“Free Press Summer Fest’s booking of R. Kelly, the R&B star who has been dogged by allegations of sexual improprieties for decades, is striking a sour note with some people on social media.” It’s with this kind of revisionist history that calls from Houston activists to pull singer R. Kelly—who by every account stalked and preyed upon an entire community of Black girls in Chicago (and God only knows where else)—as the headliner of Free Press Houston’s wildly popular Summer Fest are being met.
“Improprieties”? Impropriety suggests that one behaves without modesty, that s/he uses improper language or displays improper character in one’s actions. Documented sexual violence and predatory behavior is a far cry from impropriety, and herein lies the reason that we must do the work to stand and say “no” and “not on our watch” as Free Press Houston says yes to R. Kelly (and no to the ruined lives of Kelly’s victims, who have yet to receive the justice they deserve).
We will not stand idly by as Kelly is presented as some kind of bad boy of R&B who’s maybe at worst a Casanova who breaks hearts, or sings sexually explicit lyrics and bumps and grinds on stage. (The 48-year-old still does this, today, after countless documents have pointed to him sexually assaulting children.) There will be no sitting quietly as Kelly swoops into Houston and gets paid to sing about sex in the presence of families and what very well may be countless teenage girls.
Girls like the one victim who submitted a sworn affidavit chronicling her almost two-year sexual relationship with Kelly, “…who had been 14 or 15 when R. Kelly began a relationship with her… a sexual relationship that began at Kenwood Academy [a high school in Chicago].” According to the victim, Kelly would “… go to her sophomore [gospel choir] class and hook up with girls afterward and have sex with them. Sometimes buy them a pair of sneakers. Sometimes just letting them hang out in his presence in the recording studio.” Girls, not women. Many, many girls.
We will not, like many who are reading this and witnessing the movement around having R. Kelly removed from the festival’s lineup, argue that Kelly’s accusations of rape happened long ago. We will not join those who say we should be able to separate Kelly’s “transgressions” (as though he’s been accused of cheating on his wife or getting into public brawls with grown men).
We will not be silent, because our silence has not protected the many girls R. Kelly reportedly abused. Our silence failed to shield Aaliyah, who Kelly, by all accounts, married when she was 15 years old (allegedly because he feared she was pregnant). Our silence will not safeguard what could potentially be a great number of new victims for Kelly—because he’s never been punished for his crimes, never publicly atoned in any way for them, and has never offered the public any commentary on what actions he is taking to not remain a pedophile.
Silence has never, in fact, saved Black lives.
When we say “Black lives matter,” we don’t simply mean that Black people—all of them—should be able to survive in this country. We mean also that Black people, including girls like R. Kelly’s victims, should be able to move freely without fear of being hunted, without fear of sexual violence carried out against them as the world turns a blind eye to their pain.
Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that if we are silent about our pain, folks will kill us and say we enjoyed it. And isn’t that what we are saying about Kelly’s victims when we continue to support his performances? That they wanted to be raped? That they are responsible for their abuse, as the city of Cleveland claims Tamir Rice is responsible for his own murder? That if this was any. other. group. of. girls besides Black ones, R. Kelly would be under a jail in Chicago, and damn sure wouldn’t be singing about beating p*ssies up to an audience that will surely include women and girls?
What exactly is Free Press Houston (a news organization who has in the past stood against sex trafficking and supported the mission of Girls Rock Houston—the lead organizers asking them to cancel their R. Kelly booking) saying? They are saying that they don’t care about us, about the collective pain of Black girls, that they wish to deliver more injustice to Kelly’s victims. And they are saying these things loud and clear.
Josie Pickens is an educator, culture critic and soldier of love. Send her your love + relationship questions here. Also, follow her on Twitter @jonubian.