For years, despite multiple sexual abuse allegations against him, singer R. Kelly managed to stay a powerful, popular figure in both R&B and black gospel music.
This appears to be changing in the music industry. The release of Lifetime network’s docuseries Surviving R. Kelly — and its exploration of the allegations against Kelly — has reignited #MuteRKelly protests against the musician and his work. Stars such as Lady Gaga have denounced Kelly and apologized for working with him as scrutiny of his past conduct intensifies.
But in the gospel music and church communities that have long supported him, Kelly still has defenders and fans. Now, these communities are facing a moment of reckoning.
Kelly’s relationship with the black church runs deep, stemming from his work on inspirational songs that enjoyed popularity within the church — songs such as “I Believe I Can Fly” and Whitney Houston’s “I Look To You.”
According to theologian and essayist Candice Benbow, these songs became commonplace in black congregations — as did turning a blind eye to Kelly’s alleged transgressions.
“Even when before we saw Surviving R. Kelly, there were a number of allegations that … nobody touched in this particular community,” she told NPR’s Scott Simon. “Because it was easier for us to say ‘I’m gonna pray for him’ rather than say ‘I’m going to attack this head on.’”
Benbow wrote about the black church’s hesitance to condemn one of their own in a piece on her website this week called “Supporting R Kelly: When Gospel and Black Church Get It Wrong.”
In her piece, she says there have been some pastors who have used their faith to explain why they are not muting or condemning Kelly.
“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,” she wrote. “Instead of teaching personal responsibility, we tell people that their proclivity to ‘mistakes’ is proof of their anointing.”
This mentality, she argued, provides cover for predators, largely at the expense of black women and girls. It’s a mentality, she said, that has roots in “the structure of our churches and the structure of our theologies.”
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