#MutingRKelly is about believing Black women

January 15, 2019

Maddie Fenn and Elizabeth Schulte explains how a new documentary Surviving R. Kelly has provided a platform to Black women survivors of sexual assault.

THE RISE of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in recent years have empowered survivors of sexual assault and rape to come forward against their abusers, regardless of how much more powerful or wealthy their abusers have been.

Earlier this year, the women of color in #TimesUp turned the spotlight on R&B artist R. Kelley, who several women have accused of sexual assault and abuse over decades. Using the hashtag #MuteRKelly, music industry figures like Shonda Rhimes came together with activists like Tarana Burke, who initiated the “Me Too” slogan more than a decade ago, to demand investigations into Kelly’s history of abuse.

Today, the #MuteRKelly campaign has a growing profile, demanding that Kelly’s label RCA Records, Spotify, Apple Music, venues and Ticketmaster cancel his contracts and concerts and refuse to host his music. A Lifetime six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, released on January 3, has given survivors of Kelly’s abuse another platform in which to speak out.

Andrea Kelly, who was married to Kelly until 2009, recently came forward to detail the physical, emotional and sexual abuse that went on throughout their 13-year marriage.

Protesters stand against sexual violence outside R. Kelly’s studio in Chicago
Protesters stand against sexual violence outside R. Kelly’s studio in Chicago

In an interview on The View, Andrea was asked if the #MeToo movement was what inspired her to come forward, and she responded that no, it was the testimony of another survivor of R. Kelly’s abuse that encouraged her to speak out about the atrocities that she faced.

In the interview, Andrea made it clear that speaking out wasn’t an attempt to gain notoriety or money — as many public survivors of abuse have been accused of doing — saying, “There is not enough money in the world for any woman to stay.”

Andrea continued to speak out in Surviving R. Kelly and after, even after the premiere of the docuseries in New York City was reportedly canceled after gun threats were made.

ALLEGATIONS AGAINST the Grammy-winning artist began to come to the surface in 1994, when Kelly married 15-year-old Aaliyah, who had met Kelly when she was 12 years old.

In 2008, he was acquitted of 14 child pornography charges despite a video that prosecutors said showed him having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Numerous reports of abuse and assault have been brought against Kelly and settled outside of court. Kelly has been acquitted of all charges against him.

Kelly and his younger brother have both come forward to say they are survivors of childhood sexual assault from a family member, and Kelly has stated in interviews that sexual abuse is a “generational curse.”

Kelly’s response to the 25 years of alleged abuse, assault and molestation was released in a single titled “I Admit” in July 2018, in which Kelly stated, “I don’t know what else to say except I’m so falsely accused, tell me how you can judge when you’ve never walked in my shoes.”

#MuteRKelly has exposed the fact that not only did no authority take the survivors of R. Kelley’s abuse seriously, but there are millions more Black women whose stories of sexual abuse and harassment who face the same indifference.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) report, The Status of Black Women in the U.S, Black women are more likely to experience rape than women overall and wo and a half times more likely to be murdered by a man than white women.

At the same time, Black women survivors of abuse are more likely not to find justice but to become the targets of the criminal justice system. Almost 60 percent of female state prisoners across the country, and as many as 94 percent of certain female prison populations, have experienced physical or sexual abuse, according to the IWPR report.

Transgender and gender non-conforming people of color also face disproportionately high rates of harassment, physical assault and sexual assault at the hands of police.

The history of systematic sexual and physical violence against Black women has deep roots in the U.S., from the days of slavery in the U.S., when sexual violence perpetrated by slave owners was routine.

This can’t be separated from the abuse that Black men faced. As historian Thomas Foster points out in an article, while the facts have not been widely reported, records show numerous instances of the sexual abuse of Black boys and men, flying in the face of the tendency to define rape and sexual assault narrowly along gendered lines.

In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis developed the idea that sexual assault isn’t just a women’s issue, but must at the same time take up the question of racism in U.S. So for instance, during slavery, “Rape was a weapon of domination, a weapon of repression whose covert role was to extinguish slave women’s will to resist, and in the process, to demoralize their men.”

CRITICS OF Surviving R. Kelly voiced their concerns even before its release that the docuseries might bring more attention to Kelly, turning the focus away from his crimes and the survivors who are coming forward.

But since its release, there has been renewed interest in the #MuteRKelly campaign, and some high-profile figures — such as Lady Gaga, who collaborated with Kelly on “Do What U Want” — have been forced to step up and stand with survivors of Kelly’s abuse and disavow Kelly.

The growth of the #MeToo movement has raised feminist consciousness and the demand for accountability from powerful figures has been put at the forefront of mainstream media. It’s necessary that we stand in solidarity with movements for justice for survivors.

Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, has consistently emphasized that the overlapping circumstances of abuse against Black women must be connected to address this system of oppression as a whole.

For 25 years, Kelly has targeted underaged, poor and vulnerable Black girls and women because Kelly, like many serial abusers and rapists, know that the criminal justice systems will not protect or save the same people these systems are designed to oppress.

As Eva María and Leela Yellesetty wrote at SocialistWorker.org: “Socialists and radicals should seek to stand in solidarity with this movement every step of the way even as we engage in debates about next steps forward and push to expand its horizons rather than limit them.”

Until we are able to believe Black women, Black men and Black gender-nonconforming individuals, the fight against sexual assault and gendered oppression will be held back from growing and achieving the necessary demands for accountability and justice that all survivors deserve.

The 1974 Combahee River Collective statement expresses this need for addressing racism when addressing sexism under capitalism:

We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of Black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.

To expand the horizons of the #MuteRKelly movement, it is necessary that we first recognize that Kelly is not the only perpetrator of violence against the survivors who have come forward to share their stories.

Unarmed Black people are killed by the police at alarming rates, so the criminal justice system offers no solutions but only more problems when the risk of being killed by the institution meant to protect is higher than that of staying with an abuser. The cases of Marissa Alexander and Cyntoia Brown, who were put in jail after acting in self-defense, illustrate this point.

Black survivors of sexual assault aren’t just now coming forward — in the 25 years that have led to this docuseries being released, survivors of Kelly’s abuse have routinely stepped forward and tried to take action.

Socialists and radicals must stand with the #MeToo, #TimesUp and #MuteRKelly movements and act in solidarity with survivors, organizers, and activists. As Audre Lorde said in The Uses of Anger, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

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