Off With their Heads and Other Considerations: On R. Kelly

My mother said we ought to watch it together, Surviving R. Kelly. We’d talked about his case around my grandmother’s kitchen table, and we all agreed that it was disgusting, terrible, sad. We sang “Step in the Name of Love” in parody of ourselves, or at least the selves who had danced to it at the last church banquet even though we had all heard the rumors.

Kelly was arrested in July on federal sex trafficking, racketeering, child sexual exploitation and pornography charges, and it would have happened sooner if we’d remembered the fairy tales we read as children. He called himself the Pied Piper of R&B, and nobody believed him. The most startling revelation from the documentary Surviving R. Kelly was not that he had gotten away with it for so long, but that parents knew that he was a predator, but sent their daughters to him anyway. They had heard the rumors that Robert Kelly liked little girls. They truly believed that their daughters would be safe. That they would be the exception. And they cried bitter tears when they realized that there would be no exceptions.

Our modern conception of fairy tales, is influenced in large part by Disney film adaptations. That the transcribed tales collected by the Brother Grimm and the original tales conceived by Hans Christian Anderson, a man with an alarming preoccupation with little girls’ feet, were more torturous and violent than their cultural signifiers means that most of us never learned the lesson. Even the tales that lacked explicit morals moralized on how to defeat the monsters snapping at our heels. Writer G.K. Chesterton articulated an oft recited edict about the function of fairy tales in our continuing cultural consciousness, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

I remember hearing about R. Kelly peeing on a 14-year-old girl and laughing. The remix to Ignition played again on my iPod, and again, hundreds of times. My bony girl-in-between body bounced when he told me to, and I laughed because pee-pee was still funny at 12 years old. I remember thinking that the song was too short. That I wanted more of the ear candy. Bubble-gum popping to lyrics I did not fully comprehend. A pop song with a choir can translate into a church song with the right sway and the correct context. I believe I can fly to heaven or heaven adjacent. The choir crescendo and goose-pimples populate on your arms and the toilet humor is forgotten for now.

The mistake would be to think that fairy tales are only for children. That we somehow grow out of them. I’d argue that if we’re not careful, we could be in danger of growing into them. Terry Windling, in her introduction to the anthology The Armless Maiden, and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors writes, “what’s most important about these stories, from the point of view of any of us who have gone through the deep dark woods in childhood ourselves, is not the expectation of ending ‘Happily Ever After.’ Rather, it’s the way that ending is achieved, through the process of transformation.”

Thematically, survival is integral to fairy tales. The expectation is that you will survive your evil stepmother. That you will marry the prince. That you will be believed, when all is said and done, that your experience is true and that you survived in spite of it. The discourse around sexual assault hinges on believability. For too many, having survived, are simply not believed. At the root of this unbelief is a deliberate misremembering of our own traumas.

The great debate in my household during Bill Cosby’s trial was whether or not some of the women had lied, or possibly misunderstood what had occurred. While not positioning in outward support of Cosby, one family member sought to contextualize his crimes by disclosing dodgy interactions with men and boys in their own childhood. They contextualized their assaults, and make no mistake they were assaults, as something that was just done. I was shocked by the intentional misremembering. We cling to mitigating circumstances like partially deflated flotillas. We don’t believe the words that are coming out of our own mouths, but we are compelled to utter them to deflect the inevitable introspection.

Depending on who you ask, the Pied Piper was either a hero or a villain. One variant of the legend goes that the people of Hamelin requested the piper’s help to get rid of their rat infestation, and when he did, they refused to pay him. In retaliation for the broken contract, the piper returned to Hamelin and played his flute, and instead of leading rats into the rivers to drown, he led away 130 of the town’s children. 130 children never to be seen again, a haunting unknown that like the “lost” Roanoke Colony probably has a reasonable explanation.  Rats, Medieval Europe, dead children, and methinketh Bubonic Plague–but the story is better.

Why didn’t we believe R. Kelly when he told us who he was? Maybe people couldn’t recognize that there were dragons, or were convinced that they did not breath fire. That dragons could look like anything, should have us on our guard, but we forget so easily. The cult of celebrity can protect even the most egregious crimes. The instances where the moneyed and powerful face commensurate consequences for their actions require our close attention.

I watched Surviving R. Kelly out of a sense of culpability. The question of course is, how to separate the art from the artist. And of course, the answer is no, you can’t. So I skip over “I Wish,” and “I Believe I Can Fly,” but haven’t deleted it altogether. I think I’m holding onto the songs until I can figure out a way to not feel guilt from the rhythm and flow that comprised the soundtrack to my adolescence.

R. Kelly chose to victimize black girls because, ever the consummate performer, he knew his audience. Roxane Gay made the comment, to some controversy, that “If R. Kelly was preying upon young white girls they would have built a prison on top of him.” This country has never had a problem prosecuting black men with crimes against white women. But crimes against black women are all but forgotten.

This essay is not about the hyper-sexualization of black women and black girls. Or it is, because no one seemed to care. Even the black community. We didn’t do nearly to enough to protect our daughters and sisters. Ourselves.

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