August 9, 2021
Today, on August 9, R&B singer and songwriter Robert “R.” Kelly will start his trial in the Eastern District of New York courthouse in Brooklyn, NY, after which his Illinois trial will follow. It’s a day long awaited by many. Kelly faces 22 federal criminal charges for allegedly abusing 11 girls and women between 1994 and 2018, all of which he denies. One allegation claims that he expressed predatory sexual behavior toward a girl of 12 years old.
Many people first became fully aware of the extent of Kelly’s alleged crimes when they watched the groundbreaking 2019 documentary “Surviving R. Kelly”. But it disappoints me to think of how long it took Black women and girls to get here, to this moment. The documentary came out in 2019, but so much of what it contained was described by people in the industry as either an open secret among certain circles or widely known information. Why did it take almost the entirety of my life for a man who was said to prey on children -a famous man, hiding in plain sight – to face a reckoning?
In 2019, I wrote about how the culture these documentaries are produced for ultimately fails survivors, because it sends the message that we will only get justice if we can bleed out onto the page or screen, if we can somehow make ourselves compelling enough. Why is justice so elusive for us when we don’t follow this formula? And what are survivors like me supposed to feel on days like these, when it seems like victory could be in sight?
I know that I am supposed to feel some kind of relief; that charges being brought against Kelly at all, regardless of the outcome, means society is marching towards progress. If he’s found guilty, I’m supposed to thank the people who put him behind bars. I’m supposed to say that we won something. And if I don’t feel that, then I’m supposed to clear my throat and state that the prison-industrial complex won’t save survivors. I’m supposed to waste precious breaths arguing that Kelly shouldn’t be in jail anyway.
But I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel like it’s a win and quite frankly, I don’t care if Kelly is in the belly of the beast. Because on days like these, when prolific abusers finally face a multitude of charges, all I can feel is rage. And when I cannot bear the rage any longer, I make myself feel nothing. I buy some takeout, work throughout the day, shrug until it feels like my shoulders are going to become dislocated. It’s how I survive men like Kelly, rich abusers whose shadows loom.
Kelly’s charges span two decades. Two decades worth of pain and excuses and cruelty. Two decades where someone could have stopped him. Many tried during those years and many are fighting now, but every enabler threatens a positive bystander’s advocacy. Just think of the other allegations in this trial against Kelly’s associates: bribing officials and threatening survivors into silence; bringing firearms to screenings of “Surviving R. Kelly” and setting fire to the homes and cars of survivors. How far people will go to protect monsters. How little they will do to shield Black girls and women from the monsters.
There are 22 charges being filed for 11 victims, but I think of all the victims whose names we will never know, violations and crimes committed that will never be written down.
I remember being seven years old and listening to a radio host laugh about the idea of R. Kelly sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl on camera. I remember what adults said about that 14-year-old girl — how Kelly was wrong, yes, but the little girl had “gotten herself into” that situation in the first place. I remember that they didn’t call her a little girl, but they called her plenty of other names. I remember wondering how long it would be until I — a Black girl child as well — would stop being called “little” by adults around me and start being called “fast”. It wasn’t very long.
I am not a victim of R. Kelly. But I’m a victim of men like him. And for most of my life, I’ve been aware of Kelly’s sexual abuse of girls and women. Only now that I’m actually grown am I seeing the world even begin to take it as seriously as it demands.
Of course, we still don’t know what the outcome of these trials will be. There will be jury selections, arguments in defense, and no doubt harrowing testimonies. Perhaps we will hear the man accused of two decades of predatory abuse speak; perhaps he will elect to stay silent.
But will these trials, late as they are, be enough? If the allegations against R. Kelly are true, could they ever be anywhere near enough to prompt healing? Not for me — and not for the Black women and girls who had to grow up knowing we mattered so little. We will be expected to smile and show gratitude, but inside we will continue to feel the rage of injustice.