Surviving R. Kelly is the investigative series executive produced by the legendary dream hampton that has dominated conversation since its January 3 airing on Lifetime. Watching it frightened me. Robert Kelly frightens me. His stature and place in my musical life make me ask myself if I am like him in some way because I ignored his crimes for so long. I then move to ask what this society is doing to me, if that is true, and if it isn’t, I must ask myself who I am in the world of his music and my shame.
Platforms, too, are asking these kinds of questions. Their dialectic, however, is more straightforward: does it harm or help Facebook to limit R. Kelly’s behavior in their universe? Because other stakeholders in Kelly’s life have already answered that question. His record label hasn’t dropped him. Tours won’t stop booking him. Fans won’t stop flocking to his shows. And law enforcement all but gave up on him until last year. But in 2019, none of that matters. After Aaliyah, the tape, and an eight-year trial, social media may end up being the judge and jury of Robert Kelly and the years of torture and abuse he’s inflicted upon women all over the world. Social media is already beginning to erase him.
The base that R. Kelly has built his emotional world upon, and its delusions—a molten, wanton desire to control and distort the feelings, actions, and realities of others—is beginning to crumble. The #MeToo movement has finally caused us all to pause and ask how our relations see our relationship. The shift has been dizzying. Once again, Black pain must be prostrate for us to understand it, laid bare before some truly empathize with victims who’ve had to dig themselves from an open grave.
It shows. Prosecutors beset with harrowing reports shown on the series and the chorus of outrage that erupted on socials thereafter have begun to investigate him in Atlanta and Chicago. Certainly, things are moving in the direction of his possible punishment. Yet what struck me as most surprising wasn’t the justice system closing in on Kelly, but that his appeal to social media so quickly vanished. Because, look, social media platforms are now little nations governing a world of their customers as they see fit.
So soon after Facebook took down the “Surviving Lies” page that posted alleged text messages between Kelly and a young woman, they regurgitated a statement to TMZ on why they killed the page: “The Page violated our Community Standards and has been removed.”, they said. “We do not tolerate bullying or sharing other’s private contact information and take action on content that violates our policies as soon as we’re aware.”
The removal of Kelly’s page admonishing the claims of the women in the documentary was remarkably swift. Maybe it’s because their moral quandaries mirror. Facebook has, these past few years, taken a beating for not only its role in spreading propaganda from Russian interlopers in the lead-up to the 2016 election, but for doing it all but knowingly and for profit. There is a correlation between this willful ignorance powered by basic capitalist greed on Facebook’s part and R. Kelly’s many discretions powered by that same irresistible force. Both Facebook and Kelly are protected by their investors and fans. Both declare their innocence on matters of importance. Both manipulate for profit. And both have unearthed trenchant energies and shot them into the world.
For Kelly, it’s dozens of lives strewn across his insatiable desire to control young girls and his environment. For Facebook, it’s nearly the same, but their domain is information. Yet only one of the two can ban the other. Facebook and its properties could easily strip Kelly of his right to the platform at all. If they turn Kelly away at the door, Instagram may decide to do the same.
They’d have good reason to. Pleas for authorities to curb his behavior have been ongoing—the #MuteRKelly campaign is heading into year two. But journalists have been chasing him now for two decades, ever since that videotape ended up in Jim Derogatis’ hands at the Chicago Sun-Times nearly 21 years ago. DeRogatis ran a series of articles on Kelly that sparked a bizarre trial as Kelly’s start seemed to descend. That trial lasted eight years and Kelly was acquitted of all charges. He began anew the frenzy around Kelly in 2017 when he wrote the R&B singer were holding women hostage in a “sex cult” for Buzzfeed.
Derogatis followed up with two new women coming forward to speak out about their sexual abuse at his hands. One was Lizzette Martinez, who is also in Surviving R. Kelly. These women told their stories. Parents shared their desperation. But once again some invisible force seemed to protect Kelly. One of the women, Jocelyn Savage, came out on TMZ and said nothing was wrong at all. She explained she cut off communications with her parents (something we’d find out through Surviving R. Kelly was a signature move of his abuse) because her dad had allegedly been threatening people. She told us she was right where she wanted to be.
But the scene ended up being surrealist. It felt like an R. Kelly video, really. There was a dimly lit lamp in a corner at a hotel room in some nameless city. Savage sat there, trained, it seemed, like some country politician or Manchurian candidate. Then, in the end, when asked where she was she said she could not answer. When asked if she was free to go she said she could not answer that either.
It doesn’t matter now what she can answer. Surviving R. Kelly has made it clear she wasn’t speaking of her own accord. They’ve made it clear that this is part of Kelly’s pattern of abuse. It shows that a young girl can be manipulated by Kelly in such a way as to provide him grace when he’s got no “I Believe I Can Fly” left in him. But where adoring fans and the justice system have failed, Facebook and many other social media properties may succeed. Though they will be for different reasons.
From our height, we see can see the Kellys, Weinsteins, and Cosbys of the world for the shadows they’ve placed on history. They are mere examples—their victims a terrifying consequence—of unchecked power some men in society get to wield. A power that erodes even basic humanity. R. Kelly, for all he seems to be, is a slinger of this force. He cowls himself in it and so it hides him. The great R&B artist of our day hates women, his main audience, but he adores the power he has over them. Let’s be honest, you can only do what he has done because of hatred. And, it is a hatred Facebook shares: one born of a quivering lust for dominance. These are the tenets upon which their worlds have become to be built and, frankly, these are the worlds a series like Surviving R. Kelly intends to flip.
I hope it helps.