Surviving R. Kelly is a documentary that’s chock full of lessons in love and for life in general. It’s a difficult documentary to watch because of the subject matter. It’s stitched together through interviews of girls and women who’ve literally survived the R&B star R. Kelly. It says a lot about the kind of life you’re living is people who’ve bumped into you consider themselves survivors.
I watched it with a bunch of my friends and every few minutes we’d pause and just discuss it which is why we watched the 6-part series in three days instead of the less than 10 hours it should have taken and our experience was the better for it. A documentary is not just a movie. It’s trying to say something about our world and the human condition so viewing it is a different experience.
That was the first lesson for me, don’t watch it alone. If you’ve already watched it that’s cool but if you haven’t, please grab a bunch of your girlfriends and watch it together, pause and just talk about it. If you have younger female relatives, daughters, nieces, watch it with them and take that opportunity to talk about issues you wouldn’t otherwise raise out of the blues. By all means, watch it with your male friends and relatives too. Just don’t watch it alone.
Be warned, there will be a few spoilers. Here are a few issues we discussed when we I watched it with my girlfriends.
1. Hurting people hurt people.
One of the very first things the movie reveals is that Robert Kelly was sexually abused as a child by a family member who is not mentioned in the film. This came as no surprise. Most people who are sexually abused during their formative ages end up replicating their experiences on others. There’s an anonymous quote, beware the unloved.
This is by no means an excuse for R. Kelly’s conduct, but I’d like to suggest that it’s possible to feel sorry for six-year-old Robert being abused by a relative who should have been taking care of him, protecting him and loving him while at the same time being livid about R. Kelly abusing tens of girls and women.
2. Poverty & Capitalism
Poverty creates this never-ending cycle of oppression. R. Kelly grew up in a poor neighbourhood that exposed him to so much hurt. His mother was constantly away because she had to work. His brother Carey who was also abused as a child talked about once begging his single mother to stay home so he wouldn’t be alone and susceptible to abuse but she just couldn’t.
Poverty and inequality breed so much harm. Certain vulnerabilities or risk factors contribute to sexual violence victimization and perpetration; poverty is among those factors. Your socio-economic status exposes you to certain harms or protects you from them. This is why the alleviation of poverty is so critical. Poverty brings with it a host of other untold harms.
Kelly convinced most of the girls to keep hanging with him by promising to help them with their careers. These were mostly girls from his old neighbourhood. Poor girls trying to get out of a bad situation. The believed him and proceeded to put up with all manner of abuse maintaining the hope that he would help them make it. This is what poverty does to you. It makes you so desperate that you’ll put up with anything to get out of it.
It’s not just the girls who were desperate either, his entire staff was made up of people who conspired with him, aided and abetted him in this abuse from his bodyguards to his crew and all in between who opted to just pray for him. People from his old neighbourhood. These people knew exactly what he was doing but said nothing, if anything they actively helped him perpetuate it and hide it.
Then you have lawyers, record label heads and other musicians who knew but because R. Kelly was at the top of the charts and was making crazy stupid money, they were not going to rock the boat. Lawyers who paid off his victims and had them sign iron clad Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) as they each came out of the woodwork. People putting their greed and desire to make money above actual people’s lives and well-being.
3.All are implicated and bear responsibility
R. Kelly had naked women at his parties and he would grope them right there in the presence of his guests, what that says is while he may be the only one who’s directly guilty, all who knew are implicated and bear a measure of responsibility in the abuse of those girls and women. I suppose the question is, what abuses around us are we implicated in by our silence?
Martin Luther King Jr., once said, ” became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” It’s not enough for us to be good, we have to actively refuse to cooperate with evil around us and that includes everything from ignoring the fact that our neighbour is bashing his wife’s brains in, to laughing at that sexist joke in a WhatsApp group. In the words of Brené Brown, “If you want to make a difference, the next time you see someone being cruel to another human being, take it personally. Take it personally because it is personal!”
See something say something. It’s not enough to feel bad as you must if you’re a halfway decent human being, you have to act. In the words of Jane Addams, ‘Action is indeed the sole medium of expression for ethics.’
4. Art – When people show you who they are, believe them
I first heard Oprah say it, ‘When people show you who they are, believe them.’ Then someone added, ‘Believe them the first time.’
A person’s art tells us exactly who they are and if they are male it tells us exactly what they think of women. Now, if you have a male artist with a music video full of women in different stages of undress being used by the artist and his friends as they see fit, believe what that artist is telling you about what he thinks about women.
Kelly’s songs and particularly his music videos don’t deviate from the current narrative of him being abusive to women. He had a woman dancing in a cage in one of his very explicit music videos. A cage. He produced 15-year-old Aaliyah’s song, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number which was his declaration about what he thought about marrying that 15-year-old. Think about the music you listen to, think about the music videos, what do they say about women? When people show you who they are, believe them and believe them the first time.
