I’m Sorry, but R. Kelly Does Not Get a Redemption Narrative

The impulse to worry more about predatory men than the people they harm is deeply ingrained in our society, and it’s infuriating.


Stacy Lee Kong

Oct 01 2021

12 mins read


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Content warning: this newsletter contains references to sexual violence and emotional abuse.

On Monday, R. Kelly was found guilty in New York of one count of racketeering and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which outlaws transporting people across state lines “for any immoral purpose,” in the first of three trials he’s facing in three different states as a result of his 30-year reign of terror against Black girls and women.

On Tuesday, hip hop icon Chuck D compared Kelly to Ike Turner and Rick James, who both served about 18 months in prison for drug offences (Turner) and kidnapping and torturing two women (James), and wondered how long Kelly would spend in jail, as well if the “USA system give a man a chance for a man to change his world around.” And he wasn’t the only one thinking about Kelly’s future. Congressman Danny Davis, the representative for Illinois' 7th congressional district, told TMZ (yes, I know) that “because Kelly's a gifted, talented artist ... he believes he'll be welcomed back [to his hometown of Chicago] after serving his prison sentence and offered a chance for redemption.” (He holds this belief because he was responsible for a 2007 piece of legislation called the Second Chance Act, which authorizes federal funding for employment assistance, housing, substance abuse treatment, family programming, mentoring, victim's support and other services that help formerly incarcerated people stay out of prison.) Oh, and Bill Cosby's publicist thinks Kelly “got railroaded” and “was screwed,” according to a New York Post interview. Apparently, Andrew Wyatt says, “the deck was stacked against Robert” and “his constitutional rights were grossly abused.” (The Post reported that these were Cosby's opinions, but according to an Instagram post on his account, this was actually Wyatt sharing his own perspective. Which makes zero sense, but whatever.)


To recap: not even a day after a prolific predator who carried out his crimes with impunity for decades finally, finally faced some consequences for his actions, a trio of men thought the most pressing question was not, “Why didn’t we act earlier?” or “How can we help his victims?” or even “Are there other predatory men working in media and entertainment today who we should maybe stop?” (Which, spoiler, there definitely are.) It was, “Will Kells be okay?”


Rape culture is a hell of a drug.


Literally no one should be surprised that people are worried about R. Kelly’s future

To me, this reaction is egregious for two reasons: first, the timing is brutal. It is deeply insensitive to wonder about Kelly’s well-being when his victims (not to mention other survivors) were likely being triggered by the news coverage of the trial, and especially the details that came to light during witness testimony. But it’s also about the wider context these three statements exist within. Namely, the fact that our society always worries more about predatory men than their victims.

When Brock Turner was found guilty of sexually assaulting Chanel Miller, who at the time was known only as “Jane Doe,” his father appealed to Judge Aaron Persky for leniency, writing, “these verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life. The fact that he now has to register as a sexual offender for the rest of his life forever alters where he can live, visit, work, and how he will be able to interact with people and organizations.” Persky listened, sentencing Turner to just six months in county jail and probation. He justified his extremely light sentencing by saying that imprisonment would have a “huge collateral consequence” for Turner. He also suggested that media coverage of Turner’s crime—which, remember, was sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman in an alleyway—already seemed like punishment.


People even tried appeals to pity on behalf of Harvey Weinstein. In an interview the year before his first sexual assault trial, his lawyer, Donna Rotunno, told Gayle King that, “even if he wins [which, btw, he did not], his whole life has been ruined, toppled, damaged. And whether it’s by his own doing or others', that’s the fact. And the fact is that no matter what we do, and we can walk out of that courtroom with a not guilty and walk him out onto those courtroom steps, and he never gets to be Harvey Weinstein ever again.” Considering an integral part of being Harvey Weinstein involved sexually harassing, assaulting and abusing women, not to mention verbally abusing everyone, perhaps that's a good thing, Donna? 

In fact, our conversations about sexual violence are dominated by the idea that when we accuse men of predatory behaviour, we are ruining their lives. Proof: according to a 2021 study published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, within a year of the #MeToo movement's inception, powerful men had appropriated the “discourse of victimhood,” not to ask “for forgiveness... but rather [as] attempts to shore up dominant dynamics of power—even as they render power differences between the accused and the accuser completely invisible, whether that be because the woman is unconscious, in the case of Turner, or a low-level co-worker in the case of [Matt] Lauer and [Bill] O’Reilly, or a woman dependent on the blessing of Weinstein in order to not be blacklisted from the film industry.”

There’s a link this desire for redemption and R. Kelly’s still-loyal superfans

In this case, there’s also the complication of race. As Shamira Ibrahim pointed out in her brilliant piece in The Cut about Kelly’s still-loyal fans, many of whom are older Black women, “Kelly is being offered a specific sort of martyrdom partly because he has intertwined his art with his demons—performing penitence in gospel-influenced tracks while reveling in lewdness in chart-topping R&B hits, daring his audience to love the sinner but hate the sin—in a way that allows his most dedicated fans to paint him as transparent versus an abusive predator. Underlying this belief is the mythos of the fast-tailed girl in the Black community, which operates in concert with a sort of anti-carceral stance, penalizing women who choose to seek justice the only way they’re told they can. Because these supporters believe Black men are overwhelmingly falsely accused of rape, any attempt at accountability, through the courts or otherwise, is seen as targeted subterfuge against male Black excellence.”


