Passed Notes & Poems
a monthly feature by
R. Kelly tune you dance to topless in
the 90’s, main stage stripper’s choice of song,
the one that says “nothing wrong.” You listen,
a child abuse victim, bubblegum thong
to lyrics saying you belong. Back bent
atop one more businessman, you don’t
understand this song’s not about consent,
adults, the sex positivity you want
it to be — boobs below a chin again
so you can be financially free
from an abusive family — that when
he says confess it means molest. Don’t see
the broken, starving girls inside the song,
house In Georgia where everything’s wrong.
**Listen to Kristin read her poem here!**
Author’s Note: Usually, if I write an essay about a song, as this most definitely is, I would encourage the reader to listen to the song. Today, I’m going to ask that you don’t. For those of you have seen the documentary Surviving R. Kelly or are familiar with the story of his abuses against women and children, you will understand. If somehow, you aren’t, please keep reading and #muterkelly. Do not enable his abuse by enabling his wallet.
At 25, I danced topless to R. Kelly, on multiple occasions. It was the late 1990’s and his hit Bump N’ Grind was very prevalent in the strip club where I worked (and I’m sure many others.) It wasn’t a song I’d choose to dance to myself, having a rather limited scope of musical exposure when I started stripping.
There’s one sound system in a strip club – at least, mine. Even though the outside of our club looked like a concrete castle on the main drag to a bridge to the beach, it was essentially a very large one-room castle with an open floor plan. We had a VIP champagne room, but it was only separated from the club by a suggestion of half-walls. No matter where you sat, there was one soundtrack, and the dictator of each song, except for the ones you chose when it was your appointed turn, was the girl dancing on main stage.
Just as there was a wide array of personalities, looks of dancers, there was a wide array of songs, even genres that varied from main stage set to the next – from big band music, ska, heavy metal, pop R&B to ballads. I credit my diverse music interests to this exposure, spending three or four nights a week largely dancing to other people’s music.
I knew maybe one Metallica song before I worked at the club, and by the time I left I was a big fan. I had never heard an R. Kelly song before I came to the strip club. -- knew nothing about the singer himself, but I enjoyed dancing to Bump N’ Grind. Believed it, errantly, to be about sex positivity.
Having been both sexually abused and also shamed about sex in my upbringing, my psyche was beyond confused. Despite the things that happened to me, I had a strong libido, healthy sexual interest. I didn’t have consensual activity until I was 18 years old because I wasn’t permitted to date but I had wild fantasies and definitely masturbated which was considered a very sinful terrible act, and something I never thought I’d admit to in a poetry column.
When I began stripping, I felt empowered for the first time in my life by my sexuality. Besides the fact that it could provide a living for me, I met women who embraced their sexuality loudly and proudly. Having been raised in silence about sexual activity, in a religion where nudity was shameful and extra undergarments were worn at all times to insure chaste dress to cover them, I felt completely unable to speak about my body even as I was showing it off.
When people spoke to me about my sexuality in the club, I would blush so much and stammer. In a strip club dressing room, you hear very colorful, specific lewd. The openness empowered me, hearing women boldly speaking about their adventures, their bodies without shame or any kind of trepidation. To the extent I succeed in that in my writing, I credit stripping and the examples of confident sexual young women for that.
In this milieu of sex positivity, I heard R. Kelly’s music and I thought I was listening to an anthem that embodied this new aesthetic I was embracing. I didn’t know he was a child abuser. I didn’t know that he videotaped himself and a 14 year old girl engaging in sexual activity and degrading activities. I didn’t know that he had also had another sex tape found with two other teenagers. I didn’t know that the song You Are Not Alone, he wrote for Michael Jackson, he first sang to a pregnant teenager he’d isolated, starved, beaten and was manipulating with this music to stay with him in dire conditions post a miscarriage.
I didn’t know there was a studio full of teenagers he kept around in built-in bedrooms, not allowed to look people in the eye, to argue, to go to the bathroom without permission. I didn’t know that some of them used buckets to relieve themselves, to be humiliated and degraded, kept in their place. I didn’t know that families had been deprived of their children for years while they were brainwashed in a cult and kept waiting to sexually gratify a pedophile with a sex cult.
I learned most of the details from the disturbing yet important documentary Surviving R. Kelly by Dream Hampton and aired on Lifetime. The documentary included evidence of these acts and testimony by R. Kelly’s ex-wife and many of his victims. It was six-hours long, and each hour became, somehow, more disturbing. I had heard things before I watched it, in the last ten years (all post my stripping days) about R. Kelly’s predilections but I’d never heard details like this. And I, personally, had never heard about the sex cult, before the documentary, that he had started with degraded, starved, captive brainwashed victims.
Now, that I know the totality of his evil, I can’t un-know it. I can never, as an abuse survivor, a supporter of survivors, separate R. Kelly’s art from his appalling actions. I couldn’t listen to it, even if listening to it was only an act of signaling an approver of an abuser, listening to a tale of abuse, a confession.
Listening to R. Kelly’s music is not only those things though. The #muterkelly movement is about this understanding: that supporting the art of an abuser is to support abuse, literally. In R. Kelly’s case, for example, there are systems in place, houses, bodyguards, transportation to fly around the country – these things cost money. How does R. Kelly get money? Through being musically relevant and acquiring recording opportunities, concert venues. All of these things he accomplishes when you listen to his music.
Also, R. Kelly met at least one of his victims, Azriel Clary, because she attended one of his concerts herself. Her parents, who were with her at the concert, tell the story of her being pulled on stage to dance and then led behind it, out of their view for a short time. This brief period of time was enough to begin grooming the 17 year old who eventually had sex with R. Kelly underage. After she was 18, Azriel has completely disappeared into R. Kelly’s cult and her parents have had no contact with her, despite their efforts, for years. Reports of her condition, in the documentary, from people once inside of R. Kelly’s system of abuse were shocking.
The point is that the music of this abuser is not removed at all from his abuse. The music is a part of his abuse. It’s a documentation of abuse and also a facilitation, through the revenue it produces, to abuse more victims. It’s also – if you read the lyrics a strange confessional, at times, of an abuser. In essence, R. Kelly has been grooming the American public for years to deliver him the means, money, and the materials, children, that he wants to abuse.
I can’t go back in time and not dance to the song I danced to. I can commit to not supporting the art of an abuser and financially supporting abuse. Mute