Nobody cared because they were black girls.
6. Why don’t women just come out and say it?
Every time a woman comes out and says a man abused her, the questions begin. One of the main questions usually is, why didn’t you say it then? Another way of phrasing the question is why didn’t you rush to share this violation on your person, this incredibly heartbreaking, traumatic experience with us as soon as it happened?
I watched those women share this painful, shameful aspects of their lives with the world and thought them beyond brave. To this moment, I don’t know that I would do what they‘ve done in coming out to share their stories. There’s pain that you just can’t face, can’t even deal with on your own and that remains stuck in your throat even when you want to share it. The pain of sexual abuse is this kind of pain and then some. How eager would you be to share if it were you? Then there’s the added layer of people not believing you. How are you a nobody going to come out of nowhere and accuse our beloved black musician on whom all our hopes lie of this heinous acts?
Also, consider the fact that neither Carey nor Robert ever told their mother that they’d been sexually abused.
7. Let’s talk about sex
We live in a pornified culture in which sex is all around us, used to sell everything from the News at 9 to Soda, yet we refuse to talk about sex outside of don’t do it and bragging about our conquests. A friend of mine shared how her father changes the TV station when an advertisement for sanitary towels or condoms comes on.
We need to start talking to our children, younger friends and relatives about sex and about sexual abuse. A documentary like this one is a great place to start, watch it with them and pause to talk about why those women put up with him, why all those people helped him perpetuate this wickedness and perhaps in what ways are his actions all around us? Have we been silent in the presence of grave injustice?
Talk to your children about what to do should someone ever touch them in their private parts. I heard a story recently about a woman who was sexually abused as a child but didn’t tell her parent s because her abuser said he’d kill anyone she told. When she had her own children, she told them nobody should ever touch them in the private parts and if they did, they should tell her and no-one was going to kill her or them. R. Kelly also threatened his victims, saying to one of the girls, ‘if you do anything, my boys will let me know.’ Let’s have those tough conversations with our kids. Parenting: 5 Basic Steps You Should Teach Children To Prevent Sexual Assault
8. It’s just his preference, he’s into young girls
I’ll just say this in response to that defence of R. Kelly’s paedophilia, when you pee into a 12-year-old’s mouth, you’re not being into young girls, you are being an abuser. You’re getting off on exerting power over another person and degrading them while at it. That’s not a preference, that’s a pathology.
9.Abuse is all around us
I’ve heard people say R. Kelly is demonic and must be possessed by something otherworldly. This feels to me like an easy out that does not force us to examine all the factors that led us here. It also makes us helpless to act. I mean if he’s under the control of the devil what can we do but pray? And if there be others like him all we can do is impotently bow our knees.
Abuse is all around us. It’s in the guy who slaps his wife around, R. Kelly did that too. It’s in the guy who controls all the family’s finances, R. Kelly did that too. It’s in the man who tells you what to wear. The man who’s super jealous and won’t let you speak to other men. Abuse is all around us, it’s not localized to R. Kelly and his admittedly extreme actions. Abuse is not only that extreme. And if we put up with ‘small’ abuse we become more susceptible to putting up with even greater abuse. Leave at the first sign of control and abuse, don’t forgive that because it’s small. Abuse only moves in one direction, incremental.
10. Anybody can be a victim of abuse
This one is an incredibly difficult pill to swallow and one that truly had my heart racing with fear. At the beginning of the documentary, it’s easy to conclude that the girls were teenagers, young and foolish and that’s why it happened to them. As the documentary plays out, it’s clear that while R. Kelly preferred targeting teenagers, he also preyed on older women. Sexual violence can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, income level, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and education level.
We all have wounds left over from bad childhood experiences or even experiences as adults, all an abuser needs to know is exactly what your weakness is, where your pain is and they can capitalize on that to get to you. Perhaps if we can stop classifying victims as stupid or naive, and begin to see ourselves as potential victims our responses will be different. Maybe we’ll care more about the victims. Maybe we’ll try to help the victims more. Maybe we’ll be quicker to stop the perpetrators.
We have to begin to value women’s stories about their experiences particularly black women and other marginalized groups and classes. When we finished the documentary, my friends and I purposed to privately evaluate ourselves. We vowed to be brutal in the said evaluation of ourselves. What are my weaknesses? Is it economic issues? Is it an absence of a loving male father figure? Have I been abused in the past? Have I willingly stayed in a relationship I knew was bad for me? Why did I stay? What is it about me that would make me susceptible to this kind of abuse? And many more. I think it’s critical that everyone conduct this exercise for themselves, they say everywhere you are you’re there, so you should know yourself, be conscious of your strengths and weaknesses.
The legal systems have failed these girls so there’s a movement to keep R. Kelly off the airwaves. If the system will not help, the people have decided to do it themselves by hitting him where it hurts, his money. To join the #MuteRKelly movement, check out their pages here.