For Black women and activists, the R. Kelly verdict is 'bittersweet'

Singer R. Kelly leaves the Cook County Criminal Court Building in Chicago. Picture: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File

Singer R. Kelly leaves the Cook County Criminal Court Building in Chicago. Picture: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File

Published Oct 1, 2021


By Bethonie Butler

The first episode of "Surviving R. Kelly," Lifetime's docuseries about the embattled R&B singer, describes how Kelly - at the height of his breakout in the 1990s - would hang out at a Chicago McDonald's and prey on young girls from a nearby high school.

"People will say 'Well, why didn't anyone notice?' " Mikki Kendall, an author and cultural critic who grew up in Chicago, says in a 2019 episode.

"The answer is that we all noticed. No one cared because we were Black girls."

For decades, that was the subtext of the case against Robert Sylvester Kelly, who enjoyed a successful and lucrative music career despite being accused of predatory relationships with multiple teenage girls, including singer Aaliyah.

His fame endured after journalists Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch first reported in 2000 that Kelly had "used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them."

His career remained intact following his 2008 child pornography trial, where Kelly's onetime protege Stephanie "Sparkle" Edwards testified that Kelly was the man seen urinating on a young girl (whom Sparkle identified as her 14-year-old niece) in a horrifying videotape that became a TV punchline.

A decade later - and well after the #MeToo movement gained international prominence - Kelly, the self-dubbed "Pied Piper of R&B," was still making and performing music.

Kelly's conviction Monday on nine federal sex trafficking and racketeering charges in a Brooklyn courtroom was a culmination of decades-long efforts to hold him accountable for abusing young women and girls.

In some ways, the guilty verdict marks a pivotal #MeToo moment for Black women, who have long felt overlooked by mainstream feminism.

But, activists and survivors say, the singer's long-overdue reckoning also highlights the work that still needs to be done to ensure Black girls and women are protected from sexual assault and gender violence.

"It's bittersweet," said Scheherazade Tillet, co-founder and executive director of A Long Walk Home, a Chicago-based organization that seeks to empower Black girls and end gender violence.

The verdict is meaningful in that a jury believed the Black women who shared harrowing stories of abuse at the hands of a powerful man - nearly 30 years after Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas, no less. But, Tillet said, "there's so much damage that has been done."

"This was a long time coming and although it doesn't bring automatic healing, I hope it brings a sense of closure that can help facilitate the healing process," activist Tarana Burke wrote Monday on Twitter.

"The real story here is about the relentless activism of Black women who refused to let rampant, open abuse and violence toward Black girls and young women fall on deaf ears."

Among the women Burke praised were Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Tisha Barnes, founders of the #MuteRKelly campaign, which set out to end Kelly's career and dry up his financial resources by reminding fans (and the music industry) whom and what they were supporting.

Burke also acknowledged Dream Hampton, executive producer of "Surviving R. Kelly," which laid out decades of allegations against Kelly and homed in on the vast network of people he enlisted to help him forge relationships with young girls.

In the aftermath of the widely watched series, prosecutors in cities such as Chicago and Atlanta began investigating Kelly.

He was arrested in Illinois a month later.

Tillet was heartened by the fact that Kelly was eventually convicted of racketeering, a charge often associated with organised crime cases.

"I hope we shift that language (surrounding sexual abuse) to see that it wasn't the parents, it wasn't what (the victim) was wearing," Tillet said.

"I think we're hopefully shifting to think about how this is like other types of violent crimes where most of the times it's planned, and how we as a culture have enabled this to exist."

Still, in light of the 2008 trial, Kelly's accusers didn't count on a guilty verdict, said Gloria Allred, who represented three survivors in Kelly's New York trial and called the singer "the worst" sexual predator she has ever pursued in her four decades as a women's rights attorney.

Despite all the evidence against him, she said many of his victims "were holding their breath" when the verdict came in.

"Because of what happened in 2008, they couldn't say, 'Oh, this is a slam dunk, he's definitely going to be convicted' - because you never know what a jury is going to do."

Before "Surviving R. Kelly," DeRogatis's work served as the most comprehensive public account of Kelly's predatory behavior and the lack of compassion society had for his victims, whom DeRogatis said were "dismissed as liars, as opportunists, as media hungry."

He broke news of the singer's alleged sex cult in a 2017 BuzzFeed article, bringing renewed attention to the many allegations surrounding Kelly.

But the Lifetime documentary resonated in a different way. "Suddenly ... his victims, some of whom testified in the trial, are in your living room and you can't dismiss these women telling their truth."

DeRogatis said the trial outcome is historic in that "we now know - laid out bare with 45 witnesses, hundreds of exhibits of evidence and six weeks of testimony - that this man was the biggest predator in the history of popular music."

It's also the first post-#MeToo-era trial in which the victims are primarily of color. But, he added, neither he nor Hampton, whom he spoke to recently, is "super optimistic that things are changing, not nearly quick enough."

In an appearance Tuesday on "CBS This Morning," Hampton expressed that same reticence: "I want to believe that this means Black women survivors will be heard, but I don't want it to be dependent on a piece of media (like the Lifetime docuseries) going viral."

She expanded on the risks survivors take to speak out - and how we should protect them - in a Washington Post op-ed published Tuesday.

"Punishing an abuser and preventing him from doing more harm in the future doesn't automatically mean that the people he's already hurt are made whole again," Hampton wrote.

"And it doesn't acknowledge the value of what survivors do for the rest of us when they accept the risks involved in coming forward."

Kelly's trial featured testimony from women (and one man) who described Kelly as a controlling figure.

Jerhonda Pace, one of the women featured in "Surviving R. Kelly," was pregnant and nearing her due date when she took the stand to recall how Kelly forced her to follow a set of rules and issued steep punishment if she failed to follow them. News outlets reported Pace breaking into tears as she recalled Kelly beating and choking her.

"It takes tremendous courage and strength to speak out publicly against a beloved icon," said Lili Bernard, one of the dozens of women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault.

She met some of Kelly's accusers when she and Mira Sorvino paid tribute to them at a 2019 event hosted by the Wrap. It was an emotional experience.

"I felt like I owed them a lot," she said. "They paved the way for us Cosby survivors to speak out."

Following Kelly's guilty verdict, Pace spoke out yet again. "For years, I was trolled for speaking out about the abuse that I suffered at the hands of that predator," she wrote on Instagram.

"I'm happy to FINALLY close this chapter of my life. I testified and the jury found him guilty. No matter what you think of me or how you feel about things; today, I MADE HISTORY."