Pardon me if the headline is a tad too bitter, but I was given a rude awakening today as I walked out of the movie theater.
I was turning my phone ringer back on, and I noticed a text message from a friend of mine:
did u hear about r kelly?
I had to immediately hit the Google news aggregator and find out for myself. Standing right next to the double-door exit at the Lloyd Center cinemas, I was trolling for headlines on my HTC Mogul. I don’t know why, but I just had to know.
Now it’s bad enough that the dude was acquitted. I mean, it’s like the one time where you want the brotha to be found guilty, and somehow, he skates.
(I can hear the Fox News talking heads already: “First O.J., now this! What is this world coming to?!”)
But what I found to be most disconcerting was that buried somewhere in almost every news service carrying the verdict, Kelly is quoted saying “thank you Jesus” over and over.
I know that while He was on the earth, Jesus made a habit of associating himself with the outcasts of society, but how exactly did we end up in a situation where the name of Jesus has become the rallying cry for not only the biggest ego in hip-hop, but an R&B superstar acquitted of child pornography charges?
When exactly did we (and by we I don’t just mean Americans, I mean specifically Black people) reach the point of such low expectations that a child porn accusation not only doesn’t kill the remains of an entertainer’s career, but ostensibly enhances it?
I’m just imagining some storefront church on Chicago’s South Side:
“I got a praise report, y’all!”
“A lot of folks said that it, huh…. wouldn’t happen, but…”
“But I come to tell you today, that, huh… R. Kelly was acquitted! THANK ya JEEEZUS!!!”
Okay, maybe that was mean spirited.
As a matter of fact, if a White person had written that, it’s possible that I might have been offended.
But that, in my mind, is part of the problem.
Look, I’m not here to throw stones. I know, as Pastor Pops is known to say, that all of us have our own personal hall of shame, and most of us don’t have to read about it in the papers. Robert Kelly is no more or less worthy of forgiveness and redemption than any of us.
I also know that from a legal standpoint, the jury very good reasons for returning the verdict that it did, just as the Simi Valley jury did with Mark Fuhrman and the L.A. cops who beat Rodney King.
But I can’t shake the feeling that’s been coming on for awhile.
That the pride that I used to have in having roots in African-American culture, that pride is dwindling. That what once felt like my people’s firm commitment to Godliness turned out to be nothing more than religious naivete. And that our stubborn sense of loyalty in defending our pop culture heroes is compromising our ability to see the truth, especially when it relates to music and sexuality.
Lest you think I’m blowing this out of proportion, consider that in the Sun-Times reporter’s blog post that I linked to, there is mention of one of Kelly’s defense attorneys quoting Scripture in an effort to curry favor with certain jurors. When Aaron McGruder predicted this outcome two years ago, it was funny. Now, it’s just sad.
Maybe it’s a good thing that this sense of pride has been eroded. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so proud to be connected to a people with such a rich heritage of church life that engages community and helps to fight the status quo. Maybe these small irritations are God’s way of reminding me that He doesn’t play favorites, that churched Black people are just as needy of redemption as unchurched White people. Like with Peter and Cornelius, God can and often does use unusual circumstances to communicate his desire to see all people come to him.
Maybe I’m just feeling especially embarrassed by the misbehaving African-American youth in my own area, several of whom were arrested for brutalizing a White woman riding the light rail train through my neighborhood.
But either way, I can’t just tsk-tsk and move on with my life.
If you can, and you feel led to, then go right ahead. This is not meant to be a guilt trip. If this whole thing is too overwhelming, or if it honestly doesn’t impact you at all, then just walk on, do your thing, and I won’t be too upset.
But I can’t do that.
I don’t know why, but this acquittal has just affected me in ways that I don’t even completely understand. And I have to do something.
So lacking the PR connections to do anything more grandiose, I offer a few observations that, hopefully, will leave us all a bit wiser and more edified. If you so desire, feel free to quote me. You don’t even have to give attribution. I feel that strongly about this.
- We should remember R. Kelly the next time our favorite celebrity is accused of something unseemly.
