The six-part Surviving R. Kelly docu-series that aired on Lifetime this month has been a ratings gem for the network. The intense series dug into the embattled singer’s thirty-year career and personal life to uncover a world of pedophilia, family crisis and celebrity manipulation. So Our Youth Aspire (SOYA), as a resource for parents, educator and those who work with youth, wanted to engage in the conversation that the series has sparked. So, we have created a series ourselves that is called “Surviving the R. Kelly Docu-Series”.
This third conversation is between me, SOYA’s founder Khadijah Ali-Coleman, and two mothers of Black children, Tichaona Chinyelu and Maura Alia Badji. I met Tichaona in 2008 online when we both were part of an online community called Sojournals, created by digital creator Kelli Anderson. We later collaborated artistically on a few volumes in Liberated Muse’s anthology series and have shared a friendship that revolves around parenting, homeschooling, the arts and politics concerning Black people. We’ve met up in person a few times over our ten-year relationship that has been borne and grown through our social media communication.
I met Maura online about four years and we have shared conversation around writing, growing up as an ethically ambiguous-looking Black person and parenting. All three of us are raising teenagers who are similar in age. I have a daughter and both Maura and Tichaona are raising young men.
This conversation was the most personal and in-depth. I would like to thank both women for their honesty and willingness to participate in this conversation with me.
SOYA: Did you watch the Surviving R. Kelly docu-series?
Tichaona: No, I didn’t.
Maura: I watched the first night. I had to teach online the other nights. I’m debating whether to see the rest. I’ve read media reviews, and the posts some of my friends have shared, so I’m aware of the content of the other episodes.
SOYA: I started watching the day after it started. My partner and I DVR’d it. I watched the final four episodes in one sitting. Why didn’t you watch it, Tichaona?
Tichaona: I just wasn’t interested because I’m somewhat in flux about how he should be dealt with and I think the whole anti-R. Kelly movement wants people to feel only one way about how he should be dealt with.
Maura: I watched the first night of the series because I wanted to hear from the women he had victimized when they were girls, and I wanted to hear from people who were close to him.
SOYA: I watched it because I was curious about what it would focus on. I had been disgusted with R. Kelly for at least 10 years now and am always amazed he is a touring and still viable artist given what he has done. I was not prepared to learn that there was so much more to this story. I thought I knew some things, and, really, I knew nothing.
What were some of your thoughts about R. Kelly before you watched the series?
Before watching, I knew about the tape with him urinating on a young girl. I knew about the recent allegations regarding a sex cult. I didn’t really know anything else. I had decided about 13 years ago that I was not going to play his music or support events he was performing at because I was very unsettled by the tape (even though I never watched it myself).
Tichaona: Well, I didn’t watch the series. My feelings on him are muddled but I’m going to be honest and say this with the hope that it doesn’t cause folks to withdraw from me. On the one hand, one of his albums provided some desperately needed sunshine when I was living in Springfield, IL and there are positive memories attached to my listening to it. What gets privileged? What gets reconciled or cleaved? And in either, the reconciling or cleaving, what does that say about me. So I’m navigating while still trying to stay true to my experiences.
Maura: By the time I became aware of this documentary I was completely disgusted and enraged by R. K.’s behavior, how he worked to discredit his victims, and also how his employees, associates, fellow celebrities, and fans defended him no matter what he did. I also wondered where in the world these young girls’ parents were–especially those of the very young girl in the infamous “pee tape”. I was aware that someone in her family had brought her to Kelly’s attention, but I didn’t know who. My feelings on R. Kelly are also informed by my experiences as a survivor of child sexual abuse, predatory older men (including some friends and associates of my parents), sexual assault as a teen, and domestic violence as an adult woman.
SOYA: I wondered the same thing, Maura. I totally wondered about the parents and I had a hard time feeling empathy with one set of parents that admitted to signing over their guardianship to an unnamed record label person they did not know. I also had to reconcile a lot of my own feelings borne from experiences where I have had to dodge around the inappropriate behavior of grown men as a child. I have multiple experiences of being sexualized as a child.
