by Alicia Crosby
On Thursday, January 3rd I found myself sitting on the couch in my mother’s living room watching Lifetime. For two hours, I bore witness to unconscionable stories of abuse and assault as my mother and I watched the 6-part docuseries by dream hampton entitled “Surviving R. Kelly”.
I’m a Black American millennial with an affinity for slow jams so my (mostly pirated) music library as a teenager had its fair share of cuts of songs sung or written by R. Kelly. As a 32 year old woman, I can no longer listen to anything produced by this man because as this documentary made clear, not only is Kelly unrepentantly violent and exploitative, some of these songs reflect his sexual and relational engagement with girls.
Allow me to rephrase. These songs document Kelly’s sexual assault of minors who are unable to offer consent because they are children. Children who are the age of my oldest godchild and – had I lived in the city that I know call home – children who could’ve been me or my friends.
I shed tears on that couch for the women speaking of unspeakable acts of violence that occurred during their girlhood and when I turned the TV off I wept for those whose stories go unheard and unbelieved. I cried for myself as something in me clicked and I recognized that something that happened nearly 20 years ago was clearly predatory and constituted assault.
I was fifteen and to this day I’m not sure how old he really was but in our meeting he said he was seventeen. We met as I was walking home from the train and dated for maybe two or three months. We’d go to the mall and to the park and to the random myriad of places kids in NYC go. I remember he was always free to pick me up after school. That’s what tipped me off to something being wrong. Even if he was an upperclassman schooled elsewhere it didn’t make sense to me that this person could always make it to spend time with me especially given the varied nature of my schedule. I figured out that my boyfriend was an adult the last time we visited Manhattan Mall. There was a hiring fair on the lower level and I remember him asking someone about things my parents talked about like salary and benefits – words no ordinary teenager I knew used.
That event taking place made me ask to see his ID and I remember that turning into a fight. He gave some excuse or another but I persisted and this turned into a days long argument. Eventually I think I came across something of his that indicated he was in his mid- to late 20’s and I cut things off. Around this time I also found out he was seeing another girl who was even younger than me. When I realized this person who lied about their age to have access to me and to my body was seeing someone even younger, I tried to intervene. I don’t remember how I got her contact info but I do remember warning her about this adult man who was trying to prey on us. What made me sad then and what grieves me now is that he had been sexually assaulting her for nearly two years by the time she and I talked. That’s not how she framed it but that’s what it was because children can’t offer consent to adults to engage with them in amorous and/or sexual relationships.
Watching Surviving R. Kelly made me remember this experience and name what happened to me as an assault. It’s taken me seventeen years to identity this as an abusive encounter and I’m going to have to sit with that reality because it’s all so fresh. What my reflection over these last few days has done is make me think about how language can impact how we view encounters. Being in my thirties and committing to work that aims to dismantle and disrupt violent systems and relational frameworks means that I now have words to name something that I couldn’t really explain in another season but that I knew didn’t feel right.
It’s that access to language and the framing it helps me build that allows my adult self to name R. Kelly and all who coerce and lure teenagers into romantic and sexual relationships with them as being predatory and abusive. I am now able to name to the ways that these people engage with these young ones as assault and violence. I now understand that the inability for these young people to offer consent means that they are not having sex but being raped. I can see that Kelly or others recording their trysts with minors is not a production of sex tapes but the creation of child pornography and documented sexual assault.
Work like Surviving R. Kelly is revelatory. For some, watching a series like this helps them connect dots in their own stories and make sense of things that happened in their lives or the lives of those close to them. For others, the values and beliefs of those they are in community with comes to light. Regardless of what is revealed many of us are left holding questions and complex emotions in light of what we have come to know. And sometimes it’s hard to know what to do with what has surfaced for us.
After watching or hearing about Surviving R. Kelly, what are you left holding? What has come up for you? I personally have questions and grief that I’m processing through for myself, for my friends, for the women whose stories I bore witness to in the documentary, and for the countless others who’ve dealt with assault that they recognized as such then or are coming to understand as such in their adulthood.
I don’t have any answers or know what’s next for you but if you need someone to journey with you as you sort things out, reach out to the team at Into Account. They can point you to contextually appropriate resources that may be of help to you.
Alicia Crosby is a writer and a co-founder of the Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Inclusivity. You can follow her work and support her on Patreon, which we enthusiastically recommend.