Just days past R. Kelly’s conviction for sex trafficking in federal court come aggravating, emerging signs that the lessons of the singer’s fall from grace may be lost on some of his most diehard fans.
Yes, the voices against Kelly and his conduct are louder than ever but are in no way a universal phenomenon.
Despite the expanding awareness of exploitation and sex trafficking, it feels like parts of the world are hell-bent on not learning any lessons from all of this. One needs only to fall down the #FreeRKelly Twitter rabbit hole to find R. Kelly truthers claiming his innocence and disparaging his young accusers.
But these aren’t your garden variety trolls or wingnuts. They’re members of the community — mothers, business owners, civil servants. And they’re dug in, no matter what comes out in court.
And this steadfast allegiance to Kelly feels deeply personal. Could it be longtime fans who refuse to find fault because his art provided memories of happier, better times?
Black women supporters
During a recent conversation with a businesswoman, a Black churchgoing lady of a certain age, she told me that she considered Kelly’s accusers — whom she described as sexually aggressive and experienced — just as responsible as Kelly himself. She added that she would continue to listen to his music.
She is far from alone in this sentiment.
Among his supporters during the trial were a group of middle-aged Black women who blaringly supported the “Bump N’ Grind” singer, even shouting insults at the women testifying.
WVON (1690 AM) radio host and commentator Kimberley Egonmwan expressed doubt that any long-term lessons would be learned, as there were many radio listeners who still sympathized with Kelly.
“I want to see it as some kind of ‘righting’ of all these decades of wrongs against Black girls, but judging by my listeners, the only person who has been wronged and victimized is R Kelly,” she wrote on Facebook following the verdict.
“Not sure how to get out of this very bad place we’re in, but someday I hope young Black girls don’t have to lose their innocence at the expense of protecting their abusers.”
Kelly’s high profile has long provided him cover and allowed local fans to turn a blind eye to the allegations despite decades of evidence and word from the grapevine.
Right under our noses, he kept a harem of girls and women — some looking for stardom, others for love — emotionally abusing them to keep them in line.
Fame overshadowed crime
It’s a common refrain that the establishment targeted Kelly to bring down a successful Black man. This always struck me as hollow with regard to Kelly, who has been world famous for far longer than say, Barack Obama, who didn’t enter the national spotlight until 2004.
Wouldn’t the powers-that-be have used their deep state trickery against the future president instead of the guy who wrote “Feelin’ On Yo Booty?”
Kelly’s rise from deep poverty and childhood abuse to worldwide star should have been a happy tale. Yet it was that classic tale of fame, drugs and power that made him more pimp than lady’s man, more Iceberg Slim than Hugh Hefner.
His trial unearthed some of the darker, thorny, uncomfortable subjects and topics that are still taboo.
One example could be the absence of some of the victims’ parents during their dealings with the singer and, particularly, illegal sexual relationships between teenage girls and adult men.
It can be a touchy subject for all communities, particularly for African Americans, despite the fact that it wasn’t that long ago that American life involved teens starting families before they were even 16.
Even today, old-school social customs dictate that opinions on a teenage girl’s involvement with a man are reserved until one learns of the reaction of the girl’s parents. Do they approve of the arrangement?
Disapproval often means contact with police, possibly a criminal case or even physical violence. Approval means the topic is dropped.
For our girls’ sake
In Kelly’s case with singer Aaliyah, who died in a 2001 plane crash, their marriage was annulled by her family and contact between the pair was broken off, though law enforcement was never involved.
In a recent interview, the late singer’s uncle, who introduced her to Kelly, suggested that Aaliyah’s mother knew more about the situation than she let on. It all feels so sordid and dramatic when in reality it happens in all sorts of families.
Some people, such as U.S. Congressman Danny Davis, are already calling for forgiveness for Kelly, should he avoid a lengthy sentence. Kelly still faces charges in Illinois federal court, Cook County and Hennepin County in Minnesota.
The Pied Piper has to come clean first, congressman.
And hopefully the next time a well-known predator preys on the vulnerable, we won’t be so ready to look the other way.
William “Will” Lee is a reporter with the Chicago Tribune.