Like many, that R. Kelly docu-series "Surviving R. Kelly" was the last thing any of us will ever have to see to know and remember just how terrible this man's behaviour has been...from time. Those testimonials, the pain on the faces of those women was disturbing as hell. We've all heard the whispering, the shouting, and seen the evidence plain as day, but somehow it took years. Decades even, for a collective cultural "WTF" moment where we are forced to look at Robert Kelly without the lens of his fabulous R&B hits...and see him for the asshole he is. There: I finally said it.
"Age ain't nothing but a number..." was a song that played in our adolescent female psyches in a way no male could ever understand. As disturbing as it is, there is a part of you as a young woman that wants to be acknowledged as mature enough to be in the company of older men. You want to dress like an older woman, and act like an older woman. You want to prove that you are grown enough for grown situations. And this isn't based on daddy issues or a lack of sensibility...even for those who grew up in stable two-parent homes with loving and doting fathers, Christian values, and a firm sense of love and respect, the admiration of a slightly "older man" can still be easily intriguing to young girls.
I can only speak for myself as a woman, as a Black woman, and as someone who has always been in tune with pop culture when I say that: I can see where we went wrong, but I can also see why.
That album was memorized. Your body's calling for me. I don't see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind. Homie lover friend. I like the crotch on you. Summer bunnies. Sex me. Twelve play. And then there was my favourite track, number 4: seems like you're ready.
It seems like you're ready.
Seems like you're ready.
Seems like you're ready.
Girl, are you ready?
To go all the way?
I was 15, what did I know? How could I comprehend how the master manipulator was even training my young mind, through sound and subconscious? The album was fire. That song in particular was dope and I listened to it on indefinite repeat. It was cool to listen to mature music and R. Kelly's "12 Play" album was a certified hit. There was zero part of me that recognized how his hypnotic lyrics were permeating my young brain, and there wasn't anyone around who looked at that man or his master manipulation as a severe problem.
A few years later, I remember visiting a friend in Chicago. I was already 21, she was slightly younger, and after a night out on the town we headed to the Rock and Roll McDonald's in the city, because there were rumours that R. Kelly would be stopping by. What were we hoping for? Probably just a photo, a good story, and the chance to see a celebrity up close. What do I remember? A lot of young girls hanging around, late-night, in case the superstar decided to pass by.
He never came, plus a parking lot fight and over-crowding caused them to shut down the restaurant temporarily that night. Crisis and kidnapping averted.
I am hesitant to make this an issue about the "Black community" or to use race as an excuse for accepting obviously disgusting behaviour, but when it keeps happening, and when you keep seeing people that you really wanted to love, and admire, and uplift, being beaten down...it starts to feel personal.
Like many, R. Kelly's music was a staple of my life's experiences. Parties. Celebrations. At-home sessions. He wasn't Michael or Prince...but he definitely had his lane, and occupied it consistently. He was a bad boy, with an unforgettable presence and an acute song-writing ability that lured the likes of Celine Dions and motion picture soundtracks, reggae artists, and sacred moments like the funeral of Whitney Houston.
I heard rumblings of his indiscretions, but never spent a lot of time studying them or researching the validity.
But it's a different time now. Everything is coming to light for a lot of people in the worst way. Exposure is a daily reality from the White House to the Grammy's, and it leaves many of "us" in a position where we finally have to come to terms with letting go of the illusion of support, and eliminating excuses for bad behaviour.
Jada Pinkett Smith posted a video on Instagram this weekend asking why? Why was R. Kelly's music still being consumed, and why were his numbers spiking at a time when his demons were all front and centre for all of us to see simultaneously. Some said that it could have been because of the younger generation, curiously listening to his lyrics and tracks to see what the hype was about. It could have been individuals reminiscing about the beautiful music he made, and trying to piece together the how and why.
A part of me sat and mentally went through all of the hits R. Kelly has made over the years, and wondered why it was so hard to admit that I'd have to let these songs go to a certain extent. Songs like Double Up featuring Snoop Dogg, or "Keep it on the Down Looooow," or those humour-but-not-humourous songs like "Feelin on Yo Booty" and "Get up on a Room," or what about "Half on a Baby" or "I Can't Sleep, Baby" and "Ignition," and the list literally goes on and on.
How do we forget the beautiful "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time," or "I'm Your Angel," or everyone's birthday song "Step in the Name of Love?"