Tichaona, I don’t know if I view this attention on R. Kelly as an issue of privilege as I think of it as a matter of knowing better, choosing better. We know only so much, but, as we learn more about people and their character, I feel we are more informed to determine what we support, promote and allow into our space.
Were you ever a fan?
Tichaona: Yes, when I was younger but, of everything he put out, It was that one album mentioned earlier.
Maura: I’m a bit older than you two, so I was 30 and married when he first came on the scene. I was a casual listener of R. Kelly’s; I felt he was talented, but would never call him a genius, as his defenders do.
SOYA: Yes, that is actually startling to hear so many people say throughout the documentary.
Maura: It seemed to me he often went for shock value; after a few years I thought he was seriously sex-obsessed with respect to his material. (I also thought his “Trapped In the Closet” song was ridiculous.) Then as reports of his behavior at concerts and towards young women began to surface I began to recoil from him in general. I was a fan of Aaliyah’s and I was horrified he had married her when she was 15. Again–where were the parents?!
SOYA: I was a reluctant fan. I thought he copied the style of Guy and Aaron Hall a lot when he first came out, but, I was a teen in college when he came out and his music was popular. If you watched it, were there some triggering elements in the series that you didn’t expect to be triggered by? If so, which ones?
Maura: Although, as I mentioned earlier, I am a survivor of child sexual abuse, inappropriate attention of predatory older men (including some friends and associates of my parents), sexual assault as a teen, and domestic violence as an adult woman, I put myself into therapy at age 17, and several other times, including after surviving domestic violence. I thought I had done enough inner work that I would not be triggered by the Kelly documentary. I was wrong. Like Khadijah, the complicity of the men around him, including the man who helped him fraudulently marry an underage Aaliyah, horrified me. It became worse; as each woman spoke of his systematic approach to abusing them I began to feel anxiety in my body. I stood up, stretched, and did some deep breathing so I could remain calm and keep watching. I recognized Kelly’s approach as similar to that of my ex-fiance. Early stages included intense attention, love-bombing, goofy humor, kindness, romance. Then came control, manipulation, gaslighting, emotional abuse and then sexual and physical abuse.
In addition to feeling triggered, I became increasingly angry as it became clear that many people have always known what Kelly has been doing. He has been, and continues to be, surrounded by people who aid and cover for his abusive and illegal behavior.
SOYA: Some of the most triggering parts was hearing the men who worked for him talk about how they helped him get the young girls or tell their own impressions of what was happening. It made my skin crawl because it let me know that R. Kelly was able to be successful in his predatory ways because he surrounded himself with men who were no better. It was frightening.
Has this series or R. Kelly prompted you to have any type of conversation with your children around some of the themes brought up in the series?
Tichaona: Nope. Neither the series or R. Kelly inspired me to have any type of conversation with my son. I live in America. I’ve told my son routinely that my biggest fears where he is concerned are pedophiles and pigs. I told him early on that no one, not even me, has the right to touch him if he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t have to hug people, etc. etc.
SOYA: I feel you, Tichaona. I feel like that has been my message to my daughter, too, since birth.
Maura: Yes, it seems like the three of us are in alignment with our messages to our children. Like Khadijah’s daughter, my 15 year old son knows that R. Kelly’s music is a no go for our family. He understands Kelly is a pedophile and someone who abuses girls and women. He too was shocked the filmmakers went forward knowing they might be sued. And like Tichaona, I schooled my son about avoiding predators and anyone who attempted inappropriate behavior. I never pushed him to hug or be affectionate with anyone, not even family. I’ve also spoken to him about speaking up to me if he sees or becomes aware of any of his friends being abused. Sadly, when he was in fourth grade, one of his friends confided in him about being abused by her mother’s boyfriend. He came to me with it and I anonymously reported it. I also confidentially reported it to the school social worker. I’m heartbroken to say this little girl wound up pregnant; she became a mother at age 12.
SOYA: That is heartbreaking. I was a community program worker as my early career and had more times than I care to admit where I had to call social services to report this type of abuse regarding family members violating children in my program. I also have a cousin who had a child at 12 by an older person. This type of predatory behavior has been a bane to our community before and since R. Kelly and the conversation I am seeing is finally acknowledging that.
