last week i made myself watch the ‘surviving r kelly’ documentary. i knew it was coming, and i knew it would not be easy to contend with. i have deep respect for the work of dream hampton, and i know her to be uncompromising and unflinching in her commitment to justice, especially for Black women and girls.
i wanted to watch the phenomenon as it unfolded in the public sphere, to be part of the collective experience. i also didn’t want to watch it alone, because i am a survivor and i have learned the hard way that if i am not careful, my own feelings of terror and shame can put me down in a hole where there is no bottom. watching it with others, hearing how we all gasped together, whispering ‘no’, shouting ‘oh my god’ at the most egregious reveals, crying together as these victims claimed their place as survivors, as survivors moved towards the light by telling their stories in a way that will make it harder for other girls to stumble into the dark place from which they – and we – are finally emerging.
what became crystal clear to me as i was watching the documentary was how capitalism was the river running through it. offering vulnerable people money, opportunity and stability in exchange for sexual favors, access and loyalty (their own, or that of their wives, sisters, daughters, sons) is a well worn practice.
the most terrifying story told in the film concerns a girl who was 12 when she met r kelly, 14 when she was filmed in a sex act with him, 21 when he was acquitted of child pornography (with the child and her parents ((including her dad who is credited as a guitar player on subsequent r kelly albums)) all denying it was her in the video, while her aunt, childhood best friend and high school coach all vouch that it is her), and the shocking news that, to date, she is still living with r kelly and ‘training’ his new victims.
what became clear to me was that one way the collective can do what law enforcement has failed to is by financially starving r kelly out of his hole.
to this end, i decided to make a playlist that covered some of the sexy territory r kelly has occupied with stomach-turning consistency. even when we knew the songs were about girls who could not possibly consent, people still played his music, requested it, were intimate to it.
for years i have left dance floors when r kelly’s music is played, and not streamed or played it on my own devices. i have been in an effort to decolonize and defang the things that i watch, listen to, read – trying to reprogram myself to feel power and wholeness inside a structure designed to make me feel incomplete, imperfect, and like there was something i needed to change or buy in order to be desirable.
after seeing the series, i wanted to be a small contribution to the collective effort to mute r kelly. if we stop listening, if we cut away at his income, he will not be able to continue paying the small army of people it takes to entrap and monitor these girls, to keep them in various homes around the country. muting r kelly is the most transformative path possible for accountability right now. so far, no matter what people say, r kelly has been able to use money from so many of us still buying concert tickets and streaming the music, and he has been able to enslave girl children for sexual abuse, both denying and flaunting his behavior without stopping the harm.
i want to explore, as carefully as possible, one thing that has happened since i posted the playlist. i populated the playlist with songs i know of and those suggested by others through social media. mostly people have been like ‘thank you! i needed this!’, and i even got a few testimonials from people who copulated to the playlist and vouch for its sexiness. whoop.
but a few people have responded by identifying other artists on the list as potential predators, explaining why they probably shouldn’t be on there.
when drake was 23 he pulled a girl up on stage and did lots of things with her before learning she was 17 (which some outlets have pointed out is ‘legal’ in colorado, where he was, though i am not sure what means in this context – she can drink, so she’s legally gropable?) and continued expressing attraction to her while saying this is how he gets in trouble. more recently he’s been developing a friendship with a young tv actress which many people have raised an eyebrow at, because we remember aaliyah…and generally have no reason to trust our favorite light skinned ho with any young ingenue.
miguel allegedly groped a fan’s breast during a photo and autograph moment backstage.
jaheim mistreated women.
prince groomed his young wife for years before they got together.
these facts are shared in a variety of ways – some just helpful, wanting to make sure i know. but some people seem almost gleeful, to have found another monster, and to then watch my next moves, will i align with a monster or what?
i have been very curious about my own reactions: it was easy not to put jaheim on the playlist, it was impossible to pull prince off of it. i have felt grateful for some of the news, annoyed by some of the news, and everything in between. in general this is true for my feelings during a lot of this last year of #metoo. sometimes it is easy to feel appalled, sometimes i feel a shrug in me, a question around the veracity of the stories or the intentions in bringing them forward. i sometimes feel shame at this wide range of responses, but i also want to get into why it exists.
