CW (content warning) Sexual abuse, statutory rape, child marriage, sex trafficking
For the past two days, I have indulged in the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary. As much as I knew it would upset me, given my own experiences (detailed in my book, “The Teen Sex Trade: My Story, available here), I couldn’t stop watching. One by one, women sat in a director’s chair, in front of a camera and bravely told their story. It took me checking in with myself multiple times to remind myself that these women are talking about R. Kelly. The R. Kelly! Singer of some of my favorite songs like, “I Wish”, “Seems Like You’re Ready”, “When a Woman’s Fed Up”, and “Honey Love”. The same R. Kelly that my former pimp, Carma, would play for me on a burnt CD while we drove around the city.
I remember growing up hearing about R. Kelly’s marriage to Aaliyah and thinking to myself, “That’s strange. Isn’t he old?”, but not giving it much thought. Kelly was 27 years old and Aaliyah was 15 at the time of the marriage. I was two years old when they were married. It seemed so far away and irrelevant, truthfully speaking. I still listened to his music. My mother blasted, “Step in the Name of Love” at every house party and holiday get together. I distinctly remember saying, “He can pee on me!”, when I learned of R. Kelly urinating on a young girl. I didn’t know the severity of my words until I was older. It seemed as though the story blew up and then went away. Again, I continued to listen to his music.
Fast forward to the last two days, I am drawn to watch the documentary out of curiosity so that I could see what actually happened. What were women saying about R. Kelly? What exactly did he do? The more I watched, the sicker I felt. Here were these women who, in their tender teenage years, were lured by R. Kelly’s grandiose and promises of a career. They spoke on how funny and charming he was, describing him as “easy to talk to”. Each of them felt a special connection to Kelly. To bring the matter closer to home, some of the girls’ parents appeared in the documentary to speak on their experiences. One set of parents have not seen their daughter in over three years as she is being held captive in Kelly’s home. The father described his daughter as having Stockholm Syndrome. For those unfamiliar with the term, to my understanding, it is when a person falls in love with their captor. It is a psychological bond to an individual, formed through trauma, as a means to stay alive. It can last during and after the incident in question. This would explain Michelle Gardner’s daughter who returned to Kelly three days after being rescued by her mother (thankfully, she left again and is now free).
Aside from the descriptions of abuse that the women spoke about, one thing that triggered me was the eerie resemblance of R. Kelly’s pedophilia tactics to the tactics of human trafficking as well as domestic violence. The cycle of abuse is very much the same. It starts with the luring stage where they get to know you through deep, consistent, and seemingly intimate conversation. Here, you share very personal information about yourself and they may share details of themselves with you as well, usually traumatic or heart wrenching tales. This is an effort to gain your trust and to see if you are someone who they can continue their tactics with. Next is the so called honeymoon stage where they adorn you with gifts, attention, time, whatever it is that you’re into (that they learned in the first stage). As the cycle grows, they will begin to withdraw whatever it is that is making you feel happy/in love/attached. In a tug of war fashion, they will take it then give it then take it then give it. This is to confuse you and to see just what you will do to regain their affections. When they feel they have you hooked on them, they will proceed to push your boundaries. This may look like introducing or exposing you to sexual acts that you are not previously privy too (i.e. In R.Kelly’s case, he had taken some of these young women’s virginity and introduced them to three somes). This can look like having you behave in a risky way or engage in illegal activity. It is also a way to strategically blur the lines of consent and/or have material to blackmail you with. When someone (particularly a person in a position of power) blurs your line of consent, it is easy to come out of character and do things you wouldn’t normally do because in a way, you’ve forgotten what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not, given what you’ve been exposed to. Now, once you are all the way broken down in this stage, it’s expected that the perpetrator will isolate you from friends and family either physically by moving you to another location or mentally/emotionally, estranging you from those who care about you. Those who perpetrate abuse will convince you that only they love you and nobody else. After that, once they have you alone in all aspects, they pretty much use whatever tactics they wish to continue to control you whether that be physical violence, emotional or sexual abuse. For Kelly, his thing was sexual. From the allegations, and I hate to even call them that because I BELIEVE THEM, we know that he practices dominance and control in sexual environments to maintain power and indulge in his own perverse fantasies. In my experience, the end goal or tactic was me being sexually exploited for monetary gain. But, everything was the same leading up to that. For domestic abusers, their end goals is a sort of “all or nothing” mentality where they think they love you so much that they will literally die and/or kill you in the name of nobody else having you. These abusers claim ownership of you, to do with you as they wish.
