On Monday, musician Robert “R” Kelly, who has been accused of sexual assault dozens of times, was found guilty of being the ringleader of a decades-long operation that lured women and underage girls into sexual abuse. For nine hours, a jury of seven men and five women in Brooklyn, New York deliberated before convicting Kelly on nine counts, including racketeering, a charge associated with organized crime that can include sex trafficking rings.
It’s now 25 years ago that Tiffany Hawkins, a young Black woman from the South Side of Chicago, asked the Illinois State’s Attorney Office to press charges against Kelly for sexually abusing her when she was a minor. The State’s Attorney declined to press charges. In 2019, when interest in Kelly’s abuses was renewed by the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” Hawkins told New Yorker contributor Jim DeRogatis, “I was a young Black girl. Who cared?”
The majority of people Kelly abused were Black women and girls, some as young as 12 years old. Because of that they were seen by many as disposable and not worthy of protection. As a Black woman myself, I know internally that I am not disposable and that I am worthy of the utmost protection and care — but when I look at wider society, I rarely see those impressions reflected back at me. Knowing that it has taken 25 years — nearly my entire life — for Kelly to face any semblance of accountability is so deeply depressing.
After the news of the verdict broke, writer Mikki Kendall tweeted: “So a conviction, it only took 3 generations of victims. I know girls who have stories and so do their mothers…” Journalist Britt Julious tweeted thoughts similar to Kendall’s: “Multiple generations of Chicago women and girls have had to face this menace with no escape. Every black girl I know who grew up here has an R Kelly story. EVERY ONE. I am glad those who have felt pain and faced trauma for DECADES may find peace with this verdict.”
I don’t believe in prisons as an effective method of sexual assault prevention or perpetrator reform, but I wanted R Kelly to be found guilty. There is no justice in this broken system, but there’s also no justice in seeing powerful individuals completely evade responsibility for the rest of their lives. I’d rather see some paltry form of accountability — although Kelly may spend the rest of his life in jail, can even that be proper atonement for the lives he has ruined? The heinous things he has done to literal children? — than to see victims seeking justice constantly ignored. But it’s still a grim satisfaction. Because it can’t be justice, it can’t be change if the world isn’t committed to changing how it treats Black survivors.
Kelly’s predation of children was common knowledge, even becoming joke fodder for comedians like Dave Chapelle. One of my earliest memories of childhood, in fact, is listening to a radio host joke about Kelly urinating on a 14 year old girl. I was just six years old then, and I remember feeling scared and unprotected. As Black girls, we learn early that the world laughs at the horrors inflicted upon us. And then maybe, when we’re grown women with children of our own, we might see those monsters punished. If we’re lucky.
Kelly has left so many victims in his wake, many of whom were subjected to the piercing glare of the public and many of whom have still been hidden away – by choice or by force or by indifference. The pain he has caused has left scars on so many people.
“The last 20 years have been absolutely exhausting for me. It’s been a lonely road,” said Sparkle, a Black woman singer whose niece was abused by Kelly. Sociologist Kimberlé Crenshaw, whose work on the intersectionality of gender and race is internationally recognized, tweeted of Kelly: “He believed he could lie, but the truth finally caught up with him. It shouldn’t have taken this many women, and this many years, for Black women to be believed — and valued. Now time for soul searching.”
All I can hope is that this verdict sparks conversation and awareness. I hope it will get people to wonder what justice would look like beyond prisons; to imagine a world where the best a survivor has to hope for isn’t that their abuser will be locked up, but that the survivor’s healing will be supported and facilitated while society works hard to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
That’s what I hope for, but then there’s the fear. My fear is that with this guilty verdict, people will continue to sensationalize Kelly, make light of Black survivors’ pain, and ultimately abandon us when we most need solidarity. I fear that it will be seen as one isolated incident — and Black survivors of sexual abuse will continue to be just as vulnerable as we were before.
R Kelly has been found guilty, but this is no justice. And for most Black women like me, there is still no peace.