A racial milestone for MeToo: Black activists who ended decades of impunity for soul star R. Kelly

The guilty verdict for nine crimes of sexual abuse, human trafficking and organized crime, which can mean for the singer R. Kelly (Chicago, 54 years) a jail sentence of between 10 years and a life sentence, marks something more than the fall of an idol of soul . The ruling has also been interpreted as a conquest for black women in the United States, protagonists for the first time in an enormously media trial, and as a racial milestone for the Me Too movement.

The jury did not hesitate too much: nine hours of deliberation were enough after listening for five weeks 45 testimonies about how a powerful man used his fame to, with the help of his collaborators, weave a web of abuses, often committed with minors, such as those described by Jane, not her real name, who alleged that the musician, with whom she had a five-year relationship that began when she was a teenager, forced her to have sex with strangers, that she had to ask permission to move from her room and that was forced to abort. Stories of kidnappings and threats with weapons were also heard in the room, which the defense defined as “fictitious constructions” of fans with a “craving for money and fame.”

R. Kelly a la salida de un juzgado de Chicago en 2019.
R. Kelly outside a Chicago courthouse at 2019. Amr Alfiky (AP)

Jerhonda Pace, another of the 11 plaintiffs, two men and nine women, was the first to publicly testify against the musician after decades of complaints. After the New York court ruling was known, on Monday he posted on his Instagram account a text titled My voice has been heard today : “For years, they harassed me for speaking of the abuses suffered at the hands of that predator. They called me a liar, they said I had no proof. Or that he was doing it for money. It has not been easy, but I have succeeded. ”

The slowness reported by Pace has sparked a debate in the United States. Has the sentence taken so long to arrive because the victims were black women and girls? “Without any doubt”, says in a telephone conversation Kalimah Johnson, founder does 25 years of the SASHA Center in Detroit, dedicated to helping victims of sexual assaults like the one she suffered. “There is an assumption in this country that we are not to be trusted, a congenital racism that refuses to believe black women when they report sexual assault. It comes from the days of slavery, when black and white men raped us with impunity. Today, the testimony of one of us is mistrusted just because she is black. The media, music or cinema have to do with it, fields that fertilize the negative archetypes. They put us into one of two categories: either we are insatiable beings always ready for sex, or monsters incapable of experiencing pleasure. There is no middle ground. ”

There is a congenital racism in the US that refuses to believe black women when they report a sexual assault ”

Kalimah Johnson, Therapist

Johnson, who received the news “with satisfaction” on Monday, distrusts the penalty that the judge will impose on the singer (“knowing our system, I doubt very much that is the maximum ”) and is quick to make it clear that he does not believe that“ justice and reparation necessarily go hand in hand, nor that this ruling is sufficient to relieve the people for whom attacked. That kind of trauma requires a job for life, regardless of whether the guy goes to jail or not. ”

La abogada Gloria Allred, letrada de algunas de las demandantes de Kelly, comparece tras conocerse el veredicto de culpabilidad del cantante el pasado lunes en Nueva York.
The attorney Gloria Allred, Some of Kelly’s plaintiffs appear after hearing the singer’s guilty verdict last Monday in New York. Brittainy Newman (AP)

The activist, who has attended His association with several young victims of the musician whose cases he cannot detail, has been collaborating from the beginning with Oronike Odeleye, co-founder of the #MuteRKelly (Silence R. Kelly) campaign, which she has organized since 2017 demonstrations and boycotts of the singer in concerts, radio and digital platforms. One of its volunteers was shown this Wednesday in conversation with this newspaper “overwhelmed by so much media attention.” Odeleye told The New York Times: “It is the end of a long road for the voices of so many women to be heard. We have never fully owned our bodies. We are no longer willing to pay the double toll of being women and black in the United States. ”

Historically, these women have been blamed for the violence they suffered ”

