The Surviving R. Kelly documentary on Lifetime, a six-part docuseries that outlines in grave detail the mental, physical, and sexual abuse and trauma that R. Kelly has inflicted on countless Black women and girls, aired six installments over the course of three-nights during the first weekend of 2019. Kelly, given his legendary status as a musician, especially among Black folks, R. Kelly’s infractions have been widely discussed on the internet over the course of the weekend. In response to the ubiquitous discourse surrounding R. Kelly and the docuseries, I have seen posts across social media that claim the docuseries is a ‘distraction’ from other issues such as the government shutdown the country is currently experiencing. Some of these post read along the lines of, “Don’t let this R. Kelly shit distract ya’ll. The government has been shut down for days.” I just want to briefly delineate why this argument is foolish and built on feeble foundation.
First and foremost, people are capable of caring about more than one issue at a time. Just because one issue is currently being discussed doesn’t mean it’s a distraction or that other issues are being forgotten. Following this logic, everyone only has the mental capacity to care about one issue at a time and we all must be concerned with the same issue. That’s foolishness. It’s further foolish that one can dictate what others are allowed to be concerned with or discuss. It’s gonna be a strong no for me. We are allowed and capable of caring about, discussing, advocating for more than one issue at a time.
Another reason why I believe that this argument of distraction is popular is because folks are focusing solely on R. Kelly and his (very egregious, reprehensible) infractions. While R. Kelly is the focal point of the docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly is telling an important narrative of the systemic disenfranchisement of Black girls and women and the history of predatory behavior in the music industry. It really is a intricate study of race, class, gender, and geography and how Black girls and women are left vulnerable to sexual, physical, and mental trauma. According to the Women of Color Network, 40% of Black women report experience coercive sexual contact before they turn 18.
It is a study of rape culture and how men use their patriarchal power to build coalitions to prey on and abuse young girls and women and/or turn a blind eye to the abuse. Racism and sexism work in tandem to disenfranchise Black women and thus leaving them defenseless in rape culture. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported that “more than 20% of Black women are raped during their lifetimes – a higher share than among women overall.
So while the docuseries is about R. Kelly, a serial rapist and abuser who preys on young, vulnerable, Black girls and women, it is not only about R. Kelly. It a story of a much larger narrative that delineates how frequently Black girls and women are abused and how American society continues to fail them. By claiming that Surviving R. Kelly is a distraction further fails Black girls and women by diminishing their survival stories as a distraction – as if their lives and stories are of lesser value than other issues.
Yes the government shutdown is a problem, a major problem. Thousands of government employees are without pay, and the shutdown may affect student refunds and tax returns. And me, as a struggling graduate student, get the urgency and anxiety concerning the shutdown (trust, I need my damn refund check). However, there is very little the common person can do besides hope and pray that this mess of an administration can get it together. But there is a lot that the common person can do to end rape culture, fight patriarchal power, listen and care for Black girls and women, and etc.
The assault against Black women that was elucidated in Surviving R. Kelly is not a distraction. It is a plea to do your part in ensuring that there are less R. Kelly’s in the world – something we all have the ability, and responsibly, to do.