Songs of old take on a new mold.
This past Wednesday, R&B singer R. Kelly found himself in a Chicago courtroom where prosecutors presented a DVD allegedly showing Kelly and an underage victim having sex. This tape, supposedly filmed during the 1990s, adds to a long list of accusations made against the singer, spanning from criminal sexual assault by force to aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Talk of Kelly’s alleged unlawful activities has been circulating for about two decades. Nevertheless, he has only been charged with a sex crime once in Chicago and was acquitted in 2008.
News of Kelly’s alleged criminal behaviors did not seem very important to the public until a six-part documentary entitled Surviving R. Kelly aired on Lifetime in January 2019. In it several women and family members of alleged victims describe the singer’s history of sexual, mental, and physical abuse towards females. This past Father’s Day, the parents of Joycelyn Savage, who are featured in the documentary, spoke to TMZ about Savage’s relationship with Kelly and how he has made her a sex slave. They furthermore asserted that she is brainwashed. With numerous legal matters being hurled at Kelly, the dynamic between he and Savage is important to consider since she has been one of the few women supporting the singer after being in a relationship with him.
In early May 2019 Savage and Azriel Clary, who is also currently dating Kelly, were featured in an interview with CBS This Morning, where they both defended the singer. Kelly reportedly met Savage at age 19 during a concert — she is now 23 — while Kelly and Clary reportedly connected at one of his concerts when she was 17 — now 21. The singer is currently 52. Savage and Clary’s interview sparked major headlines, especially since they both asserted that their parents were to blame for using Kelly to make money and forcing them into relationships with him.
A common theme seen in Kelly’s dealings with young girls is that their family members often consider him a mentor or someone who can help advance their music careers. For example, there have been allegations that both Savage and Clary were lured by the singer with promises of helping them excel musically. Regarding the sex crime Kelly was acquitted of in 2008, which involved an underage girl in another 90s sex tape, he supposedly preyed on the victim after being introduced to her at age 12 by her aunt, who had hopes of stardom. In all three cases, the alleged victims did not accuse him of wrongdoing. Most notably, the girl suspected to be in the 90s sex tape with the singer denied her involvement. Situations such as these have led to questions about the motives of Kelly’s alleged victims, their families, and Kelly himself. If this pattern continues, Kelly may never find himself jailed in connection to a sex crime.
Regarding the females defending Kelly, one must assess the reasons for their actions. This is important considering the most recent sex tape allegedly involving the singer and an underage victim. What is causing his female companions, such as Savage who after the CBS This Morning interview called her parents saying she is comfortable with her decision, to defend their relationships? One answer might be that these individuals truly grew fond of Kelly despite there being an age gap. Such an occurrence is not farfetched. Another reason could be that these young females are rebelling against their families and see the singer as a comforting figure.
If it just so happens that Kelly is in fact guilty, there is one explanation most fitting — Stockholm syndrome. According to Stevens (2014), Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response frequently observed in abducted hostages, in which the hostage shows signs of loyalty toward their captor. In the case of Kelly, his victims, once “protégés,” would be considered the abducted hostages while he is the captor. Furthermore, Jülich and Oak (2016) stated that the development of this condition is likelier to occur in victims of child sexual abuse. This further justifies accusations that Kelly has been or is currently committing sex crimes. Why else would his female companions, once introduced to him as young girls or impressionable youth, be running to his defense? Unfortunately, this is also a complex issue.
Bump n’ Grind
While sexual abusers can lure victims in numerous ways, one method that strongly applies to Kelly is grooming. Jülich and Oak (2016) argued that grooming techniques used by those sexually abusing children facilitates the development of traumatic bonding, or Stockholm syndrome, which can protect the abuser for decades. Chase and Statham (2005) narrowed down the grooming process to a four-stage continuum: 1) identify a vulnerable child, such as one having a problematic relationship with their parents, 2) socially isolate that child, 3) develop an emotional attachment, and 4) isolate the child from their families to gain complete control (as cited in Jülich & Oak, 2016). Another point to consider is that grooming is a long-term strategy often done so well that accusations against perpetrators are regularly dismissed due to a position of trust gained in a community. Lastly, groomers have a knack for meeting certain community needs — in the case of Kelly, families looking to push their young girls to stardom.
Discussions about Stockholm syndrome and grooming further the claims that Kelly has engaged in criminal behaviors. However, Åse (2015) purported that “women have paradigmatically been seen as victims rather than agents or offenders in situations involving crime and violence” (Åse, 2015, p. 602). Thus, in some cases the narrative that Kelly has been brainwashing his female companions or holding them hostage might be giving the singer more power than necessary. For example, Savage, though young, was legally a consenting adult when she met Kelly. Thus, her decisions are, in theory, her own. While public perception has painted those in relationships with Kelly as innocent, that may not always be the case. Maud Eduards (2007) claimed that protecting women often relies on objectifying them “and crediting them with a lack of agency” (as cited in Åse, 2015, p. 604). To date, Savage has asserted that she is “happy” and “not being brainwashed.” Why then are women like her considered a victim?
Trapped in the Closet
In closing, the controversy surrounding Kelly is multifaceted and complicated. In the court of public opinion, he is guilty of all crimes being thrown at him. This is understandable considering the many coincidences and similarities seen with the singer’s alleged victims. Moreover, when introducing Stockholm syndrome and grooming, one can further understand why Kelly’s past and current female companions might run to his defense. When referencing legally consenting women the singer has been in relationships with, however, it is imperative that their decision making be respected. Failure to do so in this case or any others like it takes away agency from women and their ability to choose.
Ultimately, those with a questionable history of abusing females should not be given the opportunity to mentor anyone. Parents and family members hoping to catapult their daughters and young girls to stardom must do so cautiously. Otherwise, stories like that of Kelly will be more common. Society must do more to protect women of all ages. This is especially important within the music industry, where female bodies are sexualized and belittled all too often.
Åse, C. (2015). Crisis narratives and masculinist protection: Gendering the original stockholm syndrome. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 17(4), 595–610.
Jülich, S. J., & Oak, E. B. (2016). Does grooming facilitate the development of stockholm syndrome?: The social work practice implications. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28(3), 47.
Stevens, P. (2014). Recent trends in explaining abuse within intimate relationships. The Journal of Criminal Law, 78(2), 184–193.