Do you remember when, in 2002, RnB superstar R Kelly was filmed urinating on a child and the world laughed and laughed and bought more of his music and made him an even bigger star?
In the opening sequence of the first episode of Surviving R Kelly, the stomach-lurching six-part docu-series of Kelly’s history of abuse against women, a weeping Jerhonda Pace chokes back tears as she tries to articulate what Kelly did to her. She fails and apologises and flees from the camera, sobbing.
I watched Surviving Kelly with growing disgust and horror, taking breaks because I could not stomach the gratuitous violence that his victims were describing. A friend who was watching it with me would later say: “This is even more sinister than I thought it would be.”
Several victims and witnesses say Kelly was a sexual predator who groomed girls as young as 12 for sex, often in the guise of helping to nurture their music careers. The most famous of these was the late RnB singer Aaliyah, whom he met when she was 12 and married at 15. Kelly was 27, and his former employee admitted to have faked Aaliyah’s age to procure a marriage licence. The marriage was annulled after two months.
Then came the infamous ‘pee tape’, which showed Kelly raping and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. He went on trial for child pornography but was acquitted. A juror said he did not believe the women who testified against Kelly and did not like how they were dressed or how they acted.
And so the world moved on, helped along by an insidious rape culture that silences victims and makes it hard for other people to believe them.
In the US, the growing #MeToo movement is making it harder to ignore sexual harassment or assault, especially at the workplace. We learn from the documentary that #MeToo recently threw its weight behind #MuteRKelly, a protest group calling on radio stations, streaming services and event organisers not to play his music or book him for events.
The logic is, if he cannot face legal action, then he should at least suffer ostracisation, which would be particularly punitive for him as a recording artiste.
The #MuteRKelly is gaining traction and, like #MeToo, is an example of how an effective protest looks like. And the ripple effects are being felt in Kenya with emboldened victims coming forward against the predators. Since 2017, several women in corporate Kenya have accused their bosses of sexual harassment or assault. A handful of the stories made the headlines but speak to women and you will realise that sexual deviants are rarely reported because the victims are seldom believed.
Sexual harassment and assault has become an ever-present threat for women. We have been conditioned not to ruffle feathers at the workplace, not to be the “problematic” one because how well we do is down not only to our actual work but also people’s perceptions of us.
We have internalised abuse into our DNA, restructuring our lives to make space for it and doing mental arithmetic on how to protect ourselves. We have learnt not to complain when a male colleague calls us “sweetheart” or compliments our skirts as well-fitting.
We take it for granted that Tom from IT will pull us in for a hug when he comes by to repair the internet; George from accounts will never look at us in the face but focus his eyes on our chests, whether we are in a turtle neck or plunging neckline.
These daily micro-aggressions that we cannot really articulate without sounding “crazy” or “hysterical” forever have us on high alert and in permanent exhaustion. So we save our energies for bigger transgressions because we fear the backlash against us. We find a way to sanitise the R Kelly bestiality and put the girl on trial. We claim that all those who testify against him must be lying. We then play his music in clubs and stream his albums online. Do you know that his music has spiked in popularity since this documentary aired?
I give a standing ovation to the victims who defied fear and raised a quiet middle finger to the system and reported abusers. I believe them, without question. May their courage be the spark for the fire of zero tolerance to sexual harassment.
I will ask the DJ to change the music when he plays an R Kelly track, no matter how much everybody else wants to “step in the name of love”. There is a lot of good music out there from non-abusers for us to listen to tired records by child rapists.
Ms Kubania, a feminist, is a communications and advocacy specialist at African Wildlife Foundation. [email protected]