Did R. Kelly hide in plain sight?

Lauren Flowers, Intersections Editor

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  1. Kelly is from my home, Chicago. Not in the way Kanye West is from Chicago – a rapper who fashioned himself into a representation of “Chi-town” until he became a member of the Hollywood elite, never to be seen within my hometown again. Kelly, unlike West, has actually spent much of his life in Chicago.

He even chose to locate his recording studio, a former residence and a sex cult den, within the city’s confines according to Lifetime’s new smashing documentary, “Surviving R. Kelly.” From his birth on the South Side more than 50 years ago until now, Chicago has been Kelly’s true home. This creates varying levels of both pride and discomfort within its black community of which I am part of. Throughout his career, he has chosen to both uplift the city through song lyrics and abuse it through years of documented sexual abuse allegations, mostly from black women and girls.

It was not until the public reception of “Surviving Kelly,” however, that I realized how unaware the nationwide black community was of the crimes of Kelly. Though Kelly’s list of accused sexual transgressions dates back decades, as a native, black Chicagoan, I didn’t truly understand the magnitude to which I was living in a bubble in my knowledge of them.

In preparation for this story, I interviewed black Tulane students from across the country about whether they had any knowledge of Kelly’s checkered past prior to the documentary, and those The Hullabaloo spoke to all echoed the same sentiments: that, aside from the general pop culture awareness surrounding Kelly’s pedophilic tendencies, they knew basically nothing.

“I’d seen episodes of the Boondocks and heard rumors about things that he’d done, but I didn’t know for sure he’d done anything bad,” Djukka Lylecyrus, a freshman from Los Angeles, said.

Some students were even less familiar with Kelly’s controversy.

“No. I wasn’t aware of his past. I mean, I was always suspect of it with him and Aaliyah’s relationship, but I never thought anything of him.” Christiann McCannon of New Orleans said.

For others, “Surviving R. Kelly” was the first exposure to Kelly’s actions.

“I had no idea. I didn’t realize until the documentary,” Mikala Nellum, another Los Angeles native, said.

This lack of awareness within the nationwide black community concerning Kelly’s history came as a major revelation to me. Growing up as a member of Chicago’s black community, I knew of Kelly’s transgressions before I remember actually listening to his music.

Kelly was a sort of urban legend – a boogeyman known for hanging out around Chicago high schools. But, more personally, the underage girl in his infamous urine tapes actually went to my local high school. And in 2018, when massive protests in Chicago forced Kelly to cancel a large performance, I was close to some of the protests’ most influential organizers.

When Chance the Rapper, another Chicago-grown musician, collaborated with Kelly on a 2015 song, many black Chicagoans, notably women and girls, collectively sighed. Chance, a native of Chicago’s South Side, was definitely aware of Kelly’s discomforting citywide presence. The gospel-influenced rapper’s lyrics about his dedication to religion and its virtues seemed hollow from that point forward to me and many of the women I was close to. But as many listeners of contemporary rap know, Chance’s song with Kelly had no notably negative impact on him on a large scale. In fact, the song was perhaps a stepping stone to the fame he attained with his mixtape, “Coloring Book,” in 2016, which catapulted him to nationwide stardom.

Mentioning that Chance recently apologized for his choice to work with Kelly is, nonetheless, important. He hypothesized that the reason he so easily ignored Kelly’s dangerous past was because most of his crimes affected black women. This idea has been discussed openly within Chicago’s black community for years, however, and Chance while at least apologetic for his actions must have ignored much of this citywide conversation in the years he spent by Kelly’s side.

But somehow, the majority of the black community outside of Chicago – as well as most of the country, regardless of race – simply did not know anything at all. The screams of Kelly’s accusers and their supporters seemed to evaporate once they hit Chicago city limits. Somehow, in the fray of powerful man after powerful man being taken down by the #MeToo movement during the past two years, Kelly, a global superstar, remained unscathed. In the aftermath of “Surviving R. Kelly,” I find myself wondering why, and also if his time has finally come.