“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Throughout history, societal pressures have coerced many people into silence and consequently, into acceptance of unacceptable things.
Robert Kelly, commonly known as R. Kelly, rose to fame in the early 1990s and quickly landed on the top of the charts, widely being labeled as the “King of R&B.” For nearly three decades, Kelly has continued to take the world by storm with a steady and fiercely loyal fanbase, sold out shows, and chart-topping hits.
Over the following three decades, Kelly released 17 studio albums, many that became Platinum and Gold records, made millions, and charmed the public with his strong, smooth voice and dynamic presence. During that time, he also married a 15-year-old girl, faced over 30 counts of child pornography – including a sex tape in which he allegedly raped and degraded a minor, settled numerous court cases with young women, and found himself accused of running a “cult” inside his home.
In spite of those actions, Kelly still releases new hits and performs at sold-out shows while a large portion of the world communities choose to ignore decades of rape and abuse allegations.
We see this time and time again in the music industry, the film industry, schools, sports, in every nation and in every industry and institution. Time and time again we see the signs, the evidence, the facts. And we ignore these warnings because our society has made it difficult to stand up and stand out.
The victims fear speaking, and those who surround the victim often feel it will cause less pain if everyone stays quiet. The problem is, we are systematically, unconsciously causing monumental trauma for others. This mentality is instilled in us even in our early years and it becomes a part of who we are. Remember seeing a kid being bullied or ostracized in school and choosing to not offer support to the kid for fear of being bullied and ostracized yourself? The choice feels inconsequential, but the problem is that we give bullies more strength and a greater sense of entitlement. They now have support and no objection, and can go on to cause more pain for more people.
What often inspires us to say or do something about a bully, is when one person decides to leave their zone of comfort and stand up for what is right. After all, if we see everyone staying quiet, how can we ever know that speaking up does more good than harm?
It is understandable that human beings commonly, willingly blind their eyes to avoid controversy. It is a practice ingrained in us. We fear backlash, we fear “losing” our place, but it is also imperative – now more than ever – to choose to see and face the truth. Of course, the truth is often even harder to face when the horror we must accept is something we once loved or admired.
In the case of R. Kelly and many other celebrities, we hear people say, “I’m going to separate the man from the music” (or movie, or work of art, the sport), but these are not two separate entities. These are not two things that can be separated, because inevitably the success for one is success for the other. On a spiritual level, art is organically created by what is in the heart.
If what is in the heart involves manipulation to gain control, and if that control is gained by what an artist sells and how it can contribute to hiding the truth, what is made in art is also made for the person. It cannot be separated. Both the person and the art contribute to the evil that is done in real life. Neither the person, the art or the awful deeds can continue without support of those who remain willfully blind.
In 1994, When R. Kelly married 15-year-old Aaliyah, most of his supporters accepted or ignored the truth and continued to bankroll him. Years later, after his child pornography trials, artists continued to collaborate with him and fans continued to buy tickets and download albums. Now, in light of the six-part Lifetime series “Surviving R. Kelly,” some of those very supporters and collaborators are coming out to publicly denounce him. They offer kind words to the survivors, who had their lives forever changed by Kelly’s perversion and abuse.
I believe some of these people are finally removing their blindfolds and choosing to face and support the truth. I also think that for many it was justifiable to ignore the truth in order to benefit from working with Kelly while these allegations were somewhat in the dark. But now that the spotlight is on, they feel the pressure to step up and speak out. Once again, it is to the benefit of themselves and to save their own image.
We as a society have to understand that those who remained blind did so because it served their personal purpose. Therefore, some of those who now speak up are doing so for the same reasons.
Integrity is one of the most important things in the world. We must choose to do what is right whether someone is watching or not. Whether we are benefiting or not. Whether we are being asked to or not. We must have the same values and principles in our own lives as we have when others are watching. If we do not do this, individually and collectively, then the fault for the detriment of our community falls not only on the shoulders of the evil, but on the shoulders of those who say and do nothing when faced with confronting that very evil.
We can no longer choose to live in the grey area of justice, there is no such place. People either stand with the broken or they play a part in further breaking them. We can no longer support evil behavior. We can no longer separate the man from the music as we buy his albums and further inflate his ego. We give him that money, we give him the means to continue his behavior, and reward him for doing so. We can no longer remain neutral to save ourselves.
Taking a stand against what is wrong, against abuse, against oppression, it takes purposeful action by every member of our neighborhood, every single day. It starts with not rewarding bad behavior for our own selfish desires.
As the wrongdoings that R. Kelly committed for years come to light and begin to enter the public’s awareness, there are several others like him in professional industries that remain cloaked in darkness because we are not willing to see. The irony is that we work hard to earn a paycheck to provide a better life for our children, then use that same hard earned money to continue supporting an institutional behavior that robs the very same children of their innocence.
I think R. Kelly has a beautiful voice. I used to listen to his songs and admire his talent. I come from a musical family and value music greatly. But I value women and survivors of sexual assault more than I value my own desire to listen to a good song or watch a well-made film.
As I ponder and reflect on what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for, I know that nothing in this world that has changed for the better, in the face of evil, was ever changed by someone doing the same thing over and over again. It has always been changed by people who were willing to risk everything.
Change has only been made by people who were not in the majority, but who were willing to make a statement about the truth. Change has been made by people who cared that their silence contributed to the continuance of evil, and that it would require them to let go of all their personal security.
In order to accomplish good, they had to make sacrifices to save others. In this modern context, people need only recognize how small actions contribute to the larger problem. Boycotts start with an individual choice. How we spend our money affirms what we value. Denying a moment of our own gratification, and saving money in the process, can move the world if everyone participates.
It is time for us to wake up to the part we all play in our shared problems. They are of our own making, and so are the solutions to them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hannah Neumann has served as editor for several national award-winning publications, and uses her talents in writing and photography to highlight social causes. Her work with nonprofit charities continues to inspire her focus on solutions-based journalism.