“Surviving R. Kelly,” the six-part documentary about the R&B singer Robert Kelly, who has faced accusations of child and sexual abuse for decades, underscores the theme of accountability — not just of Kelly or his many personal enablers, but of us all.
Clinical psychologists, music journalists, activists and others who are interviewed in this Lifetime series echo one another in their explanations of how the musician has managed to escape severe repercussions, legally and professionally, for decades.
Chief among them: the shielding powers of money and fame; society’s indifference toward the suffering of black and brown girls and women; a perception by some that the attacks on any black male celebrity, no matter how credible, are part of a larger racist conspiracy.
Another key factor: Laughter. Two cultural touchstones that helped shape the public’s perception of the Kelly accusations are only mentioned in passing in “Surviving R. Kelly.” But “(I Wanna) Pee on You,” a 2003 sketch from “Chappelle’s Show,” and a 2005 episode of the animated series “The Boondocks” titled “The Trial of R. Kelly,” embody many of the points made in the documentary.
Revisiting them in light of “Surviving R. Kelly” demonstrates how, for years, those who laughed at Kelly were able to ignore the charges against him. It also emphasizes how much the cultural climate has shifted in the era of #MuteRKelly protests, and how much it has stayed the same. (Kelly, who was acquitted in 2008 on charges of child pornography, has denied all allegations related to abuse of and sex with minors.)
In his sketch, the comedian Dave Chappelle took a straightforwardly silly approach to the allegations concerning a sex tape that appeared to show Kelly urinating on a 14-year-old girl. Dressed not unlike Kelly, in a pair of dark sunglasses and a bandanna, Chappelle stars in a music video in which he sings about wanting to urinate on the object of his affections. (“Your body is a porta potty.”) The melody aligns closely with Kelly’s song “Feelin’ on Yo Booty,” which is itself a rather preposterous song. (Kelly finds several comical ways to ad-lib the word “booty” at the end.)
The set is bare bones in comparison to a typical Kelly video; most of it takes place in front of a long white curtain, as Chappelle sprays a garden hose — which is very explicitly labeled “R. Kelly’s urine” — on an ensemble of gyrating women.
That’s an important distinction to make: The actors here are very obviously adult women, not pubescent girls. “(I Wanna) Pee on You” compartmentalizes the Kelly allegations and completely divorces it from its insidious facts; it’s easier (and safer) to poke fun at a grown man’s fetish than to wrestle with claims that he performed his fetish on a minor. (The Detroit Free Press reported that Chappelle, among other celebrities, declined to be interviewed for the documentary series.)
“The Trial of R. Kelly” is the second episode of “The Boondocks,” which centered on the misadventures of the socially conscious 10-year-old Huey and his more brazen, politically incorrect little brother Riley, both voiced by Regina King. The creator Aaron McGruder pulled no punches. With the singer’s highly publicized trial happening close to home, the boys head to Chicago to witness the circus, Riley carrying a “Free R. Kelly” sign.
When they encounter their nerdy neighbor Tom DuBois, who is representing the prosecution against Kelly, Riley lets loose an impassioned — and ridiculous — defense of the singer. Tom, shocked, counters that the alleged victim, depicted in the episode with pigtails and knee socks, is a little girl. Riley is having none of it. “I’ve seen that girl! She ain’t little; I’m little. Gary Coleman’s little.”
He argues for “personal responsibility,” suggests that the girl should have just moved out of the way of Kelly’s urine and adds that he doesn’t want to “miss out on the next R. Kelly album,” should Kelly be sent to jail.
“Boondocks” depicts Riley’s rhetoric as poisonous and the trial as a scathing farce. In the episode, Kelly’s white defense lawyer jumps through absurdist hoops to prove to the predominantly black jury that Kelly is a victim of racism. (He presents Kelly’s N.A.A.C.P. Image Award as evidence, and tells the jury, “They don’t want R. Kelly to be free because they don’t want you to be free!”)
By the end of the episode, Huey, the moral voice of reason, is standing up in the courtroom, admonishing the jurors and everyone else in attendance for giving Kelly a pass because he made good music. Every black person who is arrested “ain’t Nelson Mandela,” he scolds. Later, in voice over narration, he laments that “ignorance won” and he is “vexed at my people.”
As a scathing critique of Kelly’s deeds and black people’s complicity, unlike the Chappelle sketch, this episode still feels fresh, mostly. (Just look at comments on social media blaming the alleged victims in response to “Surviving R. Kelly.”) But McGruder’s stark delineation between Kelly’s supporters and dissenters plays into ugly stereotypes around class: Outside the courtroom, a loud, overweight black woman snacks on fried chicken while voicing her love for the singer; and three male protesters in suits are referred to by a news reporter as “scholars, activists, pillars of the African-American community.” (One of them looks just like Cornel West.)
In reality, black people of all demographics have supported Kelly. As noted in the documentary, the same day he pleaded not guilty to the child sex tape charge, he went to a church event in Chicago, where he performed alongside children, and was embraced by the congregation there.
McGruder overstepped the theme of “we are all responsible” by including the 14-year-old victim in his courtroom scene. (In the real trial, the girl identified as the alleged victim denied it was her in the video.)
In the episode, the girl’s testimony echoes Riley’s earlier argument to Tom: “If I didn’t want to get peed on, I’d just move out the way,” she says with an attitude. It’s hard to imagine this episode airing today and not inspiring backlash. It’s also entirely possible that McGruder wouldn’t make this same creative choice today.
But back when Kelly was still a consistent hit maker, the Chappelle sketch and this “Boondocks” episode were really funny. I can recall laughing about the skit with my friends in college, gleefully reciting lines like “Drip drip drip, pee on you.” I’m sure I chuckled the first time I heard the sassy black victim proclaim she’s not a victim on the stand. Even before the allegations, which I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, I was never much of a Kelly fan — I imagine “I Believe I Can Fly” is playing on loop somewhere in The Bad Place — but I did find him to be an excellent punch line for a long time.
Now, however, it’s impossible for me to watch those episodes and not think about the magnitude of everything Kelly has been accused of.
In the fourth episode of “Surviving R. Kelly,” the music journalist Ann Powers suggests that “Trapped in the Closet,” Kelly’s bonkers episodic soap operetta, was a strategic career move. “I think at some point he probably figured out that playing sex for laughs was a way that he could continue to avoid absolute condemnation for what he might have been doing behind the scenes,” she observes.
It’s hard to argue with this point — even now some have found humor in “Surviving R. Kelly,” roasting him for his rumored inability to read or write. Looking back on “Chappelle’s Show” and “Boondocks,” it’s clear that there was more than one way to let Kelly off the hook, and comedy was one of them. Even if I was never defending Kelly, I was still laughing at him, and effectively ignoring his alleged transgressions.
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