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Sometimes silence is golden: Playing R. Kelly in a post-Metoo movement | The Man Project

in Gender and Sexual Identity by

This think piece is in response to Charles Moss’ writing, “Are we bad men for listening to bad men’s music?” Rather than mute or cancel, I prefer to silence those in the industry who show a history of sexual abuse. Though many choose to continue rocking music, I think it is time we rethink our moral and musical playlists.

In my musical selection, there are artists who are predators and pieces of shit—rapists, abusers, racists and misogynists. I am sure of it. Unfortunately, I do not know all of them.

However, I know enough about R. Kelly, and did not blink an eye when I tuned him out in the early 2000s.

Seventeen years ago, I remixed Kelly’s song, “Ignition,” into a protest song called, “He’s Still a Pedophile.” My views were taken as seriously as Trump’s hair being real and the natural color of his skin being a putrid orange-pinkish hue.

I was in Los Angeles when the second wave of pedophilia accusations against Kelly went viral. The first were him marrying 15-year-old singer, Aaliyah.

At the time, the allegations against him were engaging in sex with a 14-year-old girl. Which is really rape. Moreover, there was a taping of the acts to prove it. In the video, a man looking like Kelly even urinated on the child. Since, multiple people have said that, that was indeed Kelly with an underaged teen.

Yet and still, the tape became a hot commodity in the genre of cheap porn flicks. Like $1 tacos on Taco Tuesday, vendors hawked VHS tapes of Kelly and the girl on Crenshaw and Imperial Avenue. People asked me if I wanted to see the video, but I refused and never have to this day.

While there were a handful of people who publicly expressed disappointment and disgust, many Black community members blamed it on the girl for being promiscuous or her parents for their lack of raising her well.

Few non-Black folk never really expressed outward concern, because well, what did it have to do with them? To me, that is a similar sentiment in how we talk about dealing with the cultural material produced by the long list of outed predators; especially, in an American culture with an impetus for invisibilizing those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

We shrug. We pop on our earbuds and keep the rotation going.

And that includes me too.

When I really began to listen to the dialogue of the college students I teach, I see young women and men struggle when engaging in even superficial discussions about masculinity, gender and femininity. Once you add sexual conduct or misconduct, it becomes a situation like dear-in-headlights or two rams butting heads.

In particular, guys who ascribe to traditional roles of “manhood” often shrug or defend offensive and predatory behavior as normal. They’ve never been required to look at themselves in such a way. It is as if they feel like they’ve become the prey and the others who point out their ideas are the hunters.

So like us who have popped on our earbuds to remove ourselves from accountability and listen to what makes us feel good, they do too. In turn, ignorance and anxieties around courtship, intimacy and interaction blossom.

Rape is different than an unwanted comment or touch—though any form of harassment is not tolerated and must be addressed. However, one of things that the #MeToo Movement missed is us talking about the complexities of behavior so that we can have deeper, balanced and both-sided conversations. 

As a college professor, I know for a fact that many students just don’t know. They’ve never been given the language or the tools. This is not to excuse behavior, but to point out that if 20-year-olds don’t know, I’m pretty sure that those older and younger struggle too; hence, we’re at this moment.

The invisibility of Black girls and selecting music

Most never really cared enough if a young Black girl could be sexually exploited and brutalized in such a way because mainstream culture constantly runs a trope of a hypersexualized female teen who is aggressive and deserving of her ill-fate. That is, if they were portrayed at all. Then like now, a slew of hip hop songs on commercial radio confirmed it. Before then and today, a litany of pop and rock videos sexually objectified women in general.

But, some people have more of a luxury to be oblivious in making a decision on how they engage their leisure activity of music because they do not have to place themselves in those situations. Plus, they have been conditioned to be seen and act as the hunter, or amongst that group. To dismiss it, or not even give it just some thought evinces how deep this culture accepts, protects then exempts abusers.

That girl on the R. Kelly tape was me. Is me. Metaphorically and in my social DNA. I know her. I am quite familiar because in this culture, Black girls and young Latinas are easy pickings and prey. You can have your way and much of anything ever happens.

I was once an urban youth finding herself and voice in a pop culture that constantly instructed me to shrink. Additionally, at an early age, I abruptly was introduced to ideas or feelings of being sexually objectified before I even had my menses, my first kiss or my first boyfriend.

Growing up, I had to program myself for confrontations with one of the endless pedophiles outside of my parents’ home. So when I hear Kelly’s music, I, like so many other girls, whatever their background, are transported back to predators we’ve been circumnavigating.

Like black men who wonder if they will have a fatal encounter with the police when they leave home, as a teen, when I walked alone or with girlfriends in my neighborhood, I prepared myself for the inevitable—the world of creeps who circled the blocks. Being alert all the time did something to me. I stopped being a girl. I lost my innocence and did not know.

Consequently, intertwined in my soundtrack are eyes rolling, neck rollings, exclamations of “uh-uhns” or “no’s” to the fast pace of me trying to walk to a section where other adults could see these men driving slowly next to me as I trotted to my destination. With these aggressive tones of survival, I was labeled “grown.”

I cannot tell you how many men approached me as a 12-year-old or 15-year-old while I traipsed to the park or headed to my mother’s job as a high school teacher. Now I know that these areas are fertile terrain for predators who surf around in cars whistling at adolescent girls . . . and let me not forget boys.

Some do respond. To be called beautiful or sexy in a world that amplifies these notions, many girls saunter with an undeveloped gait to predators. Call it youthful curiosity or naiveté. Perhaps it is arrogance. The child might consider the fawning as the most attention they’ve received, ever. Nonetheless, it is what we call childhood. They are exploring their limits and power, yet, so many lose in these tests of self-agency in the hunting game.

When I was younger, I did not understand and bumped music that made me feel good, even if momentarily. R. Kelly was nasty when I learned about him and Aaliyah. When the “pee tape” came out, I boycotted him, but years later, stepped in the name of love at every family function.

Now I have girl children in my family who’ve inherited the social trauma of being a girl, and a Black girl, in a world of fragile and toxic masculinity because they have to walk the same communities I once did. To worsen matters, we sit in the midst of a strong resurgence of white nationalism where hate crimes have increased astonishingly, and mostly, go unpunished. Now they must deal with unresolved racial issues that can have literal consequences of death.

For me, I cannot play Kelly and talk about respect or how to negotiate today’s climate. It tells those who come after me that people with a platform, or power or a talent, have some type of leeway. Of course, with all of the work and collaborations that Kelly has done—much of his connections I do not know—and ultimately, I will play and even rock out to it. That is to be expected with his extensive catalog that I never followed. However, for the songs I do know, y’all who cannot do without a melody or two can have them.

Perhaps, tuning out R. Kelly will temporarily remove me from special musical moments at barbecues, weddings, reunions and damn near all Black intergenerational gatherings, but for a few minutes, I’m good. Today, I sit it in silence—where there are beautiful notes of freedom.

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