that's because social norms have changed.
"I don't doubt that there are many men who prey on young teens. I just don't see it as often as I used to. Especially in my social circles," he says.
But he also points out that there are realities in SA that allow situations like that to continue unchecked - allowing predators to thrive: "Think of less-advantaged situations, where the sex would be transactional and possibly with the blessing of a parental figure, sadly. Hence the term 'blesser'. A guy my age buying groceries for his 16-year-old 'side chick' and her family is literally creating a dependency. And cause for maybe turning a blind eye."
Activist Motaung believes that the world is still as dangerous a place to be a young girl today as it was in the 1990s. "I think men are raised and socialised into an accepted, prescribed and endorsed sociopathy … Khula shlahla sizodla amapentshisi (grow, young tree, so we can eat your peaches) is the abracadabra that turns men into accepted predators…
"If you've ever been a pre-teen or teenage black girl with a developing body walking around in a world full of men, you learnt to accept this sociopathy as part of your everyday existence. It becomes background noise. Along with R. Kelly's music."
One of the most important parts about things like Surviving R. Kelly and the #MeToo movement is how they are changing the conversations we're having - even if for feminists and people concerned about women's rights, it sometimes feels like we're living in Groundhog Day, repeating the same points, countering the same arguments, year in, year out.
#MeToo has inspired so many women to speak out about their experiences, and for the first time in some of our lives, it feels as though we can actually change our societies. And that is not a witch hunt - that is a revolution.