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December saw many of us nestled inside watching romantic Hallmark Channel movies, but January brings a counterpunch: a twisted Lifetime saga of sexual abuse and control. Not romance-gone-wrong escapism, this is a six-part documentary: “Surviving R. Kelly,” an examination of a long history of allegations against the Chicago R&B star.
Kelly has not been convicted of any sex crime and was acquitted of child pornography charges in Cook County in 2008. The Lifetime documentary, however, has brought to a national roar a story that isn’t new to music fans or to Chicago. Troubling coverage of Kelly dates to his 1994 marriage to singer Aaliyah, when he was 27 and she was 15, and to reporting by Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch in the Chicago Sun-Times beginning in 2000. A girl born that year is now legal for a 52-year-old like Kelly to date in Illinois, where the age of consent is generally 17.
Press coverage, a trial and the passage of a generation haven’t ended Kelly’s career or even his artistic collaborations. This at a time when the #MeToo movement has held accountable numerous entertainment industry figures for their bad behavior.
That raises a painful question and belated soul-searching by many people: Have disturbing claims, backed by hit song lyrics about age being “nothing but a number,” drawn inadequate attention because the alleged victims are black girls?
A white juror from Kelly’s child pornography trial appears in the documentary saying he didn’t like the way the girls who testified dressed and acted, fueling his doubt about their accounts. But #MeToo has ushered in a new era in which claims of abuse and demands for justice are taken seriously.
Chance the Rapper apologized over the weekend for collaborating with Kelly in 2015. And commenters from Chicago and beyond — some of whom posted on social media about Kelly’s predilections being common talk in the city — seemed to recognize at last that sexual behavior toward young girls isn’t just creepy. If proven by the courts, it’s criminal. We anticipate police and prosecutors are paying renewed attention to the allegations involving Kelly. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx on Tuesday encouraged alleged victims to come forward.
Downloads of his music spiked higher after the documentary’s airing. It’s a distressing but probably natural bump, as listeners want to check out his sound and lyrics amid this renewed attention. It also points to the responsibility of consumers to vote with their dollars and downloads.
The volume and intensity of the Lifetime series has caused the public to tune in to what amounts to a harrowing cry. Will it be heard?