Not because their money and influence can and probably will help them resolve the situation and most likely avoid jail time, but because this is the most obvious example of blind infatuation clouding the collective judgment of a fanbase (in this case, African-Americans between 15 and 32). The irony of this is that Black people are often the best at seeing this pattern among White people, especially White fans of Black celebrities (see: Michael Jackson). I had a similar reaction many years ago when Bill Cosby was being blackmailed over paternity results. Not good old Cliff Huxtable… what would Sandra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa and Rudy think?
- Concerned parents, mentors and citizens must do everything possible to invest a sense of worth in our young girls, particularly our young Black girls, because society will not do it for them.
I hope this point will not get lost amidst plaintive cries from the political right for personal accountability. Because obviously both parties, R. Kelly and the underage girl, bear some level of personal responsibility for their actions. I do not wish to obfuscate this point. Nevertheless, the identity of the girl on the tape is, for the most part, irrelevant, because obviously R. Kelly had underage sex with some underage girl. And it’s likely that he did it more than once, considering how many times he settled out of court in response to previous accusations. What this says to me is that little girls need the love of a father in their life, and if they don’t get it at home from their real fathers, they’ll get it any way they can, even if that “love” ends up being immoral, grotesque, embarrassing, and illegal.
- Loyalists to any particular cause need to be careful about who they choose to rally around, lest they lose credibility in the eyes of the broader public.
Nowhere is this more clear than with R. Kelly, the man who was honored with an NCAAP Image award two years after being indicted on child porn charges. If nothing else, I hope this will help my people to avoid the temptation to cry wolf when it comes to racism in America.
Because R. Kelly, of all people, got off.
And it’s not like you can use the excuse that a lot of us used for O.J. or M.J., which was, “well of course he got off… he’s a sell-out!” By just about any racial or cultural definition, R. Kelly is not a sell-out. R. Kelly is not beloved by White people in the same way that, say, Michael Jackson was (and in some cases, still is). Robert Kelly is not Barack Obama. He’s R-freaking-Kelly. The man who immortalized the phrase “you remind me of my Jeep” — and guess what, he wasn’t talking about superior craftsmanship, either.
However, he had the best legal team money can buy, and they did their jobs. For him, this is obviously a good thing. But when Black people blindly rush to Kelly’s defense, there is a hidden cost, a trickle down effect, an erosion of public confidence. Eventually, people lose their ability to understand or recognize actual racism. Eventually, complex situations rife with real injustice that is connected to racialized behavior, get shrugged off as just the ramblings a few Blacks with an ax to grind, “playing the race card” again.
This, to me, was the real tragedy of the Don Imus /Rutgers women’s basketball team furor. The lesson that many White people walked out of that situation with was that Black rappers can call Black women hoes all day long, but a White man will lose his job over it.
This, friends, should not be.
Now that Kelly has been exonerated, Slick Rick has been pardoned, and Tookie Williams is gone, maybe my people will stop looking to celebrities for causes to champion. Because no matter how much we think we’re doing our part to support justice, there is always a backlash of opposition. The less credible the celebrity, the louder the backlash. And if you think I’m barking in the wind, check out this website, which purports to refute certain facts concerning the legacy of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
(For the record, I don’t know if Carter is guilty or not, and I don’t so much care, but the fact that there are those devoted to upholding the idea of his guilt speaks volumes.)
In the end it will be Kelly, like the rest of us, who will have to live with the consequences of his actions. And say what you will about R. Kelly, but at least his conduct has proven that he doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk, too. Maybe that’s the one shred of positivity we can glean from his public persona.
So if you want to find a good example of White people using fear and guilt to engineer a wholesale character assassination and bring a Black man down, there are numerous examples of that very thing happening to Senator Barack Obama. (His campaign just introduced fightthesmears.com to counter the rumors that he’s a Muslim and other untruths.) By all means, speak up about it. Be passionate. Stand firm in your convictions.
But leave R. Kelly out of it. Because the last thing Robert Kelly needs is the enabling of more adoring fans.
Since he’s walking, let him walk.
Maybe after his walk, he can take a nice cold shower.
I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.