Seriously, Why Are Some of Us Still Defending R. Kelly?

By Jamilah Lemieux Jul 19, 2017

On Monday morning (July 17), I was greeted with multiple emails, texts and Twitter direct messages informing me that Buzzfeed had dropped an explosive piece detailing yet another set of revolting allegations against R. Kelly. I suppose I’m the first person my friends think to notify when his disgusting behavior has made headlines, as I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Get R. Kelly Out of Here” organization for over 15 years. I’ve been writing, Tweeting, paneling, crying, screaming and telling anyone who’ll listen that the self-proclaimed Pied Piper of R&B is predatory and that the continued support he receives is a smack in the face to Black girls everywhere.

When it comes to weighing in on Kelly’s documented and alleged misdeeds, I’d like to say that I have an adequate one-line resume: I’m from Chicago. Not only am I from Chicago, I am a graduate of one of the high schools where he was rumored to troll for young girls well into his 20s. My older sisters attended Kenwood, his alma mater, where he was best known to troll for young girls—including one who would sue him in 1996, claiming they began having sex when she was just 15.

However, I don’t think that anyone has worked harder to inform the public about the real R. Kelly than Jim DeRogatis. The journalist, who first reported on the singer’s alleged abuse of underage girls for the Chicago Sun-Times 16 years ago, has continued to follow these harrowing stories ever since—penning the now-viral Buzzfeed piece that details allegations that the 50-year-old has several younger women living with him under disturbing conditions:

Three former members of Kelly’s inner circle…said six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.

While it seems that folks are more willing to denounce Kelly than they were 15 years ago when he was still at the height of his fame, this latest round of allegations has again found a tribe of R. Kelly champions making themselves known on social media. Their defenses are little more than a retread of the same arguments we heard when the singer/producer/quinquagenarian wearer-of-Soulja-Boy-clothes was tried on child pornography charges in 2008 and again in 2013, when the Village Voice introduced a new generation to the longstanding accusations and documented misdeeds involving the singer and young women.

The pro-Kelly sentiments* are as tired as ever: 

“Crucify R. Kelly, still go see a Woody Allen movie…” 
“The music industry is full of sickos doing stuff like this…”
“Black women hate R. Kelly for abusing Black girls, but Black women are his biggest fans…” 
“I absolutely blame these parents…”
“…Media is out to destroy successful Black man.”

As the old saying goes, “When there’s smoke, there’s fire.” But when it comes to R. Kelly and underage girls, there’s more than smoke—there’s ruins. The woman in the 1996 suit allegedly attempted suicide. DeRogatis claims that Aaliyah’s mother once told him that her daughter’s “life was ruined” by her relationship with the man who’d married her when she was 14 and he, 24. There are thousands of witnesses to the alleged abuse—raise your hand if you didn’t see The Tape.

And then there’s the blaze burning right now: Parents who have nothing to gain by exposing their own failures are pointing at the scene and saying their daughters are inside, literally. They are saying that their daughters are unable to break free from Kelly’s control over their day-to-day lives.

Unlike the bulk of the previous accusations against the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer, the women in the Buzzfeed feature are all legal adults, and the timelines suggest that they were all old enough to provide consent at the time their alleged relationships began. However, it should be noted that the age of consent in Georgia and Illinois, where the women are alleged to spend the bulk of their time with Kelly, is 16 and 17, respectively. It is beyond difficult to think that his relationships with teens and young adults are healthy ones.

Furthermore, the presence of a woman who may have been around Kelly since she was a very young teen casts even more of a disturbing pallor over this alleged arrangement. According to the article, a 31-year-old woman served as a “den mother” to Kelly’s younger girlfriends until recently. She was allegedly tasked with teaching them what the singer enjoyed sexually and is said to have been the best friend of the woman who was filmed in the video that led to his 2008 child pornography trial. Both the “den mother” and the alleged victim would have been about 14 at the time of the recording.

Peeling back the layers of all of the norms and isms that have allowed R. Kelly’s behavior to persist cannot be deftly handled in one sitting. However, there is one particular barrier to turning “R. Kelly, beloved singer” into “R. Kelly, a Negro of ill repute whom the Black community frowns upon.”

That would be our—Black folks,’ my people’s—need to defend our men against White supremacy.

What a terrible burden Black women and girls are forced to carry on our backs: the weight of the worst of our men—the men who rape, the men who terrorize, the men who do us irreparable harm. These men are often hitched to us for their safety at the expense of our souls. And what do we get for it? A fucking club record? The ability to “Step in the Name of Love?”

The R. Kelly problem, from where I am standing, is so much bigger than a fucked up man being protected by fame and fortune. It’s a loyalty to brothers that is cancerous to them and to the women, girls and LGBT folks who are made disposable by our inability to hold the men we love accountable.

Is "the system" so corrupt, so terrible, so biased against Our Men that we won’t allow them to be punished for consuming the flesh of young girls? Are the odds so stacked against Our Men that we can’t allow one who made it out of the ghetto to lose it all for defiling our daughters? 

Without being too forgiving of those who refuse to use their platforms to speak out against the “Bad Man,” I’ll admit that I understand why there aren’t more voices like mine in the “Fuck R. Kelly” choir. The vitriol, trolling and threats women like me receive for standing up publicly against beloved Black men isn’t for the faint of heart. Harassment of any sort can be difficult to endure. Harassment at the hands of people who look like you, people whom you claim to fight for, is a different kind of devastating.

The idea that Black men are more in need of protection than Black women has been widely examined by Black feminist writers and scholars for decades. The work of Monique Morris and Kimberlé Crenshaw has created critical conversations about how this mythology serves to deny Black girls resources that have been made available to Black boys and to funnel these girls into the preschool to prison pipelineA recent report from the Georgetown University Law School explores how Black girls are widely perceived as being older or more mature than they actually are, which helps to explain the number of people who don’t see teenage girls who have sexual relationships with men like Kelly as victims, even when they are legally unable to consent. The impact of such trauma on the outcomes for Black girls and other girls of color has also been publicly explored more as of late.

Yes, there are scores of Black boys and men who have been unfairly accused, prosecuted and punished for sex crimes, but there are also those who have committed them. There are famous Black boys and men who have lost it all for no other reason than racism and hatred, and then there are those allowed to do great harm because of their fame. R. Kelly walking the streets as a free man is not retribution for Emmett Till, or the Central Park Five, or the innocent Black boys and men in prison, or income inequality or anything else resembling reparations. Kelly’s continued support from Black audiences—largely women—is both a reflection of our sick culture of celebrity worship and an infuriating reminder that while we often harp on the preverbal "they" who wish to harm us, we don’t value all Black lives equally ourselves.

Jamilah Lemieux is a writer and vice president of news and men’s programming for iOne Digital, where she recently helped to launch

*Colorlines did not directly quote, link to, embed or identify the platform for the supportive posts because they were written by private citizens.