On Monday, Rolling Stone published a story about Kitti Jones, the latest woman to hurl claims of sexual, mental, and emotional abuse against R. Kelly. According to Jones, she and Kelly dated from 2011 to 2013, during which time she claimed that she was hit, forced to have sex with other women, starved, and isolated from the rest of the world. These claims come on the heels of a Buzzfeed report by Jim DeRogatis — the same journalist who received the anonymous 2002 tape that shows Kelly allegedly peeing on and engaging in other sex acts with a 14-year-old girl — that accuses him of running his own sex cult with a combination of fear and coercion.
The fresh wave of ammunition fuelling the rumours that the king of R&B is at best, a creep (let us not forget that he married late singer Aaliyah in 1994 when she was only 15 years old), and at worst, an actual sexual predator with ill intentions towards women, comes at an interesting time. A New York Times exposé on movie and television producer Harvey Weinstein, documenting his inappropriate behaviour towards young actresses, has blown the cover on what was apparently an open secret in Hollywood. Because Weinstein’s case is so fresh, I can’t help but think of the similarities between him and Kelly. They're two men who have dominated their respective fields and have garnered reputations for using that power to manipulate women sexually.
What’s more important, however, is the difference between the responses to both sets of allegations. In the past few weeks, Weinstein has been hit hard. He resigned from the board of the Weinstein Company after they decided to fire him. They are also removing his name from the credits of series and movies made by the company. Harvard has rescinded a medal it gave him in 2014, and the British Film Institute is doing the same for a fellowship it gave him. Police in London, New York, and Los Angeles are also conducting criminal investigations in light of rape accusations against Weinstein.
This has not been the case for Kelly, who was notoriously found not guilty of child pornography charges in 2008, six years after his infamous sex tape was released. According to the Rolling Stone story, he quietly settled lawsuits that accused him of sex with underaged girls in 1995 and 1996 and continued to sell out shows make number-one records. Both he and Aaliyah vehemently denied that they had a relationship beyond friendship (which is still weird because there is little that adult men typically have in common with teenaged girls), but court records confirm that they did indeed marry. And the harshest responses to the salacious headlines against Kelly this year have been the head shakes, lip smacks, and tweets by people like me who refuse to pretend to be surprised by this behaviour.
Race is at work here, but not the racial backgrounds of Kelly and Weinstein. The bulk of the women who have shared their experiences with Weinstein have been white women. Many of them are actresses who are likely to have legal representation on hand and enough money to, at the minimum, go on vacation while all this talk of their traumatic experiences dies down. The women at the centre of all of Kelly’s scandals over the years have been working and middle class Black women (and in some cases, like with Aaliyah, girls who aren’t even old enough to drive). Research has already shown that Black girls are seen as less innocent than their white counterparts, and that doesn’t change as they get older.
Not-so-fun fact: I share a hometown, a zodiac sign, and a high school with R. Kelly. When I was in middle school (I tested into a middle school academic program that was housed inside of a high school) it was not uncommon to see Kelly cruising around our school grounds. For any other celebrity this would be an endearing example of a hometown hero showing his high school alma mater some love. But in the same way word got around Hollywood about Weinstein way before he was outed, leaving some actresses with warnings about being alone with the producer, stories about Kelly’s intentions for showing up unannounced to his high school floated among our ranks, too. And unfortunately, the peers among us who dared to be acknowledged by the celebrity risked being labeled with titles like “fast” and “hoe.” “Possibly in danger” was not among those labels.
R. Kelly is a solemn reminder of what feels like a total unwillingness to protect or defend Black women. Until we respond to the claims of his alleged victims with the same tenacity that we did for Weinstein’s accusers, men like him will continue to prey on women in their own communities.