Last week’s six-part docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” introduced 2.1 million viewers to a side of the famed singer that many people had chosen to ignore or enable for too long. Listening to survivors of Kelly’s alleged sexual and physical abuse recount some of the most difficult experiences of their lives sparked many important conversations about abuse, consent, art vs. artistry and how black women and girls are devalued in society.
Even some of Kelly’s musical peers are engaging in these difficult talks with themselves and with their fans. In the days since the documentary aired, several celebrities have felt led to publicly denounce the singer and their collaborations with him. Public statements have come from Chance the Rapper, Tank, Ne-Yo, Omarion and, most recently, Golden Globe Award-winning songstress Lady Gaga, who collaborated with R. Kelly in 2013.
But all of those artists worked with or backed Kelly at some point in their careers. Coming forward now to distance themselves from the alleged abuser and advocate for his victims may seem too little, too late. How do we understand and accept these apologies from celebrities who supported Kelly when they arrive so long after the damage was done?
For Lady Gaga and other celebrities, coming forward now means admitting that their efforts to be allies for women and victimized communities were in some ways superficial and in other ways grossly uninformed.
Gaga is a survivor of sexual violence herself and an outspoken supporter of survivors. Her decision to collaborate with R. Kelly for the single and music video “Do What U Want (With My Body)” was questionable at best and utterly dismissive of his victims at worst. Which perhaps is part of what compelled the public to demand a statement from her after the docuseries aired.
She eventually responded to criticism by saying, “I stand behind these women 1000%. … What I am hearing about the allegations against R. Kelly is absolutely horrifying and indefensible. … I made both the song and the video at a dark time in my life. … I think it’s clear how explicitly twisted my thinking was at the time.”
For some, Gaga’s apology may seem insincere and an attempt to shield herself from the public backlash during this award season. Is this the statement of a woman who was so moved by the stories of the survivors that it caused her to regret her collaboration with Kelly? Or is this a form of public manipulation aimed at reducing potentially negative press that would impact the singer-actress’s chances of being honored at the Oscars?
What is clear, as she indicated in her apology, is that survivors of sexual violence sometimes manifest their trauma and pain in ways that are harmful to themselves. The path to healing after sexual assault is not linear. For some, like Gaga, this path is riddled with actions that surprise not only them but those who support them. But for others, like the victims and other people who may be pushing back on Gaga’s statement, it’s unconscionable and unforgivable that she would collaborate with an artist in direct conflict with the community she publicly supports.
For Gaga and other celebrities, coming forward now means admitting that their efforts to be allies for women and victimized communities were in some ways superficial and in other ways grossly uninformed. Which is why Chance the Rapper’s statement was also met with resistance.
Joshua Lott / Reuters
Demonstrators gather near a music studio to show support for survivors of sexual abuse following a television docuseries on R&B singer R. Kelly.
It’s never too late to start caring about black girls.
A large part of the backlash to Chance’s apology was focused on what seemed to be his admission that he had subconsciously devalued the stories of the survivors. During his interview with Jamilah Lemieux, he said he felt “programmed to be hypersensitive to black male oppression … but black women are exponentially more oppressed. Maybe I didn’t care because I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were black women.”
Chance’s words were painful to hear. Like Gaga, Chance is such an engaged member of his community, yet he continued to support Kelly for years despite multiple accusations from girls and women who share his race. But his eventual recognition that he’d held biased views about black men and women and his admission that now he knows better shouldn’t be disregarded or dismissed.
Social media is powerful. It can be a tool to viciously drag a public figure who holds some truly terrible opinions. But it can also be used to introduce and magnify perspectives that are valuable. Social media can be the place where both complicated nuances and internal biases go to die. After learning more and understanding themselves a little better, it may be that Chance, Gaga and others like them are just now grasping how devalued black women and girls are in society. Such meaningful dialogue is difficult to initiate if we continue to respond with “It’s too little too late.”
What matters more is making sure that R. Kelly can no longer profit from celebrity support. No matter why, these celebrities are taking a step to isolate him.
Holding Chance, Gaga and anyone else who collaborated with R. Kelly accountable is important. To some extent, it matters why they’ve chosen to come forward, be it to cover themselves, to clarify their position, to appease their fans or to stand by victims. But what matters more is making sure that R. Kelly can no longer profit from celebrity support. No matter why, these celebrities are taking a step to isolate him.
Because accountability demands action, perhaps each of them could also initiate efforts that look beyond Kelly in particular. For Chance, this could mean taking steps to further the dialogue about how black men can better protect black girls. For Gaga, this could be concrete moves to expand the discussion around the impact of trauma on survivors of sexual assault. Other musicians can continue to remove Kelly’s songs from their catalogues and speak out in support of victims of all kinds of abuse.
People are well within their rights to maintain a position of “too little too late” when it comes to celebrities beginning to denounce R. Kelly. His heinous behavior has gone unchecked for years, no matter how much evidence stacked up against him. Hearing those who reaped the benefits of a connection with Kelly suddenly say they care about his victims is frustrating, to say the least.
However, shutting up the celebs and their apologies would undermine part of the intent of the documentary. The series’ executive producer, dream hampton, said she hopes that after viewing the film, people will “turn away from R. Kelly” and stop having “these caveats” that let them tell themselves it’s ok to stick with him.
We should be continuing the work of “Surviving R. Kelly” by holding his former supporters accountable while fostering meaningful dialogue about race and sexual violence in hopes that more people will publicly turn away from him. It’s never too late to start caring about black girls.