Maura: When I’ve worked in the community, as an early childhood special educator, and as a migrant tutor/advocate, I discovered just how much heartbreak our hearts can take and keep going. As a mandated reporter I’ve witnessed evidence of abuse, had children confide in me how they’ve been abused, and had to report all manner of abuses. I’ve also met and served a surprising number of underage single mothers. In many cases, I was not the only adult aware of the abuse. I think our community must have more transparent conversations about protecting our children from predators, within and outside our families.
SOYA: I asked my daughter yesterday if she had ever recalled me allowing R. Kelly music in the house. She said that for as long as she has been alive (she is 15) she only remembers being told that R. Kelly music is not allowed on the radio, tv or any devices and being told why. She said she has grown up knowing that R. Kelly is a pedophile. But, she said she was shocked that the documentary was made while he was still alive. She was shocked that the filmmakers weren’t afraid to get sued. Ironically, R. Kelly announced yesterday through another person that he is suing everyone in the documentary.
As mothers raising Black children, what do you think our responsibility is in terms of discussing rape and sexual assault with our children? I think we need to be vigilant in ways that we don’t often think about. It is not just about being wary of your child associating with grown people who seem inappropriate. It is about being observant of your teen friends who do not make good choices.
In the documentary, one of the young women who was held hostage had met him when she was 17. She had been introduced to him by another teen who managed to get away herself. I think it is our responsibility to talk with our children about how to protect themselves, but, also, how to not be perpetrators or enablers of this type behavior if we are aware that it is happening.
Tichaona: I think it’s beyond crucial. I put the concept “no means no” in my son’s brain before I even put any context to it. I’ve also demonstrated, over the years, that people should look out for one another.
Maura: Yes and Yes! As mothers of Black children we have to balance being vigilant, sometimes hypervigilant, about the safety of our children, with allowing them to BE children. Too often, the world sees our children as adults before they are even in their teens. Behavior that is brushed off as youthful pranks in white children is criminalized in Black children. And–both our boys and girls are sexualized beyond their years.
I introduced my son to the concept of “no means no” and “stranger danger”, very early on. I did not allow sleepovers, and play-dates were only allowed when I knew his friends’ parents. Now that he’s older he does go to parties, but only if his friends have at least one parent will be there. Amazingly, I have had other parents judge me as “overprotective” and “strange”.
SOYA: Me, too!
Maura: As a survivor of multiple instances of sexual abuse, the fact that my child has never been interfered with means quite a lot to me. The cycle of abuse has been broken.
SOYA: I feel you so much on this. I think so often on how I am so glad that my daughter was able to make it to 15 without being sexually or physically abused. It is actually pretty sad that we have to look at that as a milestone.
Maura: Absolutely, Khadijah! I’ve also taught him to be observant of the bad choices his friends may make, and also to look out or his friends. He has had several friends who engaged in inappropriate online communication with adults; in two cases he was successful in getting his friends to stop. In another instance, when he was 13 he asked me to talk to a younger friend who was posing as an older teen online and engaging in explicit conversation with an adult.
SOYA: What do you think needs to happen (or happen more often) regarding justice and advocacy for Black victims of rape and sexual assault? I definitely think that some penalty needs to be in place for enablers and people like those who worked for R. Kelly and went to get the young girls from the school or knew what he was doing and didn’t do anything. It is difficult to think of exactly how that would look because our justice system is racist and patriarchal in nature and somehow, I feel, any law created haphazardly would do more harm than good. But, that is where I would attack first because I don’t think this behavior happens without someone else being aware.
Tichaona: I think this is where I start to diverge from the anti-R.Kelly movement. It makes me uncomfortable, not because I revere R. Kelly, but because it seems Klannish behavior: “we’re gonna salt the earth with you so nothing you ever do will ever grow”. Hurt people hurt people. I know it’s saccharine but it’s also true. As a growing believer in transformative justice, I don’t see any transformational processes in place in this movement. If the earth is salted with R. Kelly, does that mean his extremely foul behavior is going to stop? I honestly don’t think so. It would just be out of the spotlight, where the majority of these antisocial behaviors happen.