When Ibrahim went to Kelly’s trial to talk to the women who showed up at the courtroom to support him, she thought she was going to find “extremists,” but instead found regular women who have been steeped in rape culture and believe that Kelly's victims, almost all Black girls, did something to ‘ask for it,’ whether that was being too flirty or dressing too provocatively. What’s more, they had warped some difficult truths that are only just now gaining widespread acceptance—that our white supremacist society perceives Black men as inherently hypersexual, and thus a danger to (white) women, that Black children are unfairly criminalized as early as elementary school—into evidence of Kelly’s innocence. The thing is, they don’t do that because they lack intelligence. They do it because, like Chuck D and Davis, they have been indoctrinated into a system that prioritizes and protects men and devalues women, especially Black women. (And I guess Cosby is also part of that system, but as a perpetrator.)

Is all this concern for men actually necessary though? Because in general, being accused of rape doesn’t ruin their lives, particularly if the man in question is either powerful, wealthy or white. Nicole Bedera, a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, studies how colleges cover up sexual violence. “As part of my dissertation, I set out to gather evidence of whether or not men accused of rape really had their ‘lives ruined,’” she tweeted in 2019. “I never found any evidence of a ruined life. But I heard a lot of stories from survivors about overwhelming trauma, including a lot of suicide attempts.” Bedera offers up the example of “Justin,” an accused rapist who admitted to (successfully!!) using the “false allegation” against him as a pick-up strategy. His poor grades were wiped from his transcript—all his poor grades, to be clear, not just the ones from the semester of the allegation—and his tuition was refunded. One administrator didn’t want to make his life harder, so when other victims tried to report Justin, she just… didn’t file the necessary paperwork or notify the correct people for those allegations to be investigated. Bedera says “stories like Justin's were common in [her] field site.” Even being convicted doesn’t necessarily lead to consequences—or at least, not jail time, as Slate writer Lili Loofbourow succinctly argued in a 2018 Twitter thread and an insightful reported piece the following year.

Both of those examples were about regular people, but the same certainly goes for celebrities: Cosby's conviction has been overturned and he's out of prison. O'Reilly settled at least six sexual harassment claims to the tune of about $45 million and was fired from Fox in 2017, only to score a new radio show last year. Lauer is keeping a low professional profile, but he doesn't seem to have experienced any social consequences. Louis C.K. kicked off his comeback tour in New York back in August. Kevin Spacey was cast in his first movie, post-sexual assault allegations this spring. Russell Simmons, the hip hop mogul, was accused of sexual assault by 20 different women and while he did step down from his roles at Def Jam and Phat Pharm, he hasn't faced further professional consequences. Instead, he uses his social media to discredit his accusers, and pressures famous friends not to give their stories credence.


Instead of talking about redemption, let's talk about rehabilitation

Maybe I should pause here to acknowledge that I'm satisfied that Kelly was convicted and will soon be incarcerated, and that feels complicated after more than a year of talking and thinking about abolition. Like a lot of people who are newer to this idea, my intellectual understanding of the need to dismantle an oppressive system is butting up against a very visceral desire to see R. Kelly face meaningful consequences for his actions over the past three decades: for separating young women from their families, confining them to hotel rooms and private homes, controlling every aspect of their lives—literally requiring them to ask permission to do “most things,” according to a former assistant—and forcing them to perform sex acts according to his whims. For “training” them to serve him sexually, offering them around to his friends, hiding his herpes diagnosis from them and forcing at least one to get an abortion because she needed to “keep that body.” For beating them or locking them in a room for days at a time when they displeased him. I had a few conversations about this contradiction this week, and where I’ve landed is that prisons, especially as they exist now, are an imperfect way to extract accountability from criminals, but they are often our only options for someone as persistently violent as R. Kelly.

That's not to say I believe he's doomed, or that he can never get better. There's debate on the effectiveness of treatment for sex offenders, but I'm pretty sure that anyone can feel remorse, own their behaviour and work on themselves internally. But that's not redemption; that's rehabilitation. My problem with Chuck D, Cosby/Cosby's publicist and even Davis, the congressman who said Kelly could get a second chance, not to mention the singer's lingering fanbase, is that they don't seem to care whether he admits to his wrongdoing or does any real work to stop being a person who sees others merely as vessels for his desires. The very act of wondering how his reputation will recover implies that this recovery is inevitable. Frankly, even if he did that work, which I am not holding my breath will happen, it would be an internal process that doesn't really have anything to do with society at large.

No one is entitled to a redemption arc—especially not someone who maintains to this day that he did nothing wrong.

And Did You Hear About…

This perfectly snarky (and super smart) analysis of Drake and Kanye’s beef.  


The riveting, complicated follow-up to the NY Times2013 profile on then-11-year-old Dasani Coates.


Ellen Pompeo telling a story about being very rude to Denzel Washington thinking it was a flex (???), which is actually pretty on-brand for her.


Priya Krishna’s latest piece on the meaning of the Danish butter cookie tin and other immigrant storage solutions.


This fascinating deep-dive from earlier this month about Disney’s strategy for selling kids on patriotism post-9/11.


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