The Real ‘Black Unicorns’ And R Kelly: A Victimless Crime

“My mind’s telling me no…but my body, my body’s telling me yes…” Bump and Grind – R Kelly 1993

Last week, Spotify took the *momentous* decision to stop promoting R. Kelly’s music (on featured playlists). I was stunned by the decision, because R. Kelly has done nothing wrong.

I mean, can you be wrong if your victims are invisible? R. Kelly long ago worked out that the value of  girls of colour in the first world is somewhere close to worthless. It is so obviously true that it has become a punchline.

And, lest we forget, he has been brazen about it. He ‘married’ Aaliyah in 1994 when she was 15. The next year he released the single ‘Down Low (Nobody Has To Know)’ with the chorus:

“And keep it on the down low, whispering nobody has to know (nobody, nobody)
We can keep it on the down low (yeah), whispering nobody has to know (nobody knows)”

It’s chilling. Also chilling? The video – I won’t link to it – which starts with Kelly being summoned for a conversation with an older man who asks him to ‘take care’ of his girl. He leaves Kelly a ‘pile of money’ and reminds him that ‘Lala…means everything to me’ and warns him ‘never, never to touch her’. Now imagine this is a father who is entrusting his daughter to Kelly because he believes that Robert is the best chance for his daughter to pursue her musical dreams – the words could be directly lifted from this scenario – and the video takes on a psychological horror quality, the likes of which Craven or Hitchcock would be proud of.

The reason I reference this song (I could have used a half-dozen) is because of its proximity to the Aaliyah controversy and the almost complete absence of reference to it when his eponymous second album was released. Reviewers actually credit him for producing such a good album saying “Kelly reshapes his personal turmoil to artistic benefit” and noted that Kelly is “reborn before our very own ears.” How could an abused teenager that had been groomed by an older man (and that is what Aaliyah was) be reduced to a man’s ‘personal turmoil’? Easy: girls of colour are invisible.

R. Kelly has made much out of the fact that he was abused as a boy and it is true that around a third of children who were abused go on to be abusers themselves, but, as Dr. Richard Krugman, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Colorado Medical School and director of the C. Henry Kempe Center for Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect points out, “There are substantial numbers of men and women who were abused as children, but who are not themselves child abusers, drug abusers, criminals or mentally disturbed.” In Kelly’s case it is the lack of any kind sanction for his behaviour as well as a denial of any kind of wrongdoing that is so galling, especially when you consider this, an act so heinous, and so forgotten that it is left to Jim DeRogatis, a hero by virtue of the fact that he has been consistent in highlighting the continuing abuses of Kelly, often in the face of overbearing apathy, to remind people that:

“You watch the video for which he was indicted and there is the disembodied look of the rape victim. He orders her to call him Daddy. He urinates in her mouth and instructs her at great length on how to position herself to receive his “gift.” It’s a rape that you’re watching. So we’re not talking about rock star misbehavior, which men or women can do. We’re talking about predatory behavior. Their lives were ruined.”

Oh, wait a second. Apple have joined Spotify in ceasing to promote Kelly’s music on featured playlists. Yeah! That will show him! You can abuse girls of colour for decades, but we will NOT, *squints* er, promote your music on our featured playlists. That sends a message!

The message is if your music is good enough and you hit the right targets, our society will turn a blind eye. And this is the wider point. You, dear reader, are complicit. As am I. If you have been at the club and asked for one of his songs to be played; if you have sung along to one of his jams; if you’ve engaged in a discourse that says ‘these girls know what they’re doing’; if you live in the US and remember Natalee Holloway but not Stephany Flores Ramirez (and I had to Google her); in the UK, if you can empathise with Kate McCann but not Doreen Lawrence: if you would call a woman of colour a ‘bitch’ or ‘ratchet’, but wouldn’t consider doing it to a white woman: if you do any of these things, you are part of the reason that R Kelly can get away with his actions.

Are some of those things worse than others? The second you start along that line of debate, you are wrong. It is the accumulation of hurt not the single incident that proves devastating in life. Arguing about degrees of pain is to suggest that some kinds of pain are invalid. We must recognise the role that society plays, from male mental health, to the abuse of women.

I called this blog ‘The Black Unicorn’ and talked about the reasons here. But the title is misleading. Unicorns that look like me have won Pulitzers, won more than a single best actress Oscar – hell, a unicorn like me was the President of the USA. The real mythical creatures, the truly magical ones, are women of colour. They are so mythical that you can abuse them for decades and get away with it. Because there is no crime if there is no victim. And women of colour are unicorns. And unicorns don’t exist.

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