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R. Kelly’s stardom shouldn’t have blinded us to the truth

As with Bill Cosby, we can’t let the excuse of saving black men keep us from doing what’s right


Last year, Bill Cosby’s crimes finally caught up to him.

The icon whose clean comedy about his adventures in African-American fatherhood was outed as a dirty old man who had, for decades, been drugging women and having sex with them while they were incapacitated. But last September, Cosby was convicted of the 2004 sexual assault of Andrea Constand and sentenced to three to 10 years in prison.

Many African-Americans weren’t having it, though.

Cosby’s legal team decried his conviction as a public lynching, and many of his defenders agreed. Some saw it as a racist plot to destroy the legacy of a black man who spent his life trying to uplift the black community. Others saw it as a conspiracy concocted by white people who were trying to stop Cosby from buying NBC, an idea that was floated in 1992 but never took off. Then there were those who blamed Cosby’s accusers for being alone with him at his house. To them, the women should have known better, not him.

Now, it looks like the crimes of R. Kelly, the rhythm and blues singer who brought us “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Step in the Name of Love,” may finally be catching up to him.

In the recent docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which aired on Lifetime, women talked about how Kelly beat and choked them, held them and others hostage to the point where they had to beg him for food, and groomed girls as young as 14 to serve him sexually.

The documentary, executive produced by dream hampton, also revisited Kelly’s 2008 trial on child pornography charges over a 2002 videotape in which he urinated in the mouth of a 14-year-old and committed other sexual acts. The charges were dismissed when jurors couldn’t decide whether the girl in the video was underage, and the girl believed to be the victim refused to testify.

It featured parents of girls who had allowed Kelly to help them with their careers, only to see their girls cut off all contact with them — presumably per his orders.

Now, it looks like the docuseries might have nudged the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, where Kelly has a home, to investigate him.

But, as it was with Cosby, Kelly’s defenders are saying that someone other than him should have known better.

There are those, such as the rapper Master P, who blame the parents for allowing their daughters to be around Kelly. Or to travel with Kelly after he promised them he would help them in their musical careers. They also continue to portray the #MuteRKelly Twitter campaign as a “public lynching” of the singer.

Lynching, it seems, has become the go-to hyperbole to incite black people’s emotions, and not reason, over the plight of famous black men who, for all intents and purposes, put their own heads in that hypothetical noose.

Yet the one thing that defenders of Cosby and Kelly have in common is that, for some reason, they believe that protecting black men who make us laugh, or make us dance, or whose talent exemplifies black excellence in a world where many black men feel doomed, is more important than protecting the women whose lives they shatter.

Some evidence points to why this is.

A 2004 study on domestic abuse published in the Oxford Academic journal Health & Social Work found that African-Americans believe racism is a bigger problem than sexism, a belief that fuels an expectation for black women to be silent when it comes to calling out black men for abusive behavior.

To speak out means putting African-American men at the mercy of a criminal justice system that is stacked against them — and would make black women complicit in the destruction of a community that is already under siege by racism and other woes.

“As black people, we don’t always feel comfortable surrendering ‘our own’ to the treatment of a racially biased police state …,” wrote Feminista Jones, a New York social worker and feminist, in a 2014 Time magazine article. “And when we do speak out or seek help, we too often experience backlash from members of our community who believe we are airing out dirty laundry and making ourselves look bad in front of White people.”

So, instead of being outraged over Cosby raping and drugging black and white women alike, his supporters ask when white men such as Harvey Weinstein — or, for that matter, President Donald Trump — will go to prison.

Instead of being outraged over Kelly urinating on a 14-year-old girl and continuing to groom girls for sexual exploitation even after his acquittal in 2008, his supporters ask when or whether Lifetime will air a documentary on Weinstein or Trump.

Cleveland, for example, is just figuring out that it may have a serial killer problem because since 2004, nearly 61 women have been murdered. Anthony Sowell managed to kill 11 black women in his neighborhood during the late 2000s before he was finally caught. And other women are still turning up dead.

#TimesUp for that ridiculousness.

What they should be asking is why Cosby betrayed his own trust with the black community by preying on women who trusted him, women who saw him as a mentor but for whom he became a monster.

What they should be asking is why Kelly did the same thing by finding underage fans to use as props for his perversions when he could have helped them improve their lives.

And most of all, they should realize that whether or not Weinstein ever faces justice for preying on women, African-Americans must begin to value the lives of black girls over the black men like Kelly who use their fame as a license to debase them.

They should see to it that black girls, girls who are already more vulnerable to being exploited and viewed as being older and less innocent than white girls, are protected.

Tonyaa J. Weathersbee is a multiple award-winning columnist and multimedia journalist now based in Memphis, Tennessee. To learn more about her work, go to www.tonyaajweathersbee.com.