By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.
Dated: January 7, 2018
I just finished watching the mini-series, “Surviving R. Kelly,” and the first thought that comes to my mind is:
I’m all about the criminal justice system. I’m all about proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and not passing judgment until one is proven guilty.
Hell, I’ve represented a few hundred suspected sex offenders myself, and there were really only one or two who seemed irredeemably evil. For everyone else, while I wasn’t overlooking their wrongdoing (or alleged wrongdoing), I was still able to see and acknowledge their humanity.
Many of my clients were abused when they were young. Several explained to me that their victimization led them to have blurred boundary lines regarding what’s appropriate between an adult and a minor. While it’s not an affirmative defense or excuse, it does help explain why some adult males sexually assault minors.
All of that being said, the allegations made on “Surviving R. Kelly” weren’t just about sexual assault. They also involved allegations of physical and mental abuse, as well as essential kidnapping, brainwashing, and intentional starvation of his alleged victims.
The documentary was excellently done, and from the legal disclaimers made at the beginning and end of each episode, it appears as if the filmmakers attempted to get comments from R. Kelly’s team as to the accusations. So it’s not as if it’s completely lopsided in terms of telling the “full” story.
Each episode was heartbreaking and disturbing. The claims made by multiple women as to the very particular M.O. (modus operandi) Mr. Kelly appears to have had with his alleged victims (including immediately calling him nothing but “Daddy,” (Yuck.), restricting their movements throughout the home, studio, or hotel, cutting off contact with the outside world, starving them or slapping them when they broke one of his “rules,” etc.) are compelling. They sound strikingly similar to claims made by other victims (or alleged victims) of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and/or domestic violence. Indeed, preying on impressionable, sometimes ‘damaged’ children, is a very common tactic among those who commit child molestation.
So, the mini-series got me thinking about something Dax Shepard has said on his podcast, “Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard.” During one of his episodes, Dax questions whether we, as a society, should ignore a person’s wrongdoings if that person contributes significantly to the world.
That question really resonated with me during the mini-series, because you have many journalists and radio personalities on the program pointing out how we, as music consumers, seemed to have completely separated R. Kelly’s personal life from his singing career. For decades!
And it’s so true. Amidst public allegations of child molestation and the production of child pornography, he sang at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics. And who can forget when he secretly married a fifteen-year-old Aaliyah after his team procured fraudulent documents to claim she was eighteen?
Sadly, he’s not the only talented person who’s been able to remain successful amidst disturbing sexual allegations. Think about Michael Jackson. Think about Elvis!
The mini-series did a great job of highlighting our society’s willingness to ignore the bad in order to consume the good.
I can’t deny my love for R. Kelly’s music. “I Believe I Can Fly” was the first song I sang along to that made me cry. “Step in the Name of Love” (I always preferred the remix, myself)? “Happy People”? His collaboration with The Isley Brothers on “What Would You Do?” I mean, come on!
I’m a R&B super fan. How could I not love his music? His voice?
But why? Why, as an independent, educated, strong woman, have I continued to overlook the damage he’s allegedly done to so many women, just because I love his powerful voice??
Why wasn’t I disgusted? Concerned about his female victims? Demanding more from society?
Why did it take me until this mini-series to really consider Dax Shepard’s question in a very real, personal way?
I’m educated on the devastating impact that sexual, physical, and emotional abuse has on a person, and especially on children. Why isn’t that the very first thing I think of when one of his songs comes on?
Obviously, humans have an incredible ability to compartmentalize. We can even compartmentalize trauma in our own lives in order to continue functioning on a day-to-day basis. The need to do that is completely understandable.
But we don’t need R. Kelly. And don’t hate me for saying this, but we didn’t need Michael Jackson. We don’t really need any artist.
Sure, they can make our lives so joyful. They can inspire us, pick us up when we’re down, set the mood. They can be part of the soundtracks to our lives. Music in particular can bring back ridiculously vivid memories of such wonderful events (weddings, family reunions, etc.). And one artist can completely change the course of a certain genre of music. I, as a music lover and student of the art form, can attest to that!
But if their talent is eclipsed by their personal wrongdoings, shouldn’t we do better to make it clear to the artist that those acts make them unemployable as a musician?
I learned that John Legend was the only other musician asked to speak who would agree to appear on the documentary. There were multiple persons who refused, despite their personal connection to R. Kelly.
Doesn’t that say something about the industry? About people being concerned about taking sides or standing out (and potentially upsetting their fans, thereby losing money by doing so)?
Thankfully, there have since been a lot of other musicians and actors who’ve come out publicly to denounce R. Kelly’s alleged behavior. But quite honestly, even with the #MeToo movement, there still hasn’t been enough in terms of famous/rich/influential public figures denouncing their colleagues and supporting the victims.
We owe it to the betterment of our society to do a better job letting musicians and athletes (and even sitting presidents) know that physical, mental, and sexual abuse will not be tolerated or ignored, no matter how talented or influential the wrongdoers are.
I’m really making an effort to look within myself and figure out why I’ve compartmentalized the actions of my idols. Why I’m not holding famous people to the same standard I’d hold any other citizen.
I’d strongly suggest that you all do the same.
While doing so, you can consider looking into the #MuteRKelly movement. We need to consider doing the same for other famous people whose actions aren’t deserving of our financial support.
To read more about my thoughts on sexual assault and how we, as a society, can potentially help prevent certain assaults from happening, keep an eye out for my upcoming memoir, From National Champion To Physically Disabled Activist: My Lifelong Struggles With A Diseased Body, And The Lessons It Has Taught Me Along The Way.