Rebecca Epstein, Attorney

“Historically, not only have these testimonies been doubted, but those women have been blamed for the violence they suffered, basis of sexualizing and dehumanizing them to the point of making them accomplices of their suffering. I hope things change with this verdict, although there is still a lot of work to be done ”, explains to EL PAÍS Rebecca Epstein, director of the Law Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University, in Washington, which published in 2011 a study that concluded that black girls were perceived in the United States as more adult and more “sexually savvy” than white. “The most significant differences were found in the age ranges that span middle childhood and early adolescence —five to nine years old and from 10 to 14 years— and continued to a lesser degree in the age bracket of 15 to 16 years ”, you can read in the report, based on sexes who were asked about their different perception of childhood qualities, such as innocence, in black and white girls.

When asked if the MeToo ignored the problems of the African American community in its early years, Epstein replies: “I find that conclusion unfair. It was founded by Tarana Burke, an African-American activist, and owes much of its success to the efforts and perseverance of black women. ” It should also be remembered that three of them, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, gave birth to Black Lives Matter eight years ago, an anti-racist movement with a global reach after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of an American policeman.

According to another of the complainants, identified as Stephanie, R. Kelly told her when they met at 1998 who did not understand what society saw as bad in his fondness for “young girls”. She had 16 years. By then, the musician was already a superstar of R&B, a musical style of essentially internal consumption that updated the soul in the last decade of the century. It was also common to see him at a McDonald’s in Chicago where he went, witnesses recall, hunting for students from a nearby institute.

The first accusations come from that time. The singer married in 1994 with a teenager from 15 years old, Aaliyah, rising star of black music who died in 2001 in a plane crash. According to one of the testimonies, the couple had started having sexual relations when the girl had “13 or 14 years ”and the union occurred “Just so Aaliyah could have an abortion without her parents’ consent.” The marriage was finally annulled. At that time, Kelly, author of songs like It Seems Like You’re Ready (It seems that you are ready) produced an album to the young promise entitled Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number

Portada del disco de Aaliyah 'Age Ain't Nothing But a Number'.
Aaliyah’s album cover ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number’.

Another of the key names in this story, Jim De Rogatis, a leader in music journalism in Chicago, received in 2000 a fax in which an unidentified reader of one of his critics, who compared to Kelly with Marvin Gaye, he gave details of the “problems” of that one “with the girls.” Soon after, the reporter published the first of his numerous investigations. A work by 21 years that includes a book, Soulless (Without soul), about to be reissued. De Rogatis had in 2002 access to a video in which the artist maintaining relations with a minor and that gave rise to the first trial, held in 2008. The musician was acquitted of a child pornography offense after the girl and her parents decided not to testify. This week, the critic published in The New Yorker an article titled: R. Kelly, found guilty of all charges, 25 years too late.

The musician, winner of three Grammy Awards, did not stop of working after those first accusations; rather to the contrary, he was awarded a defiant alias, The Pied Piper of R&B (The Pied Piper of R&B). Since then he has released seven albums, edited by Jive, until his death in 2011 , and RCA, two of the most influential urban music labels in the United States, for an audience apparently capable of dissociating the work from the reputation of its author. On the streaming Spotify service, R. Kelly, a star better known in his country than in the rest of the world (his greatest success in Europe was, in 1996, I Believe I Can Fly), has more than four million monthly listeners, although RCA terminated its contract after the broadcast of a television documentary series (Surviving R. Kelly, 2019), which, produced by Dream Hampton, a black filmmaker, voiced several of women who have accused him for years.

Dibujo del cantante mientras escuchaba el veredicto de culpabilidad el lunes pasado.
Drawing of the singer while listening to the guilty verdict last Monday. Elizabeth Williams (AP)

The artist’s attorneys, by name Royal Robert Sylvester Kelly, now studying whether to file an appeal. Three more trials await them in two states for child pornography, obstruction of justice and prostitution of minors. The judge will issue a sentence on May 4 on the process whose ruling was known this week. Until then, R. Kelly will remain in detention.

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