Editor’s Note: Ashton Lattimore is a writer and lawyer based in Philadelphia. She writes about culture, race, and the law. Follow her on Twitter @ashtonlattimore. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
“Surviving R. Kelly,” the six-part Lifetime docuseries featuring accounts from R. Kelly’s accusers and close friends, shines a much-needed light on the ways in which our society fails black girls and women.
Over the course of the series, survivors share how they were left vulnerable to the most heinous kinds of physical, psychological and sexual abuse – and then saw their decades-worth of cries for justice fall on deaf ears.
Kelly’s lawyer has reportedly said the documentary contains false allegations, though he has not yet specified which ones are alleged to be untrue. Kelly himself has also denied any wrongdoing. However, since the series aired, CNN has confirmed through the family of Jocelyn Savage, one of the women featured in the docuseries, that Kelly could be facing an investigation by the District Attorney’s Office in Fulton County, Georgia. The DA declined to comment.
So, how did Kelly allegedly get away with it? Through his music, which was more than just a shield for him: It was his source of power. Indeed, one common thread tying many of the victims’ narratives together is that they aspired to careers in the music industry. And the series reveals how, over and over again, survivors and their families say Kelly recognized their ambition and capitalized on it – controlling and abusing them, as he dangled their dreams just out of reach.
In this way, the survivors’ experiences are part of an old story, exemplifying how powerful men can weaponize women and girls’ career ambitions to manipulate and abuse them and, later, how that same ambition is used to dismiss and blame them when they speak out.
Within the series, there were at least three girls whose early music career ambitions led them to Kelly: Lizette Martinez, Azriel Clary, and the unnamed niece of singer and former Kelly-collaborator Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards. Aspiring R&B singer Martinez said she met Kelly at 17, and he soon made phantom promises of helping her develop her talent, write songs and break into the music industry. According to Clary’s parents, Clary was another 17-year-old aspiring singer and persuaded her parents to let her travel with Kelly in the hopes of furthering her music career. Finally, Sparkle said she introduced her niece to Kelly when she was only 12, touting the girl’s skill as a rapper.
It’s not hard to understand why the girls (and their families) believed connecting with someone like Kelly was the clearest path to achieving their career dreams. The value of his influence seemed obvious – he produced R&B star Aaliyah’s debut album and is widely credited with launching her career. The docuseries alleges this came at great cost, since Kelly reportedly married Aaliyah when she was just 15 years old. And one of his former backup singers/dancers, Jovante Cunningham, told Lifetime she witnessed him having sex with Aaliyah when she was underage. Aaliyah’s mother denies this claim, and Kelly has denied the two were anything more than close friends.
As a superstar in the male-dominated music business, Kelly had access to people, resources and a presumption of legitimacy that would have eluded young black girls trying to make it on their own in an industry that often fails to make space for more than a handful of black women’s voices. So, for these young women with big dreams, getting connected to Kelly likely seemed to be a reasonable or even wise step toward achieving their ambition.
Unfortunately, for women and girls, there are few traits met with more disdain, suspicion and exploitation than ambition. In politics, we’ve witnessed it in the appalling reactions to women like Hillary Clinton and, most recently, Kamala Harris, with critics portraying them as calculating or untrustworthy. In entertainment, the old “casting couch” expectation exploits the dreams of aspiring actresses. And, in the corporate world, tales of sexual harassment abound where women find their advancement prospects tied to their responses to the come-ons of their male superiors.
Kelly is an especially heinous part of the same system: He didn’t choose girls like Martinez, Clary and Sparkle’s niece by accident. The documentary series shows how he used his position as an industry superstar and gatekeeper, as well as the girls’ aspirations, to bring them under his control for his sexual and psychological gratification.
For parts of American society, the very idea of a young black girl aspiring to be more than invisible – let alone successful or even famous – is an affront to the natural order. And so, when Kelly took advantage of these girls, much of the public chose to ignore them for over 20 years. Whether explicitly stated or not, many believed these girls deserved what they got for trying to “use” a powerful man to get ahead. If they were savvy enough to have music career ambitions and seek out his help, the theory goes, then whatever he did to them was just part of the transaction.
In Kelly’s case, that suspicion of female ambition combined with toxic stereotypes about black girls gave people even more reason to ignore or blame the survivors. In particular, the perception of black girls as “fast,” hypersexualized, older and less innocent than non-black girls has been the crucial factor in the non-response to Kelly’s crimes.
As many black women attested on Twitter through the hashtag #FastTailedGirls, started by Mikki Kendall (@Karynthia) and Jamie Nesbitt Golden (@thewayoftheid), such stereotypes have long been used to shame and blame young black girls who’ve suffered sexual abuse, while giving the perpetrators a free pass. So even now, with the women’s stories laid out in horrifying detail, some seek to absolve Kelly on the basis that the girls “knew what they were doing.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Though we may finally be at a tipping point as far as Kelly’s continued avoidance of justice, a great deal of work remains to be done to make it safe for other young women and girls to pursue their aspirations without fear of being manipulated and abused. To start, it is paramount that society acknowledge the full humanity of black girls. That means respecting their value, recognizing their innocence and eliminating the impulse to punish or dismiss them for having the audacity to aspire to bigger, better lives.
As our society works toward that reality, the responsibility lies with men in every industry not only to conduct themselves as trustworthy mentors and colleagues, but also to reform the culture that has for so long allowed them to exploit the ambitions of striving young girls and women.