Just like it was a damn shame to see Kanye West, one of my favourite rappers/producers of all time, smiling in the White House, or sitting in the Oval Office with that pathetic 45th leader, confessing his daddy issues to the world, and forcing a hug on the wanna-be-dictator who was clearly not worthy of the space or attention our rap star was giving him.
Just like this fiasco with Kevin Hart, and the old homophobic Tweets, and hosting the Oscars, and the back and forth about comedy and opinion, and the importance of respecting all lives and all sexual preferences, and then thinking about how right now at the pinnacle of his career, we get to watch Kevin be crucified. We knew it was coming (it always does), but it still makes you cringe when it starts to go down.
Looking at photos of Bill Cosby still hurts me to my core, because he felt like a beloved family member that was tied to so many laughs, and jokes, and moments gathered around the television, and he was the root of so many people's emulation of fatherhood, and someone that the Black community (and every other community) adored and respected, and now we know that he has been stripped of his throne many times over, and that he was not the man of character and genuine charm we hoped him to be.
I can not, and will not excuse the bad behaviour of anyone. Not Trump, not Cosby, not anyone. The media's role in shaping stories and guiding public opinion are evident at times...but when reality is unavoidable, it's that last step that hurts the most. The cancellation.
It hurts to see anyone of substance fall from perceived "grace," but as a Black woman who always has, and always will love and respect her Black brothers/kings, it is particularly difficult to admit that time is literally up for those who we upheld for so long. We hoped it wasn't true. We hoped they were who we wanted them to be, and who we as a culture NEEDED them to be at times.
And now we mourn.
Coupled with the disappointment and disgust, are feelings of defeat and hopelessness. Wrong is wrong, but there is a part of me that feels protective of the spirit of the Black man, and I'm ultra-sensitive about the cultural influences and inspirations of the Black community, and mingled in somewhere with the feelings of anger and frustration...are feelings of pity and sadness.
I wish they would have received the guidance, the strength, or the foresight they needed at the time of their indiscretions. And while Kanye's mental illness and Kevin Hart's bad jokes were not as terrible as R. Kelly's abuse of minors, or Bill Cosby's sexual assaults, there are times when you look at any of them as Black men and really just want to pray for their peace, their protection, and their place in society.
There are times when you look at them as Black Men and hurt, because you know it hasn't been easy. You can't excuse their behaviour, and you definitely can't make the truth go away, but it still hurts. It still feels like watching a family member be persecuted, and it feels like losing small sources of power in places where it isn't always easy to obtain king status.
Why have I never publicly criticized Bill Cosby? How come I still listen to my old Kanye West albums? Should it be this easy for me to still follow Kevin Hart on Twitter? Am I going to participate in the public #MuteRKelly campaigns? Sadly, their actions are now leaking over into our daily lives as Black community members, as well as consumers of pop culture where we are now not just passive recipients, but almost complicit if we support their products or idealized legacy in any way.
"Praying about it" feels like a typical Black thing to do: hoping that God will reach the spirit of these broken brothers, and help to right their wrongs. Praying for collective forgiveness from mainstream media so we can keep a piece of the crown that was once given to these talented Black figures. Perhaps the most difficult and uncomfortable part is when you have to put the racial loyalty aside, and acknowledge that nothing...absolutely nothing can justify some of these actions.
It hurts. Some (like Kevin Hart) may be able to survive the scandal and still continue to have a fruitful career. Others (like Bill Cosby) will continue to age, and fade away from our interest and childhood memories.
The lives of those young Black women that R. Kelly is manipulating matter. And the impact of these actions matter. I hope that somewhere in these unfortunate examples, that the young Black men coming up now in the entertainment industry can take a good look at what their image means and respond accordingly. That they recognize that somewhere beneath the talent, the fame, the millions, the gold, and the opportunities is a very, very limited window of influence that they can't afford to take for granted, or mess up.
We are getting used to being "let down" by our public figures and designated "role models"...and I do believe those who have the power really better monitor it, nurture their opportunities, and do the right thing. Talent will only excuse so many wrongs, and the end result it too painful to continue to endure. When one goes down, we all feel the pain. Let's hope that the lessons are learned, as an important takeaway from an otherwise unfortunate state of the Black man (yet again) and his constant battle to keep his head held high.
We love you, but our love can only do so much.
Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.