I used to say political education can take many forms. I don’t think we’ve found the right form just yet but it shouldn’t be based on oppressive methodology.
SOYA: I have tried to wrap my brain around what could be restorative and it is hard to imagine when I perceive him as a narcissist and his behavior as not being an issue of a one-time event, but, a pattern of behavior. I think a forgiving and blind culture has created this type of predator and a penalty would change behavior.
Maura: I have taken my time to get to this question as the current state of affairs is so disturbing. There are a couple levels to my answer—what is to be done about justice and advocacy for Black victims of rape and sexual assault, and what is to be done about R. Kelly and more importantly, his victims?
I believe anyone who comes into contact with Black (and I include all POC here) victims of rape and sexual assault need focused sensitivity training. Yes, I believe all police officers, officers of the court, legal advocates, ER workers, doctors, nurses, etc need to understand that Black victims of rape and sexual violence need to be treated with dignity, understanding, and actually heard. This is an intersectional issue in that all victims of rape/sexual assault are not routinely believed, treated well, or with sensitivity. Yet, Black people and POC are treated worse, are not believed more often, to the point where it is a miracle any victims come forward. If you are not believed or protected by your family and the greater community, why would you subject yourself to what awaits you at the ER or the police station or the witness stand?
I believe legal, medical, and community advocacy is a necessary addition to making sure Black victims of rape and sexual abuse receive care and justice. There are some rape crisis centers, domestic violence non-profits, and local legal advocates across the country. We need many, many more.
And at the educational, proactive level we need to do a better job, community-wide and at home, of teaching about consent, personal agency, self-respect, respecting others, and how to prevent rape and sexual abuse. Lofty goals, yes—but worth struggling to achieve.
As for R. Kelly—he should have been prosecuted, found guilty, and punished decades ago. He has been allowed to thrive, perfect his methods of abuse, and thrive while leaving a trail of broken and diminished lives behind him. He has been enabled by those around him to the point of becoming monstrous. All of his victims are Black and Latina girls/ women; if any of them were white he’d be in jail. Or dead.
Would restorative justice work for R. Kelly? I don’t know. My understanding of pedophilia, through reading/study is that it is near impossible to cure it. However, it seems it is possible for them to stop acting on their preferences. I refer to the quote:
“The best treatments we have available for pedophiles help them develop the skills they need to live a healthy, offense-free life and, in some cases, to block their sex drives (if they feel it would help them). We have not yet found a way to convert pedophiles into non-pedophiles that are any more effective than the many failed attempts to convert gay men and lesbians into heterosexuals.”
— James Cantor, Ph.D., an international expert on pedophilia, to answer some common questions. Dr. Cantor is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and the editor-in-chief of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment.
Tichaona, I will never turn away from you for your thinking on R. Kelly, but I do not agree with you. I do not see or hear a call for justice as people wanting to salt the earth with him. I do not see the call for his music to be boycotted as clannish behavior; in fact, I see the squads of people caping for him and disparaging his victims as engaging in displaying clannish behavior.
“Hurt people hurt people” is a well-known saying, but it doesn’t hold the full truth. As children, we often don’t have the maturity or education to do better than what has been done to us. But as adults, adults who have been repeatedly confronted by our harmful behaviors, we have a choice to change. We have a choice to do better. Not all hurt people hurt people. Some of us grow up to protect ourselves and others. Some of us vow to do better; some of us vow to make a difference for ourselves and our communities. I have seen this happen with people at all levels of resources and incomes. It isn’t the easy path but it can be done.
What are your thoughts? Add them in the comment section below and join the conversation…
Maura Alia Badji is a poet/writer and teacher based in Virginia Beach, VA
Tichaona Chinyelu is a mother and writer based in Cambridge, MA
Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is the founder of So Our Youth Aspire (SOYA) and is a multi-media strategist and professional creative who has built an expansive interdisciplinary career as a professional in higher education, media, student development and the arts. She is also a homeschooling mom. Her new children’s book Mariah’s Maracas is now on sale.