of course on one level there is the very simple part of this…i don’t want to give up any artist i love, i don’t want to part with the art.
but then there is the other piece – i think there are monsters everywhere. it doesn’t make me feel better to identify someone else’s monstrous behavior, to show it. i am not particularly interested in the harm – i am interested in the healing.
i am a survivor, i know the terror that lives in the body when you have been touched the wrong way, hurt, sexually. i was hurt by people i knew and people i didn’t, by those with clear power over me and those who had none…well, none except the normilization of men claiming any part of a woman at any time, most recently embodied by our current president.
i have been in a relationship that i (and my partner at the time) realized was abusive. i have felt the shame of surviving, the shame of having gotten into such a situation. for that reason, i want to be the kind of person who says ‘trust survivors’ with ease.
but i have seen other things. i have seen unwell minds twist reality. i have seen opportunists weaponize every interaction. i have seen masterful manipulators at work, i have seen hurt people lead those who love them away from their wounds with misdirection, to cause more harm instead of generating healing. for this reason, i pay attention to patterns, to details, to my gut. i encourage others to navigate in this way.
and i have seen how mutable my own memories are, how i have to trust what i am learning to feel more than what my mind offers me for narratives on why i feel certain things.
so…my goal was not, and is never, to make any playlist that pretends there is purity, that there are all these good people and just one or two bad apples. my goal is help boycott r kelly’s music so that he cannot afford to upkeep his harm.
it is becoming easier daily to recognize r kelly as a monster we have grown up with. we know he was sexually harmed as a child by older family members, we know he can’t read, we know he has been involved in harming young girls (or, as one survivior put it, ‘weak minded women’) his entire career. but the things he has done are not unique to him.
dream has created an opportunity to tell this story and change it. to look at RCA and say, why do you support this? to look at every person who can play/stream music in the world, and say – don’t these girls matter to you?
but the desire to stop r kelly’s harmful patterns is not just about him. it’s about stopping the sexualizing of young girls, of young people. to stop the pattern of breaking young people’s sense of self and healthy sexuality during formative years. to stop his harm and start his healing.
no monster will keep us safe at night, and no individual accountability will create the new conditions we actually need – we have to widen our gaze to take in all of the community that keeps predatory behavior normalized and protected. r kelly, yes. and the jurors that acquit him. the parents who stuffed their daughters thru the tiny door of possible innocence offered by that acquittal. the brother, the staff people, the hundreds of people over the years that protected (and continue to protect) r kelly.
we all have people in our own families, schools, churches and workplaces that have passed off sexual predation as a harmless activity of men, as a spoil of masculinity. sexual harm, sexualizing young people, childhood sexual abuse – this is the water we are swimming in. #metoo is not just a grown up problem; it is, devastatingly, all about childhood, and how we protect it, how we raise sexually healthy and empowered generations. i am grateful to explore some of this in pleasure activism (out on ak press, february 2019), and grateful that my woe dani mcclain gives this a lot of space in her forthcoming book We Live for the We.
at the same time, we have to be cautious not to come up with a one size fits all response. sexual harm is not separate from us, and it isn’t uniform. it is extremely personal, it is fraught with shame and secrecy, and it can be a weapon.
if our approach to someone else causing sexual harm is gleeful finger pointing, and pushing people out of our lives and communities with a smile on our faces, then we will never actually disrupt the cycle of harm. when we approach sexual harm as if it is only in the realm of monsters, we miss the way it is our earthly burden, the way the roots of it grow under every aspect of human society, perhaps since we came into existence. this might be our first flaw and our greatest evolution. we all have to change.
and if we try to clump all levels of sexual harm together as one offense, we encourage those who have caused all manner of harm not to come forward, apologize, not to change.
the work is harder. the work is to listen to survivors and follow their lead, but from a place of being in community. we have to hold space for the complexity of everyone involved, and the belief that everyone can and will change, hopefully for the healthier. the work is to feel for what is authentic and true. the work is to notice each time we try to normalize something violent. and to have good boundaries around sex and permission and bodies in our own lives. the work is to make sure the children we are raising and loving are protected from the brainwashing and culture-washing that many of us fell prey to, whether or not we were overtly assaulted.
ultimately the work of ending childhood sexual abuse and patriarchal sexual assault is liberatory, not purgatory.