Another trigger for me, which led me to tears while watching the documentary was being reminded that on more than one occasion, I was one of those girls. When I was a preteen, I was “seeing” a man seven years older than me. To give you an idea of what our interactions looked like, this man frequented my local recreation centre. At one point, he worked there, if my memory serves me correctly. We spent time together at his workplace and at night. We would talk, hug up on each other and kiss. Sometimes, he took me for drives. He never had sex with me but we evidently had feelings for each other. So much so that other people began to catch on. His mother didn’t like me. Whenever I saw her, I was met with a cold stare. She knew. So many people knew. Admittedly, I felt like I was head over heels for this man. He was beautiful and gave me attention. I would consistently break my curfew of 10:00pm at my foster house to stay out late with him. This went on for years on and off. When I got further into my teenage years, after losing my virginity to someone else, I wanted to have sex with him. He still wouldn’t. He told me that he doesn’t just have sex with women, they have to be doing something for him, adding something to his life. Where I’m from, that is code for, “You have to pay me”. This man who I thought I’d loved for all those years turned out to be a pimp and he was giving me the code phrase to join his team. No, thanks! In high school, he would drop me off or pick me up from school sometimes. I remember one day, after he dropped me off, he text me and said, “From now on I want you to call me Zaddy”. When I asked him why, he replied saying because he said so. I felt weird but was excited at the idea. I called him that once and it felt so weird, I never said it again but clearly from his tone of voice in his response, he enjoyed it. Looking back on those years now, it blows my mind how he could have entertained me, how people around us watched him entertain me. His mother disliked me because her son liked me! I fully acknowledge that I had a fixation on him and I don’t really know why he didn’t take it so far as to have sex with me (because I would have) but he was wrong. He was wrong. He was grown! He should have known better.
My other experience with an older guy at that time was with a guy who was 17 while I was 14. The first day I met him, my brother told me to get out the mens’ face and this guy replied by saying, “She wants to show her shape! Let her!” I will never forget that because immediately my 14 year old brain was floored that this older guy noticed me. I don’t remember how we exchanged numbers but we began hanging out alone, without my brother. He would pick me up and we would drive around. He would be fingering me with one hand and driving with the other, going to secluded spots to have sex in his car. Sometimes, he would sneak me into his house. He would tell me to be quiet until I got into his room and even then to speak in hushed tones. Each time, he would bring our shoes into his bedroom so that his mom didn’t come downstairs looking to see who he was with. This went on for a year or so. He was having sex with another girl my age, at the same time. He was her boyfriend first. Although he would say I was “his girl” and deny her, I knew. There were years when I didn’t see or speak to him, after having moved around and out of province, but we were on speaking terms and really had no bad blood. Many times, as I reflected on this experience, I felt that it had been wrong in regards to our age difference but I liked him. I couldn’t deny that. And, even when I didn’t, cause there were times, I liked having sex with him. Sometimes, it was out of convenience or familiarity but I initiated or agreed to it nonetheless. Why then, am I sitting here feeling conflicted all over again after having watched Surviving R.Kelly?
Pretty much my whole timeline is posting their thoughts on the documentary and dare I say “picking sides” on whether they will continue to support Kelly’s music or #MuteRKelly. For the most part, I could scroll without attachment, deciding for myself that I wouldn’t listen to his music and continue on with my day. That was until I saw him post that he would be boycotting R.Kelly. I clutched my fake pearls, taken aback. I thought to myself, “Oh! So, when it’s R.Kelly fucking underage girls, you’re upset. But, you do the same thing!” After quickly considering if it was worth my energy or not and a word of advice from a woman I look up to, I decided to send him a message rather than call him out on his status. We had the following conversation:
Immediately after he replied, he blocked me on Facebook and Instagram. It seems to me as though he was deflecting, in a major way, excusing his behaviors as not knowing any better. He made it a point to apologize, which I accept. He didn’t have to do that. Was it sincere? I may never know but at least he said it. Apologies are important. Never as important as changed behavior but important nonetheless. He noted that he doesn’t or “never did things with a bad intent” and if he ever did he “always fixed it or asked God” to show him his way with how to correct himself. But, does intention matter if the impact was different than you intended? Regardless on whether I consented or not, According to the Department of Justice, consent is define as follows:
** “A person must be at least 16 years old to be able to legally agree to sexual activity. Close in age exceptions: A 14 or 15 year old can consent to sexual activity as long as the partner is less than five years older and there is no relationship of trust, authority or dependency or any other exploitation of the young person. This means that if the partner is 5 years or older than the 14 or 15 year old, any sexual activity is a criminal offence”
Legally speaking, my consent was valid. Still, just because something is legal, does not make it right. I would be mortified if either of my children at 14 years old told me they were having sex with a 17 or 18 year old. To put it into context, think of what you can do at the ages of 17 and 18. You can legally operate a motor vehicle. You have graduated high school or you are just about to, depending on the time of year. You can’t get into the club yet but you have probably talked your way into one or two alongside some older friends. Now, imagine what a 14 year old has access to… My curfew was 10:00pm! I didn’t have much freedom at all, legally or otherwise. I had to break the rules of my household in order to creep out and get picked up by this man. I had to lie and tell my foster parents I was staying at my home girl’s house, careful to instruct her to put us on 3 way if my foster mom asked to speak to me. I knew what I was doing was wrong. I was breaking the rules but it was exciting! What were his reasons? Truth be told, I had fun with him. Yes, sometimes he would hurt my feelings due to his scandalous back and forth bullshit with me and his girlfriend but mostly we had fun together. Does that negate his actions? Does that make it okay?
