Supporting R. Kelly: When Gospel and Black Church Get It Wrong

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R. Kelly has written and/or produced gospel songs for Vicki Winans, The Winans, Trin-I-Tee 5:7, Ruben Studdard, Whitney Houston and Marvin Sapp. He has been on projects with Kirk Franklin, Kim Burrell, Kelly Price and Jennifer Hudson. John P. Kee has credits on Kelly’s “Trade In My Life”, Yolanda Adams recorded a version of “I Believe I Can Fly” and Kelly himself even has a song on Tyler Perry’s “Daddy’s Little Girls” soundtrack. R. Kelly’s reach into the gospel music industry is long. Perhaps that explains the collective silence of artists whose primary vocation is to share the good news of a man who consistently stood with the oppressed.

In the aftermath of dream hampton’s powerful docu-series, “Surviving R. Kelly”- detailing the singer’s demonic violation of Black girls, the gospel music industry has been quiet. There have been no apologies made by artists who once collaborated with the infamous star (most of his gospel collaborations happening after his fraudulent marriage to Aaliyah, “the tape”, his trial and continued allegations of misconduct), no prayers for the victims of sexual assault and violence, no calls for justice and accountability. To the many survivors who have often turned to gospel music to remind us of a God who cares, these artists have shown that they do not. They have either ignored our pain or chosen to be on the wrong side of this entirely.

Defending his choice to record a song with Kelly last year, Marvin Sapp -who is also a pastor- recounted how God often used “flawed men” to do important work. Imagine comparing Noah and Moses to a man who urinated in the mouth of a 14 year old girl simply because you wanted to do a song with him. And when comedian Jonathan Slocumb announced that he was joining efforts to #MuteRKelly, gospel artist Ricky Dillard said that such a move is “not fair” and “you can’t mute what God has ordained and allowed.” When one commenter said it is possible to pray and mute at the same time, Dillard said “go right ahead with your hateful behavior. For whatever a mans (sic) does that shall he also reap.” Imagine writing “I Survived It” and doubling down to defend an unrepentant pedophile.

My GOD today.

Unfortunately, Black gospel artists have not been the only silent ones. There has been a deafening collective silence among pastors and religious leaders within the Black community. We were grateful when pastors across the country collaborated for “Hoodie Sunday”, the church’s response to the unjust killing of Trayvon Martin and mishandling of the investigation into his death. It was also appreciated when pastors and religious leaders wrote an open letter, challenging the Black and Brown pastors who met with Donald Trump last year to discuss prison reform (ironically Sapp signed this). In national moments of heightened racial injustice and political unrest, we have seen our leadership stand in the legacy of the Black prophetic tradition to speak truth to power and rail against systematic oppression. And, at the same time, there has been no concentrated effort to address the continued sexual assault and violence against Black girls and women. Where Black pastors unite to speak against the injustices faced by Black boys and men, the plight of their counterparts is often only addressed on a church-by-church basis.

The collective silence of Black gospel artists, pastors and religious leaders is nothing new. Unfortunately, it is par for the course. Every aspect of our community is steeped in a logic that, in order for Black America to be its best self, Black men must be protected at all costs. That logic is supported by scriptural interpretations and theological musings that see brothers as superior. In an anti-Black world, it is heretical to assert that Black men engage in any form of violence that destroys the spirits and lives of Black girls and women. How dare we not recognize the attack of the enemy to divide and conquer us? While these things may happen in our community, we don’t have to go outside our community to address them. We can handle this ourselves; we didn’t need to go to the (white) media. And it is that position that has made R. Kelly and other predators in our community untouchable. It is that position that allowed parents to sacrifice their daughters to the Pied Piper for the promise of success and fame- even as the parents themselves are victims, too. Daily in our community, Lot offers up his daughters and the church has nothing to say. Well…a few said something. They told us to pray for Robert, to understand that no sin is greater than the other and that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God.

That’s cute.

In 2015, when marriage equality legislation was the dominant national discourse, every major Black church denomination released a statement affirming their position on sex and sexuality. These leaders made it clear that, when it came to their churches, marriage is solely between a man and a woman. In 2019, much of our church leadership is still unrelenting and unwavering when it comes to their stance on human sexuality. Many who don’t subscribe to the church’s positions on sexuality are maligned and ostracized from their worship communities. They are the ones considered predators who must be kept away from our children, not those who actually prey on them- like the two pastors charged with child sex trafficking and the production of child pornography. Considering Jesus said it would be better for a person to die than to harm a child (Luke 17:2), it would seem that we would take child sexual abuse much more seriously.

Yet, when it comes to the sexual abuse and violation experienced by Black girls (and boys), the Black Christian community refuses to keep the same energy. And many understand why. Should we address this en masse, it would expose the lack of sexual ethics and personal accountability among singers, pastors and leaders. We would have to reckon with the countless stories of clergy misconduct that have driven many away from the church and the faith entirely. We would have to be honest about the number of young women and men, aspiring singers and musicians who have been preyed upon and taken advantage of by artists who can sing us beyond the veil. If we took the issue of sexual abuse and violation seriously, we would have to painfully admit that six hours wouldn’t be nearly enough to address the ways many of us are surviving the Black church.

R. Kelly has found refuge in our sacred spaces, not because he is lovingly held accountable but, because people willfully turn a blind eye and allow him to hide in plain sight. Our church culture provides cover for predators because it creates and breeds predators. Instead of teaching personal responsibility, we tell people that their proclivity to “mistakes” is proof of their anointing. We absolve men of the sins they commit against sisters and hold sisters responsible for the fact that they committed them. It is all exhausting and the question remains: how do we survive spiritual spaces that seem to want us dead?