Surviving R Kelly and the Harvey Weinstein Scandal: the media as a tool for social change

On February 22, 2019, Kelly was indicted on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

The signs were all around us.

The first hint was when he called himself the Pied Piper. But in the mellifluous sound of his songs, we passed over this important message as part of his art. Then he returned with an explicit alarm of how he was ‘Stuck in the Closet’, and ‘Bump and Grind’; when he said “my mind is telling me no…” but again, we were too busy with the episodic tension and vocals and overlooked the crimes he was pointing to in the closet.

Robert Kelly’s art, life and vocals constantly mocked his listeners, revealing something that always evaded the most morally alert lovers of his songs.

That is the reason why the recent docu-series on DStv’s Crime +Investigation channel called Surviving R Kelly left many in shock. Now we find ourselves in the same condition as a betrayed wife who just discovered her husband had been having a go at the maid for a long time right under her nose. We travel back to his lyrics to find signs we overlooked and gasp as we recollect them all.

The Surviving R Kelly documentary which is based on R Kelly’s amorous exploits with young girls, and his eccentric preference for keeping comprehensive records of these forbidden encounters with teenagers, chronicles alleged victims’ accounts of their experiences with Mr Kelly. Most of the accounts so far are horrendous, tragic, painful and utterly sad.

According to Lizzette Martinez who met Kelly when she was 17 at a party, “I remember he took me up to the room, it was just a blur… it was my first sexual experience and I didn’t it would be that way. Sex with him felt not natural”.

From the account of Andrea Kelly, R Kelly’s former wife, we see a man who has perfected the art of divide and rule for the purpose of stifling the women whom he kept as sex slaves. He controlled the lives of these women, starting with minute details like what they wore, to whom they spoke and how to sexually respond to him, effectively creating a dependency structure around him.

Most of his victims were underaged, hungry for mentorship and guidance, in their quest for fame and fortune in the music scene. Mr Kelly milked their naiveté for his sexual gains, left them used, battered and ashamed, with only a few lucky enough to pick up the pieces of their lives and fight back.

“He liked high school girls. He could influence them more, they were more impressionable. He tries to slide into that space where girls don’t know better yet” says Mikki Kendall, who saw him at Kenwood Academy High School where he frequently hung around years after he dropped out from the same school.

Jovante Cunningham, one of Mr Kelly’s backup singers, recalls him sexually violating one of her young friends in the studio: “[It] was during the recording of ‘Slow Dance’ the remix. He had one of my teenage friends in the booth with him, bent over. And we were all right there … None of us was of age.”

Notwithstanding his harem of women, R Kelly’s wife was not spared the brutality of his dark side. In her testimony for the Surviving R Kelly series, Andrea Kelly who spent thirteen years with Mr Kelly, ten out of which she was married to him, narrated how she was locked up in the house, tied up in uncomfortable positions and barred from speaking to anyone during his tour. She managed to summon up the courage to leave Mr Kelly with their three children when things got out of hand.

On February 22, 2019, Kelly was indicted on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and was released on bail on the 25th after a fan posted his $100,000 bond.

These revelations about R Kelly are disturbing but become increasingly worrisome when we flip the channel only to be greeted by another documentary shining the spotlight on Harvey Weinstein, another sexual predator.

Harvey Weinstein, on his part, allegedly sexually assaulted employees of the Weinstein Company as well as actresses signed on to movies he produced. He threatened the careers of women who failed to do his bidding. Many victims have narrated how he persistently demanded sex and later forced them to sign morally reprehensible non-disclosure agreements to perpetuate the silence. One striking case in point is that of a German actress, Emma Loman, who is suing Weinstein for alleged rape.

In October 2017, The New York Times and The New Yorker reported that dozens of women accused Weinstein of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse over a period of at least 30 years. More than 80 women in the film industry have since accused Weinstein of such acts.

The Weinstein documentary which features many former Weinstein employees, a number of whom quit their jobs rather than protest, is a sad reminder of the difficulty many women face in the hands of powerful men. Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behaviour also raises moral questions about the tepid response to sexual assault by unaffected bystanders who quit their jobs when they found out about Weinstein’s’ behaviour, rather than speak to break the cult of silence.

Both documentaries are a referendum on decades of sexual abuse against women and the accompanying silence. The fear of what people will think of victims kept them cocooned in their pain. It is on this note that DSTV must be commended for airing these documentaries and for using their powerful platform to give voice to victims who have endured years of silence, in an entertainment industry that was a fealty system that protected powerful men. It is also a warning to other predators that it is no longer business as usual.

The complicity of the entertainment industry is most pronounced in the wake of 2002 accusations against R Kelly bordering on child pornography. He was later acquitted of all charges in 2008 because the girl in the said pornography video failed to testify. No one probed further into the case but instead welcomed and celebrated Mr Kelly’s victory.

Like one of the alleged victims of Mr Kelly’s predatory behaviour, Cunningham, rightly stated, ‘Robert destroyed a lot of people. People are still suffering behind things that went on 20 years ago’.

Therefore, these documentaries provide some kind of closure for those who still feel haunted by both men’s reprehensible behaviour. At the same time, it is a warning to the vulnerable to be wary of R Kelly, while the wheels of justice grind slowly towards serving him his just desserts.

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