The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black women have been speaking up about R. Kelly for years. Where are the men?

The silence of Kelly's black male peers in the industry is deafening.

Musical artist R. Kelly performs the national anthem before an NBA basketball game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Atlanta Hawks in New York, on Nov. 17, 2015. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

On Monday, some of Hollywood’s most powerful women threw their support behind a grass-roots campaign, #MuteRKelly. Created by Atlanta-based activists Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye in 2017 after a report alleged Kelly was running a “sex cult” in his Atlanta home, the hashtag aims to encourage companies, concert venues and fans to break ties with the Grammy-winning artist, who has been at the center of troubling sexual misconduct allegations for over two decades. As black women celebrated Kelly’s seeming comeuppance across social media, the culmination of years of activism by many of them, the singer’s male peers in the industry remained eerily silent.

The charges leveled against Kelly over the years are hard to stomach, even for those who insist they can separate the man from his music. In 1994, he married his then-15-year-old protege, Aaliyah, in a secret wedding that was later annulled. Over the years, he’s settled a slew of lawsuits from women who claim the singer took advantage of them when they were underage. In 2001, a tape of Kelly engaging in a sex act with a teen was sent to a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, and a year later, another video of the singer, which appeared to show him having sex with a 13-year-old girl, was sent to the Chicago Police Department. After copies of the tape hit the streets, Kelly was charged with 14 counts of child pornography, though he was acquitted in 2008. Last year, BuzzFeed released an investigative report claiming Kelly was holding several women hostage in his Atlanta home; in March, BBC Three released a documentary that included an interview with Kelly’s former business manager, who said, “When it came to sex, it was sex to Robert. If a girl was in a room and she had a big booty, she had a big booty. If she was 15 or 20, she had a big booty to him. Period.”

Though influential black women like Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes and Lupita Nyong’o have spoken up about Kelly, black male celebs have largely avoided adding their voices to the chorus — despite their willingness to engage on other injustices affecting the black community. Their silence on Kelly’s alleged victims, who happen to be black teenage girls without the benefit of fame or fortune, only continues to send the signal to black female victims of sexual violence that their traumas are not as important as protecting black men.

In Monday’s statement, the Women of Color of Time’s Up — a campaign led by women in Hollywood to end sexual harassment and violence — said they were joining the #MuteRKelly movement because “for too long, our community has ignored our pain. The pain we bear is a burden that too many women of color have had to bear for centuries.” Indeed, black women experience intimate partner violence (defined as rape, physical assault or stalking by the Justice Department) at a rate 35 percent higher than their white female counterparts, but they are less likely to seek assistance. One troubling reason black women and girls are slow to report assaults: the pressure many feel to protect black men, who’ve historically been marginalized. In her seminal 1978 book, “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,” Michele Wallace wrote, “Every time [a black woman] starts to wonder about her own misery … She is stopped cold. The ghosts talk to her. ‘You crippled the Black man. You worked against him. You betrayed him.’ ”

‘It's time to shut down R. Kelly for good’ (Video: Gillian Brockell, Karen Attiah, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

America’s problematic treatment of black men may be one explanation for the silence from so many of Kelly’s peers. With the exception of rapper Vince Staples, who made it abundantly clear he believes Kelly is a pedophile, singer and activist John Legend and The Roots’s drummer Questlove, who both tweeted about #MuteRKelly on Monday, few black men in the music business have come forward to publicly disavow the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer. There are many potential reasons men have stayed mum on the issue — personal relationships with Kelly, fear that speaking out may unearth their own dubious encounters, ambivalence about the issue — but their unwillingness to lend their support to black female victims of sexual violence only reinforces the notion to black women and girls that their pain does not matter. And because in our world, men’s voices and opinions still carry more weight than women’s, particularly in the music industry, their silence on Kelly hangs heavy.

While many black men continue to be silent about the predatory attacks some of their brethren launch against black women and girls, they rush to comment on issues that affect their own, like the recent shootings of Stephon Clark and Diante Yarber, the heroism shown by James Shaw Jr. at a Waffle House, or Kanye West’s asinine comments that enslaved black Americans chose to stay in bondage. (West’s comments were so problematic, even Chris Brown called him out.)

When rapper Meek Mill was sentenced to two to four years in prison for a parole violation, black male celebrities from sports, entertainment and music all came together to yell #FreeMeek. Jay-Z, who collaborated with Kelly on an album back in 2002, even wrote an op-ed for the New York Times decrying Mill’s plight and the systematic racism of the justice system. While the Philadelphia artist should not have been remanded to prison in the first place, the difference in the outcry for Mill vs. the lack of support shown to young black female victims of sexual violence is painfully evident.

Like Bill Cosby before him, Kelly attempted to invoke America’s violent, horrific history and claim activists were targeting him because of his race. After #MuteRKelly went viral, he called it “a public lynching,” and several fans theorized much of the same. One man took to Twitter to ask, “Why do I get the feeling they’re only coming after black men for Me Too,” while many others wondered why the focus was on Kelly, while white men like disgraced Hollywood honcho Harvey Weinstein and embattled director Woody Allen have not been taken down. (Spoiler alert: They’ve been targeted, too.)

Tarana Burke, who started the Me Too movement more than a decade ago, rebuked Kelly’s assertion that he was being singled out because he’s black. “This is not a lynching,” Burke told NPR. “This is a call for public accountability.”

While many black male celebrities may pay lip service to the cause of fighting sexual violence and protecting women, particularly their mothers/sisters/daughters, choosing to stay quiet about Kelly speaks volumes about who they believe really matters — and sadly, it’s not black women.

Black women often say, “We all we got,” meaning we’re typically the only ones we can count on to advocate on our behalf. While we could certainly use the support of Kelly’s peers to finally hold the singer responsible for preying on young black women and girls — and draw a firm line in the sand to protect the women who largely support their work — their ongoing silence proves we can’t afford to sit around and wait for them to finally join the cause.