June 14, 2008, Robert Kelly shudders a sigh of relief and walks out of a Cook County courthouse a free man, cleared of multiple child pornography charges in a trial that lasted six years. Look at him, armored in an expensive suit carefully chosen for the way its deep blue threads convey a calm and assertive innocence, look at him waving to supporters, one of whom tells a reporter, “I just wish they leave the Kells alone.” His face is the face of a man who had his invincibility challenged and then reaffirmed, a man who would emerge from his trial by fire not only unscathed but strengthened.
Now stop looking at Robert Kelly because Robert Kelly is a rich and powerful man and rich and powerful men can command our attention any time they choose. Instead, let your mind’s eye wander over that linoleum drenched courthouse and into the city of Chicago, into the home of the girl who was in the tape that brought Robert Kelly to trial, the girl who at 14-years-old was raped and and then had the videotape of her rape played and replayed and analyzed and dissected, brutal frame by brutal frame, for a jury of disbelieving strangers. Don’t look away because she is not a rich and powerful man, and those who are not rich and powerful men rarely receive our attention. If only for a moment, give her your attention.
It’s been some thirteen years now since R. Kelly was first charged with child pornography possession, and since his acquital we’ve settled into a dredgingly predictable pattern in which every few years the spotlight fades and then brightens again on the “stomach churning” sexual assault allegations R. Kelly has faced, after which we see a wave of intellectualized articles about separating great art from the sometimes terrible people who make great art, after which absolutely nothing happens, largely because of the media’s insistence on reframing R. Kelly’s alleged systematic, repeated rape of children as a question about art.
“Is It Okay to Listen to R. Kelly?” asked Vulture in a recent article, making sure to credit him as a “musical genius” first and foremost before writing that he’s been accused of “awful things.” And when we do that, when we insist on including R. Kelly’s genius and music into our thinking about the things R. Kelly has been accused of, it gives us a welcome escape hatch, it allows our attention to shift away from the path of human devastation R. Kelly has left in his wake, away from the very real damage done to very real human beings, and into the land of ideas and intellectual debate and cultural analysis, a land where it’s far easier to continue to support R. Kelly because is it okay to listen to R. Kelly? If it’s even a question it must be.
Ignorance is an excuse, although the weakest one, and one I know well. For years I gleefully bought and memorized R. Kelly albums, turned up the “Ignition (Remix)” when it came on the radio, wrote multiple articles about “Trapped in the Closet” alone. I knew Kelly had been charged with a sex crime, but in my mind that trial had largely been reduced to a Chappelle Show skit, a reduction which conveniently allowed me to freely laugh at “Sex Kitchen.” I’m now ashamed to admit that it never once crossed my mind that there was a child, an actual child with a name and a family and a favorite TV show, at the center of those charges. And then, about two years ago, I actually took the time to read the “stomach churning” sexual assault allegations against Kelly and suddenly I saw the very real children involved and I saw their parents putting on a brave face for their children but crying behind closed doors and I saw Kelly, unrepentant and untouched, and I was nauseated. So since that day I haven’t listened to a single R. Kelly song or watched a single R. Kelly video or written a single word about R. Kelly, until now, because knowing what I now knew, how could it possibly be okay to listen to R. Kelly?
The litany of allegations against Kelly, a litany that extends far beyond his one well-publicized trial, aren’t classified, aren’t hidden, many of them are a matters of public record and easily accessed by anyone willing to look for them. So I have looked for them, because the stories of young black women rarely demand our attention, particularly when placed against the stories of rich and powerful men. Here are those stories.
Kelly met Aaliyah when she was 12-years-old and then married her when she was 15, he was 28 at the time. He falsified marriage documents stating that she was 18, the marriage was later annulled and Aaliyah signed an NDA [nondisclosure agreement] preventing her from speaking about Kelly and their relationship. Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah’s uncle and Kelly’s then manager, writes a letter to Kelly’s attorney in an attempt to get Kelly psychiatric help for his “compulsion to pursue underage girls.”
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