Montana Ross sat in a research class at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology when she learned Monday that a federal jury in New York found R&B singer R. Kelly guilty of running a criminal enterprise based around sexually abusing and trafficking women and underage girls.
“A classmate of mine actually showed it to me, and I let out the biggest squeal in class,” said Ross, who’s working toward a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. “I felt really happy and this rush of energy that something has finally taken place. And it felt as if everyone who has ever suffered gender-based violence all just had a moment.”
Thousands of miles away at Xavier University in Louisiana, Englewood native Jada Thompson reacted, too. Over the years, she has had to convince friends to stop playing Kelly’s music and think of the pain of Black women and girls who accused him of abuse.
“The first thing that I could think of was the relief of another predator being taken off of the street,” Thompson said. “Kelly’s not the only predator out in the world doing these things to children and women — period.”
Ross and Thompson are alums of Girl/Friends, a program of the Chicago-based A Long Walk Home, which empowers Black girls to activate against sexual assault and abuse. The group has also consistently spoken out against Kelly. Ross said the community support Kelly has received for years is related to how Black girls are sexualized.
“It’s the narrative or the concept of Black girls being ‘fast,’ ” Ross said. It’s the idea that even teen girls are at fault for being sexual with grown men.
Ross wants to eventually do work with girls of color around positive sex and sexuality “that will help with understanding our bodies, understanding what pleasure is, and how to be comfortable with saying no.”
Kelly faces decades in prison, plus he faces other charges in Chicago and Minnesota. For years, Kelly’s predatory behavior toward young girls was an open secret. Black girls of a certain age in Chicago have stories of him hanging out around high schools or in McDonald’s parking lots as a grown man hitting on teenagers. In 1994, he married R&B star Aaliyah in Cook County. At the time, she was 15 and he was 27, but the marriage certificate lies about her age. After the news broke, Kelly went on to have a lucrative career.
Kelly’s music and aesthetic appealed to a particular segment of a Black listening audience. He was a homegrown musical legend for the city’s South Side. His songs have vacillated between lust and quasi-gospel music going back to the early 1990s when he first hit the airwaves. The Kenwood Academy High School graduate used to sing on subway platforms before striking platinum status with the 1992 release of the album Born into the 90’s. The following year saw the release of 12 Play, another platinum album with hits such as “Bump n’ Grind.” The 1995 hit “I Believe I Can Fly” became an instant standard, played at wedding and graduation ceremonies. Kelly put stepping music on a national stage, creating songs that were a love letter to Chicago one could still hear in backyard barbecues on the city’s South and West sides.
In 2008, the allegations caught up with him. But a Cook County trial didn’t land him in jail. That June, a Cook County jury acquitted Kelly of child pornography charges. Jurors at the time said not having the alleged victim in the courtroom affected their verdict. He was accused of videotaping himself having sex with an underage girl, a bootleg video replicated many times over and circulated beginning in the late 1990s. The defense had a similar argument that women preyed on Kelly with lies to get money, as did the defense in the federal trial held in New York.
Public sentiment toward the superstar changed amid #metoo. In 2017, #MuteRKelly prompted nationwide calls for boycotts and radio stations to stop spinning his records. In 2019, the Surviving R. Kelly documentary, which aired on Lifetime, featured scores of sexual abuse allegations from women. And more women have come forward.
A Long Walk Home co-founder Scheherazade Tillet hopes the verdict serves as a victory for the women who testified during the six-week trial in New York.
“It’s one of the most important cases that we have that centers black women and girls,” Tillet said. “We’re changing the language around talking about sexual violence.”
That language likened Kelly to organized crime, not individualized accounts of sexual abuse. Tillet served as a consultant on the Lifetime documentary. She recommended therapists for people interviewed on set.
The Kelly verdict came the same day Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a citywide plan to address gender-based violence and human trafficking. The city report says: “The impact of GBV is exacerbated by other forms of violence such as racism and poverty. Those who experience the intersection of these injustices — women of color, indigenous women, transgender individuals and LGBTQIA+ individuals, immigrants, and people with disabilities — are disproportionately impacted.”
According to the city, in 2020, Chicagoans made 11,161 calls to the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline, and the Chicago Police Department had 46,547 domestic violence case reports — of which 71% were intimate-partner related. In 2019, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports involving 267 cases of human trafficking in Illinois.
Lightfoot’s plan seeks to coordinate city agencies to address violence and design a “citywide ecosystem that adequately prevents, responds and intervenes to address gender-based violence in trauma-informed and culturally-specific ways.” That means 911 operators getting specialized training, engaging community-based organizations and a proposed $25 million in support.
Tillet also served as an adviser on the mayor’s team for the initiative.
“The R. Kelly’s today, unfortunately, are still happening,” Tillet said.
“One of the things that we really kind of pushed and focused on was, ‘How does this never happen again?’ ” she added. “And what are the things existing that need to shift for Black girl and girls of color in our city that are disproportionately impacted by sex trafficking?”