Reactions to "Surviving R. Kelly"

Like many, I watched Lifetime’s series “Surviving R. Kelly” and, like many, I walked away with some thoughts:

Sexual and domestic violence consumes a lot of energy

This is not an original thought of mine but a survivor of a date rape once asked me to think about all of the wasted energy claimed by sexual assault.  What she meant was that all of the time and energy put forth by survivors and their loved ones in recovery is energy that could go elsewhere. I thought back on this as I watched “Surviving R. Kelly” and realized that perpetrators with large platforms like R. Kelly are virtual gravity wells for energy, sucking energy from entire networks and communities.  Not only do they steal energy from their direct victims but so much energy is spent by third parties debating, covering for, and responding to their actions. And, in the course of doing these things, we are further divided and polarized.

The energy and solidarity claimed by perpetrators could certainly be put to better use.  As several of the women who spoke during the series demonstrated, many survivors do indeed channel their feelings towards ventures that benefit themselves and society but it remains the case that a great deal of the emotional response is directed inwards or against people that might otherwise be allies.  The selfishness of men like Kelly robs communities of energy that could be put towards advances that would benefit all.

Part of the defense of Kelly may be that we are afraid of where challenging him will go

As “Surviving R. Kelly” rightly pointed, Kelly comes from a long tradition of industry figures that cavort with underage girls.  He is certainly not the only entertainer to be accused of routinely-violent behavior against women and may just be among the most exposed.  The Root recently featured a piece (link to it here) suggesting that other artists may be slow to criticize Kelly because they have their own baggage (John Legend was the only entertainer featured in the series). Interestingly, two male industry figures that did feature in the series (Touré and Charlamagne The God) have been accused of their own indiscretions.

Perhaps the fervent defense of Kelly by some comes from a fear of how far things will go if we earnestly challenge our heroes and icons.  Exactly how many memories and loves are we going to have to discuss shamefully if we expose the inspirations behind them?  We have to collectively decide if knowing the answer to this question is a price that we are willing to pay in order to enforce our expectations of our role models.

We are still uncomfortable questioning those with direct access to perpetrators

“Surviving R. Kelly” points out that Kelly almost assuredly has a network of facilitators and enablers around him.  The series features some of his family members, employees, and friends but doesn’t get too deep in to asking them the questions on everybody’s mind like “What were you thinking?”  The series was more interested in sharing the voices of victims and inspiring action going forward and I can see why its producers would make these choices.  Plus I’m sure it would be difficult to feature folks close to Kelly if they knew that they were going to be challenged themselves.

I hope that we someday get a look into the men that surround perpetrators and explore what keeps them from exerting more resistance.  In my experience working with young men, they are not always able to fully envision themselves as perpetrators or victims without having direct experience.  What they do pretty much all relate to is having boys who say or do things that they don’t entirely agree with.  They also frequently express uncertainly in knowing how to challenge them without being “that guy”.  Simply put, challenging violent men requires a skill set and a confidence that many young men are not equipped with.  As the discussion around sexual violence continues to expand thanks to contributions like “Surviving R. Kelly”, I hope that we develop more resources to aid those who want to help young men develop new skill sets around violence prevention.

We set amazingly low standards for our heroes

As Kelly’s defenders are quick to point out, R. Kelly has yet to be convicted of any criminal wrongdoing. To believe he is entirely innocent at this point is to turn our backs on numerous public testimonies and released court documents but it’s true that the average observer has to rely on hearsay in order to form an opinion.  Nonetheless, even if I were to give Kelly the full benefit of the doubt, I would still be left with an entertainer who has been spent much of his career fueling rape culture.  His music catalog would still be full of ballads that told men to just push through if their mind was telling them “No” (Bump N’ Grind) and to keep pushing until women see it their way (Body Callin’).  He would still be a contributor to songs that encouraged men to get over their fear of pursuing underage girls  (Age Aint Nothing But A Number).  He would still be responsible for the most literal objectification of women in music that I can recall (You Remind Me Of Something).

I mostly consumed Kelly’s music during my formative years in high school and college.  Many of his songs have a special place in my memory. He is undoubtedly talented and has put out some great music.  However, in retrospect, his library of music is bursting with songs that don’t have anything good to say to young men coming in to their own.  There would be consequences if we raised a generation of young men who behaved like the men described in Kelly’s songs.  Is this not enough of a reason to ask Kelly to do better?

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