Source: ITunes
The People is our section for all things concerning Black Chicago. In this piece, journalist Britt Julious explores Black Chicago’s devotion to R&B singer R. Kelly despite the continued sexual allegations against him.

My story is not unique.

It has never been, for I am like any other Black Chicago woman of at least millennial age. I, too, am familiar with R. Kelly. I have no personal ties to him, but he lingered in my adolescence. Nearly every Black woman I know has some story about Kelly: about so-and-so allegedly seeing him after a basketball game, or their parents blasting “Step in the Name of Love” at every family function, or about knowing someone who knows someone who works for him. Though I’ve never had any contact with Kelly, he feels both near and far at all times.

Kelly reminds me of stories about creepy neighbors, or the weird and uncomfortable social studies teacher at my middle school. His identity preceded him. As fans, we grew up enjoying his music. Then, as Black girls in Chicago, we grew up hearing about the sexual assault accusations against him. For me, something changed the older I got. If the culture leads our modes of behavior, then our behavior (my behavior) began operating through willful ignorance. I grew up very much loving his music and so I tried to rationalize my enjoyment of it. Others around me did too. Meaning, we would pretend we didn’t understand what allegedly went on to live in the bliss of our naiveté.

But a lot has changed in the national public perception of Kelly since 2013, when journalist and critic Jessica Hopper first interviewed Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis about the original accusations against Kelly. Once hailed as a master of the form (namely hypersexual R&B and bombastic ballads), Kelly now faces a constant deluge of bad press and, even worse, public outrage with the #muteRKelly movement which follows in the same vein of the #MeToo movement. A 2018 Buzzfeed exposé from DeRogatis detailed allegations of Kelly brainwashing a woman into a cult, which led another wave of reflection into why our culture continues to overlook his actions to protect his musical legacy.

R. Kelly is not a perfect man, his diehard fans in Chicago will retort. If you were to take a walk through most local stepping nights or scan through the R&B, hip-hop or urban radio stations in the car, you’d likely think nothing has changed here in Chicago. Kelly’s music plays regularly in clubs, and bars, and homes. Kelly is still someone here, which begs the question: why is Black Chicago so devoted to R. Kelly?

To understand Black Chicago’s allegiance to R. Kelly is to understand Chicago. For many, Chicago’s identity is its people’s identity, and understanding Chicago (and Black Chicago specifically) is about acknowledging who shapes whom. Does Chicago make its people or do its people make Chicago? I believe it is a push and pull of wills, but in the end, one thing is sure: where we are, is who we are.

R. Kelly and his music, perhaps more than any other contemporary figure, reflects a large part of the culture of Black Chicago. His music ties into specific types of parties held here, dance styles born here, and populations living here. “Step in the Name of Love” is not just a song about stepping; it is the only steppers cut with a worldwide reach. “Step in the Name of Love” introduced a hidden gem only experienced in bars like the 50 Yard Line on the South Side to an international audience. It evoked feelings of watching our parents, aunts, and uncles step in the living room to songs like Loggins and Messina’s “Pathway to Glory,” with us studying and mimicking their every move. The “Step in the Name of Love” music video literally portrayed what we all imagined an all-white boat party with local legends George Daniels and DJ Wayne Williams would look like. Kelly, then, is not just a person from Black Chicago. For many, especially Gen X-ers and baby boomers, Kelly IS Black Chicago.

Kelly is not just from here. He operates here. He has a home here. People see him out and about here. Placing lifelong roots in Chicago, and not abandoning the city for something fresher and sleeker or better on the coasts, means he is more than just a homegrown celebrity. Other people’s bottom lines tie into the identity and successes of Kelly, from the maintenance of his property to the security protecting him. The business of R. Kelly still has a place in Chicago, making him more than just a name. He’s an asset.

It is that tie to the very cultural fabric of the city that makes Kelly more protected here than likely anywhere else. Chicago has an allegiance to its hometown figures. If you do good, we love you. If you do good and the rest of the world sees it too, we’ll love you forever. For anytime a hometown figure—whether they be a Kanye West or a Chance the Rapper—breaks through the invisible boundaries of place, Chicagoans invoke their success as if it is their own. False kinship persists. Saving face means embracing the worst of the city’s cultural figures as if their actions reflect ourselves. I don’t follow this line of thinking, but I understand the herd mentality in which it develops. Kelly gets a pass because, in Black Chicago’s eyes, he must get a pass. The people’s identity depends on it.

But more than anything, I believe Black Chicago’s continued acceptance of Kelly is not unlike the pack mentality responses to “rape culture” around the world. We become numb to the absurdities of our reality for the sake of entertainment. Nearly every young Black woman growing up in and around the city has heeded a warning about a non-famous, non-wealthy person in our community after hearing rumors through the grapevine. Young women change their behavior to try and stay alive, as if it is their actions or their clothing or their makeup which breeds predatory behavior. Where is the outrage? For if we actually believed predatory behavior was wrong truly, we wouldn’t actively keep secrets in the dark for generations or pass stories along as funny anecdotes. We would teach young people boundaries and the importance of consent. Our current culture of violence says girls and women are responsible for the things that happen to them. You read the stories and heard the rumors and knew “the deal,” they say. What happens next is a reflection of you.

Chicago, then, is like any other place, only under a larger microscope. People protect their own to defend themselves. The comfort of familiarity reigns ever-present. Dropping Kelly requires the constant, active decision for people in Black Chicago to say no. It requires dissociating Kelly’s musical contributions with the overall identity of the city. It needs a new generation of listeners to take a stand, to stop the cycle of acceptance as if passing down the lineage of Kelly was something to behold. And it requires a comprehensive cultural examination and dismantling of rape culture as an everyday and acceptable facet of life. Whether Black Chicago wants to take on these tasks, unfortunately, remains to be seen.

Britt Julious is a Chicago-based writer of many genres, digital nomad, and frequent traveler.