Unpacking: Surviving R. Kelly

what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.

This week, I’d like to shed light on the popular docu-series, Surviving R. Kelly. On January 3rd, the premiere of the three-night showing kicked off and broke new records for the Lifetime Television Network. According to Vanity Fair, 1.9 million viewers tuned into the premiere, which peaked at Lifetime’s highest ratings across every category in the past two years. The documentary was very informative in detailing countless allegations of sexual abuse against R. Kelly, a pioneer in the music industry. Celebrities such as John Legend, Tom Joyner, Wendy Williams, and Sparkle were featured sharing their thoughts on the allegations. Several survivors of Kelly’s abuse over a span of approximately two decades, including his ex-wife Andrea Kelly, were featured sharing their experiences. Naturally, this docu-series became a trending topic and created a stir of conversation on social media. Now that we have watched something so disturbing, yet enlightening – what do we do with this information?

I have read many tweets and posts claiming that if R. Kelly does not go to jail, the documentary was a waste and is further damaging the African-American music culture. I strongly disagree in that I feel it is our job to now unpack the lessons that can be learned from watching each episode. One of the largest takeaways from the documentary was that those who stand by and watch are just as guilty as the abuser. Throughout the documentary several former and current members of R. Kelly’s team came forward admitting that they had aided in introducing underage girls to Kelly at some point or another. One quote that stood out to me particularly was when Andrea Kelly said,” I’m not trying to be funny – you don’t read and write well. So, who’s booking these flights? Who’s telling the driver to go pick people up?” This line specifically, lead me to think about the amount of people that perpetuate abuse and rape culture. I began to think about my own personal experiences with this type of behavior.

One incident that stood out to me took place about two years ago. A girlfriend of mine had invited me to party for a specific fraternity. Not ten minutes after I walked into the party – I was picked up, groped, and bitten by a man I had never seen before. While I was familiar with the juvenile behaviors associated with the fraternity (based on my on-campus experience during undergrad), I was shocked by what this man had done because this was a mature event! I screamed and cursed at him to be put down – he all but threw me to the floor. I fell to the ground, twisting my ankle in my heels. Immediately, another member of the fraternity rushed to me and swooped me up in his arms. He carried me outside to his car, removed my heels, and gave me some slides from his trunk to wear. I explained to him how badly I wanted to go home but couldn’t because I didn’t drive. With no hesitation he told me to get in the car and drove me 45 minutes to my home. After getting me there safely, he left.  Upon receiving a “check-in” text from him in the morning, I couldn’t help but feel like he was an exceptionally nice guy. He had been so kind to me and didn’t seem to expect anything from me.

After watching Surviving R. Kelly, I realize now how the behavior of this man perpetuated the actions of his frat brother who had essentially assaulted me. In hindsight – while this man took good care of me, in the process he never once addressed his friend who had done something wrong. The reality is, he knew the actions of his friend were inappropriate because had he not, he would have never rushed to my side. The person I considered to be a hero in that moment was actually a cowardly bystander. Incidents like this help me to understand how men such as R. Kelly potentially got away with abusing underage girls. I believe that it is our responsibility to speak up about the injustices and wrongdoings of others which we are aware of. Wouldn’t you want someone to advocate with and for you? We have all seen the successes and accomplishments of people joining movements that help to get voices heard (Ex. #BlackLivesMatter). I ask you today – who do you want to be? Do you aid in the change or the sustain of what has brought us here?


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