R. Kelly Was Every Grown Man Who Hung Out at My High School
Amid the news earlier this week that R. Kelly's attorney, publicist, and assistant quit, there was speculation that the sexual predator would finally get his comeuppance. I don't know if anyone still has any hope that he'll face any legal consequences for his decades of abusing black girls and young women, but maybe this time the departure of his team might signal that R. Kelly might finally be on the way to being canceled. But probably not. Despite that fact that everyone has known for decades who and what this man is about, people still buy tickets to his shows and plenty of people still step in the name of love. (In fact, earlier this month the minister at the church where I was attending my godson's dedication teased his very Baptist congregation by saying something like, "Alright, don't make me start playing some R. Kelly in here!" The congregation laughed. I muttered under my breath, "Really? That nigga pees on people's children." Apparently I was loud enough for the congregants in front of me to cast a disapprovingly Jesus-y side-eye in my direction. Reason #1237 why I want nothing to do with anybody's church.) Anyway, for whatever reason, and we know what that reason is, there are entirely too many people in this world who still embrace that awful human being.
My initial reaction, beyond who on earth are these people who willingly work for R. Kelly in 2018, and I don't even want to know what happened that made them finally decide that being on Team Kells was too much for them, (I mean, for chrissake, the man was knowingly filmed peeing in a child's mouth!) was: I knew before there were rumors. I don't mean that I'm psychic, and there were rumors in Chicago long before the whispers made it to the national grapevine. Remember, this was pre-social media, and I'm from the back woods of southwest Georgia.
What I mean is, I knew the minute I picked up Aaliyah's first CD in the spring of 1994, the tail end of my senior year in high school. I knew because her album cover, with her in the foreground and him blurred out in the background staring creepily at her "unbeknownst" to her, reminded me of all the grown men who hung around my high school. (And let's not start on the male teachers who everyone knew was sexually abusing students.) In fact, Aaliyah looked like she could have been standing outside my high school. Also, there was something about the way, in an interview a few months later, when she described Kells as her "best friend in the whole world"* that confirmed it for me. Beyond the general absurdity of a teenage girl being "best friends" with a grown man who is unrelated to her, I recognized the verbiage. I recognized her preemptive excuse-making for an inexcusable "relationship," evidence of grooming so subtle she never would have understood it as such. I hadn't understood it as it was happening. I recognized the body language--a little too intimate to be innocently casual. The kind of interaction that is just "off" enough to raise the hairs on the arms of one who might notice that kind of thing, but innocent enough to make the observer put it out of mind.
I knew because being pursued by predatory grown men was damn near a rite of passage in my community. It was almost unremarkable, except when it came time to label those teenage girls "fast." Because this particular form of sexual abuse was so common, it didn't register in my mind that the "relationship" between Kells and Aaliyah wasn't ok. It was even "normal." I didn't stop being an R. Kelly fan in 1994 or '95 or even '96, even though I sensed what I sensed. I won't jump in my time machine and pretend otherwise. Now, I look back on those years and feel appalled in ways that teenage me was too naive to be.
My point is that some of us didn't need the rumors to know what this man was. We knew it long before he began taunting everyone by describing himself as "The Pied Piper of R&B." Yet, many of us will never disclose how or why we recognized the signs.
*Ironically, the possibility of their romantic involvement comes up in the interview and neither interviewer is horrified at the prospect. In fact, like Kells and Aaliyah, they laugh it off.