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R. Kelly sentencing: Black girls deserve more

OPINION: Oronike Odeleye, co-founder of #MuteRKelly, reflects on the sentencing and troubled legacy of the disgraced R&B star.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Black girls deserve more. 

That sentence is so fraught with controversy that it will probably cause lots of people to stop reading this article. Hundreds of “but what about” responses are already solidifying in the minds of many readers. #AllSexesDeserveMore counterpoints are being formulated. 

This idea of what Black women and girls deserve, however, is at the heart of my internal struggle over R. Kelly’s sentencing. Thirty years in prison for racketeering and sex trafficking charges is no small victory, and I know that I am expected to celebrate. 

I co-founded the #MuteRKelly movement, after all. In 2017, I, alongside activist Kenyette Barnes and media expert Tracy Fortson, built a worldwide campaign calling for a financial boycott of R. Kelly and his music. We spent four years fighting a system hell-bent on protecting a well-documented sexual predator. We were called everything but a child of God. We were threatened. We lost friends. 

In the wake of R. Kelly’s sentencing, I was told numerous times that I deserve to celebrate, that the hard work of our grassroots organizing deserves to be acknowledged for all that it did to change the public tide of opinion about R. Kelly and bring about renewed investigative interest in his crimes. We have been told that 30 years in jail is a victory that his survivors, and Black women, deserve.

I think, however, that Black women deserve more. 

R. Kelly has been seeking out, grooming, raping, isolating, and abusing children since at least 1991. That’s when 15-year-old aspiring singer Tiffany Hawkins claimed in a lawsuit that R. Kelly began a sexual relationship with her. She was the first person to ring the public alarm. She later went on to attempt suicide.

That was 31 years ago. 

For all of that time, we have allowed a sexual predator and his music into our homes, schools, clubs, graduations, birthday parties and weddings without a second thought about what we knew him to be doing to our children. 

Despite what society trains us to believe about Black kids, 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds are legally and mentally still children. 

Aaliyah was reportedly 12 when R. Kelly became her mentor and 15 when he married her. Black children at that age are just tiptoeing into the opaque waters of adulthood. They are new to all the twists and turns that their bodies and hormones are subjecting them to. They are humans, having the same confusing human experience of growing up that we all had. 

R. Kelly appears during a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago, Sept. 17, 2019.

Black girls deserve our community’s guidance and support during this difficult time in their lives. They deserve to be able to explore their sexuality in safe and healthy ways, instead of being preyed upon by grown men and made to feel shame at their newfound desires. They deserve to be seen as children—sacred, precious, and worthy of our collective protection. They deserve the same presumption of youth and innocence that white girls are afforded.

Instead, Black girls are sexualized and adultified in ways that lead to their violation and lifelong trauma. Sixty percent of Black girls are sexually molested before they are 18 years old. The vast majority of those abuses are never reported to the police. The abusers face no consequences. The survivors are blamed for being “hard-headed,” “fast” and are said to have “gotten what they were looking for” as if sexual and physical abuse by adults is the normal outcome of being a hormone-ridden teenager. 

Black girls deserve more. 

In 2002, the infamous videotape of R. Kelly sexually degrading a child flooded the collective consciousness of the nation, and child pornography charges were brought against the singer. R. Kelly used his limitless financial resources to drag the trial out for six years, allegedly hiding the victim’s family from prosecutors who were unable to make the case of the child’s minor status in their absence. 

During those six years, he released his wildly successful Trapped In The Closet album. The Black community sold out his tours all around the nation. The NAACP nominated him for an Image Award.

Despite his success and seemingly untouchable status, families had been coming forward since I myself was a child, asking for help in rescuing their loved ones from R. Kelly’s grasp. Young women have sued him multiple times seeking justice. Criminal cases have been filed. Masses of witnesses have come forward. 

Each and every time that R. Kelly bought and lawyered his way out of accountability, the Black community cheered him on like some outlaw folk hero in a movie. We labeled his survivors sluts and opportunists. We painted their parents as pimps and accomplices. 

The proverbial Pied Piper, he traveled the nation dazzling more victims with each note from his poisoned flute. This cycle continued for more than 30 years. 

Black girls deserve more. 

While we celebrated R. Kelly’s musical “genius,” Tiffany Hawkins, Tracy Sampson, Aaliyah Haughton, Patrice Jones, Lisa Van Allen, Jerhonda Pace, Lizzette Martinez, Andrea Kelly, Kanika “Kitti” Jones, Asante McGee, Dominique Gardner, Jovante Cunningham, Ebony Wilkins, Lanita Carter, Azriel Clary, Joycelyn Savage, and countless, unnamed others endured years of isolation from their friends and family, sexual abuse and degradation, unwanted pregnancies and losses, and soul-crushing, unending violence. 

For more than 30 years, the Black community financed R. Kelly’s sex trafficking of minors and young women all over the country with money made from radio spins, album sales, song downloads and concert tickets. 

What message did our unwavering support of R. Kelly send to the survivors of sexual abuse in our lives? To ourselves even? 

As the world laughed at the R. Kelly skit on the Dave Chappelle show, what did Black girls feel about their own culpability in any abuse they may have endured?  Maybe it was their fault for being naïve enough to believe that anyone, especially someone rich and famous, could actually love them. Maybe this was what one had to do to become a famous singer. Maybe Black girls don’t get to decide with whom and how we have sex. Maybe this is love. Maybe we did deserve everything we had gotten. Maybe we still do. 

Black girls deserve more. 

I have many internal conflicts over the R. Kelly sentencing. I am conflicted about the carceral state and my growing belief in prison abolition. I am conflicted about Black idols being publicly tarnished on the world stage. I am conflicted about some of the actions of some of the parties involved.

I am most conflicted, however, about the fact that Black girls—in this big age of 2022—still don’t get what we rightfully deserve as humans and as the builders and nurturers of our communities. 

We don’t get what we deserve in the courts. We don’t get it in our churches. We don’t get it at our jobs. We don’t get it in our relationships. We don’t get it in our homes.

Thirty years is not enough time. Not for R. Kelly and not for all of us. 

We know 30 years to be too short because we have watched R. Kelly rape children and brag about it in his music for more years than that and there are still large segments of our community that think he’s innocent. There are still social media debates about how he shouldn’t be blamed for “fast” women and the families preying on him for clout. There are still whole entire groups of Black women, many of whom are survivors of childhood sexual abuse by adult men, who blame R. Kelly’s child victims for the abuse they endured. 

There is a whole book that can be written on the lie of “if that was my daughter/mother/sister/aunt/cousin/friend, I would have killed him myself,” that echoes throughout my DMs despite Black women having the lowest rates of justice of any kind for sexual or physical abuse against them by Black men. 

We have debated R. Kelly in our barbershops and nail salons for more than 30 years and I bet you probably still couldn’t get a united conclusion from friends and family despite R. Kelly himself doing everything he could to flaunt his guilt short of stealing your particular child out of your particular living room. 

A 30-year sentence for crimes that will continue to deeply impact our entire community for God knows how long just simply isn’t enough. 

Black. Girls. Deserve. More.

Oronike Odeleye is an Arts Administrator in Atlanta.  She co-founded the #MuteRKelly movement in 2017 to advocate for the Black community’s divestment from disgraced singer, R. Kelly. 

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