I haven’t revisited these moments in my life in quite a while. At odd times, it would cross my mind or come up in conversation while reminiscing with my girlfriends but it has never warranted such an emotional reaction as it did while watching Surviving R. Kelly. Why now? I am a mother. I don’t mourn so much for myself as I do for the (now) women who survived R. Kelly and for my children who, one day, will likely experience their own traumas, beyond my control. As I watched this documentary, I held my daughter and mourned, holding tight to my son as if to say, “You betttt not!” Silently praying to the ancestors that they see to it that neither of my children ever experience anything close to what these women endured. To make matters even more difficult, after watching the documentary, I still had to be a mom! All I wanted to do was process. Write. Cry. Sleep, for God’s sake. But, how could I? There was supper to be made. Dishes to be done. Baths to be drawn. Bedtime stories to be read. How then, do you survive motherhood in light of being triggered by your past? In the dire instances when you simply need to just be? For me, that survival comes in six steps.
- Pause: Sometimes, you will need to drop everything and just be. Turn the tv off. Go into another room and shut the door. Cry, if you need to. Hug your children. Take a step back from whatever it is heightening your emotions. Most importantly breathe. Imagine a ball of oxygen traveling from your mouth , down your throat, and to your navel. Let it out, loudly. Haaaaaa!
- Be gentle with yourself: In the sweet words of Nayyirah Waheed, “Be gentle with yourself. You are a breathing thing. A memory to someone. A home to a life. Before and above all else, you need you. It is when you show up for yourself that you can show up for your children, who also need you. It is okay to cry. It is understandable if you yell at times, even if you think it’s too much in the run of a day. It is crucial that you take a breather but come back to yourself. Come back to them.
- Express: No matter which way you paint it, literally or figuratively, you must get those emotions out of your brain and your heart. Get them onto a surface. That might look like a canvas, sketchbook, a beat or journal. Whatever that looks like for you, let it out. If you hold in your pain, it will numb you, even kill you and I’m honestly not sure which of those is worse.
- Claim: Your pain is your own. It is not healed by anyone else but you. You must take hold of it. Pain is like a leaking water faucet. The longer you take to fix it, the more it will fill up your sink, leading it will overflow. But, once you fix it, it’s fixed and all there is left to do is clean up the mess it made. At times, your leak will return. When it does, fix it again and again. You fix it until you don’t need to fix it anymore. You may come to realize that this sink (pain) is unable to be fixed, in need of replacing. This is okay. You are healing. It is here where you realize, it is time to let this pain go, to make room for new experiences.
- Release: Eventually, you must let it go. You must release the burden of shame, blame, and guilt. This is when you turn from Victim to Survivor. It does not excuse past aggressions made against you. It does not condone your perpetrator(s) actions. It does, however, rid you of the burdens that you carry in their name.
- Thrive: Get the bag sis! This is when you shine! When you have embraced the journey and committed to bettering yourself, this is when you win. Often times, we are told that if we still cry about an incident, we are not truly over it. Fuck that! Let those tears fall! Just know that what’s to come on the other side of those water works is a bag with only your name on it that comes equipped with spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial blessings. All of that and more! Once you get serious about your healing, everything that is to be yours begins its course towards you, just as the earth courses the sun. If blessings are the Earth, you are the sun, sis. Let those blessings orbit your light.
I came to win. To fight. To conquer. To thrive.
I came to win. To survive To prosper. To rise.
– Nicki Minaj