07/18/2017 04:22 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2017

When We Fail To Hold R. Kelly Accountable, We Fail Black Girls

The artist is capitalizing on our collective disregard for black girlhood.

To date, the world is powerless before R. Kelly.

The embattled R&B superstar is known just as well for being accused of sexually assaulting underage girls as he is for any song he’s produced. Yet, still, he is booked to perform at sold-out concerts, award shows and festivals, and appears in prominent advertisements.

There are several theories regarding why this is so ― namely, that the industry’s reverence for Kelly as an heir to the throne of Marvin Gaye (whose history, coincidentally, also includes an interest in underage women) shields him from fatal rebukes of his character. The singer’s controversial acquittal in a high-profile child pornography case in 2008 marked what many had hoped would be the end to a raft of similarly disturbing accusations plaguing him throughout his career.

Uniquely, however, Kelly provides ample opportunity to test theories on his elusiveness to law and universal criticism. Where many celebrities of his stature may be inclined to change course and operate more carefully, Kelly seems to continually wander with great hubris into situations that garner intense public scrutiny. On Monday, yet another.

BuzzFeed reported that Kelly currently faces accusations of sexual, physical and psychological abuse in what family members of the alleged victims say is a “cult.” The harrowing report, studded with sources including Kelly’s former assistants and associates, outlines the ways in which Kelly allegedly lured women (often, women under the age of 18) from their families to live in one of his properties. There, they were groomed and indoctrinated to serve at his every command and detach themselves from the outside world.

Cheryl Mack, Kelly’s former assistant, described how the artist enticed vulnerable women into leaving their normal lives for him:

″[The women originally think] This is R. Kelly, I’m going to live a lavish lifestyle,” said Mack, who worked as Kelly’s personal assistant for a year and a half starting in 2013 and has remained in touch with some members of his inner circle. “No. You have to ask for food. You have to ask to go use the bathroom. … [Kelly] is a master at mind control. ... He is a puppet master.”

The allegations continue in similarly disturbing fashion, with parents and associates claiming Kelly secured loyalty from girls eager to launch music careers of their own under the guise of mentorship, only to later subject them to sexual exploits and repressive manipulation.

One anecdote in particular, courtesy of an alleged victim’s former roommate, conveys the extent of Kelly’s control in frightening fashion:

T.S. also recalled the [alleged victim] telling her that one time, Kelly sent a cab to pick up the women at his guest house and bring them to a club where he would meet them. The Georgia woman told her roommate that she laughed when the cab driver told a joke, and one of the other women in the cab texted Kelly to report this violation of his “rules.” When the Georgia woman arrived at the club, T.S. said, Kelly “bent her over and he whupped her behind because she laughed at the cab driver, who happened to be a man.”

In all, the report does not lack in figures worthy of scorn. One wishes for the sensibility of adults at almost every juncture in this story: from Kelly, to be certain, but also from the parents whose desperation and naivety sent their children to a man with a despicable track record of alleged abuse.

But we cannot excuse ourselves from blame.

Every moment R. Kelly is allowed to exist in our imagination, unbridled by the disgusting nature of his acts, evidences the illness of our national character. We have — often, in clear, embarrassing fashion — dismissed those he has victimized to preserve the reputation of a man whose greatest contribution to this earth is tolerable cookout music.

To this point, Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., offered an unflinching indictment.

It is not merely his alleged victims who are charmed at will, but also the public, who in a more just world would wield righteous, ultimate power over Kelly’s career. But we’ve thus far chosen not to brandish this power in defense of black girlhood, and this immobilization in the face of clear wrongdoing betrays our great shame.

Frustratingly, there are not many unique ways remaining to convey the sickness in Kelly’s behavior. The singer has eluded a groundswell of rhetorical fury from those disgusted with his seeming infatuation with underage girls, and he’s done so with minimal impact upon his bottom line or public perception among his staunchest supporters. And for all the ethical wherewithal and common sense he seems to lack ― even as he oafishly continues and excuses his predatory behavior in broad daylight ― he seems to keenly understand our national apathy toward black girls, and he navigates it startlingly well.

Kelly’s well-documented marriage to late singer Aaliyah is his most prominent use of this apathy. Kelly married the artist when she was just 15 years old, and after he’d groomed her while producing her debut album, infamously named “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.”

Other girls alleged to have fallen victim to his preying fit a similar profile to Aaliyah: Young, black girls with an understandably kiddish interest in the trappings of fame and success. Kelly allegedly offered them this in ample amount, both in the encounter leading to his 2008 child pornography case and in the relationship at the center of BuzzFeed’s latest report. The common thread in these is a black girl serving at the behest of a man who seeks to deny her childhood ― to repurpose her into the subservient woman to which he feels entitled.

In many ways, we have been complicit in this.

When, for example, studies demonstrate our widespread denial of black girls’ innocence, the takeaway is that we wrongly consider them adults equipped to fend for themselves amid the evils of our world. We make adults of them in order to excuse the pain they endure. 

Similarly, when comedians, the self-proclaimed arbiters of realism, declare black girls as willing participants in their exploitation and receive raucous applause, we fetishize their girlhood in dangerous ways.

One wonders, then, how to advance the story of R. Kelly ― how to, more importantly, advance the story of those he has victimized. How, frankly, do we rescue those among a class who a great many of us deem wholly unworthy of saving? Black girls exist at America’s most damned intersection: They are black. They are girls. And as R. Kelly abuses them, we too abuse in our silence.

To indict R. Kelly, be it within a courtroom or without, is to indict ourselves. Yes, he is a snake charmer ― the disgustingly self-proclaimed “pied piper” ― but always, we have remained complicit and eager to be charmed.

It is quite easy for us to attribute our collective hypnosis to Kelly himself, but doing so affords far too much credit to a man whose success is owed solely to derivative Marvin Gaye mimicry. No, if Robert Kelly deserves credit for anything, it’s his cynical appropriation of our carelessness toward black girls. His evils are just that — evil, but not without assistance.

And if we are to, rightly, condemn his actions, we should also consider why it’s taken so long ― and for so many to have fallen victim to his exploits ― for us to do so.