The alarms about whether Grammy winner R. Kelly has been sexually abusing young women, even holding them hostage in a home here in Johns Creek, have been shrieking at high C for nearly two decades.
According to news reports, the singer’s sexual misconduct dates back to 1994, when he married R&B singer Aaliyah at age 15. In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins sued Kelly, claiming they had sex when she was 15. In 2001, there was another suit. Tracy Sampson accused him of having sex with her when she was 17. Another more recent account even had him holding them hostage in a home here in Johns Creek.
Two years ago, Deborah Richardson, executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute in Atlanta, was among a small group that spoke out in protest of Kelly’s appearance at the Wolf Creek Amphitheater.
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Now comes “Surviving R. Kelly,” the six-part documentary that chronicles decades of R. Kelly’s alleged sexual misconduct and abuse, and suddenly people are listening.
Kelly, by the way, continues to deny all allegations against him, but when 50 victims, former employees, family members and #MeToo activists and celebrities speak out, well, the rest of us can’t help but take notice.
It might not have happened had it not been for “Surviving R. Kelly.”
“To everyone telling me how courageous I am for appearing in the doc, it didn’t feel risky at all,” tweeted John Legend after the premiere. “I believe these women and don’t give a (expletive) about protecting a serial child rapist. Easy decision.”
Richardson found it just as easy to stand with former Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and Tim and Jonjelyn Savage, the parents of the 22-year-old Atlanta woman featured in the first BuzzFeed story about Kelly’s dalliances. The Savages have claimed their daughter is being “held against her will,” and that they hadn’t seen her since December. Joycelyn Savage has since said in interviews with TMZ that
she’s fine and in a “happy place.”
Here’s the really happy news: The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office has opened an investigation into the allegations. Finally.
If you’re wondering how this could be, how Kelly, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, could carry on like this for so long, here’s one explanation: social media.
We tend to read only that which confirms our biases.
But there’s a second, more fundamental reason.
Black women are seen as sexual objects. While high-powered men like Les Moonves, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer have seen their careers swiftly crumble in the face of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, Kelly has been allowed to maintain his star power.
Not even Me Too, the brainchild of black activist Tarana Burke, got the attention it deserved until actress Alyssa Milano used the hashtag #MeToo on social media to draw attention to widespread sexual harassment. Burke founded the movement in 2006. It became a global sensation, thanks to Milano, in 2017.
Think about that.
“There are professional categories where men are glorified — entertainment, athletics, media, to name a few,” Richardson said. “Women are also socially constructed to view attention by men laced with sexuality as desirable.”
In addition, she said, there are numerous examples of both infamous and everyday men charged with sexual assault, and the blame is shifted to the women. Why was she there? What was she wearing? Why didn’t she leave?
“R. Kelly is particularly egregious because he preyed on underage girls whose vulnerability is increased by their immaturity and star-struckness,” Richardson said. “He knew a little attention goes a long way toward controlling their mental processes and behavior.”
How do we change this behavior?
Richardson believes men need to talk.
If they are fathers of sons, share their own evolution from viewing women as sexual objects. If they are employers, ask themselves if their human resources policies have clauses that address sanctions, including dismissal, for purchasing sexual services. And if they are fathers of daughters, consider whether you extend to all women the protection and concern you have for your own daughters.
In other words, do you treat other women with the same love and respect you have for your mother, daughter, wife?
“R. Kelly’s behavior is beyond egregious,” Richardson said. “Those who knew and didn’t speak up, those who wouldn’t believe the women and their families, those who bought his music and viewed his videos, as well as those who will soon forget, are all complicit.”
In other words, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.