In 1994, a 26-year-old R. Kelly married a 15-year-old Aaliyah. In 2001, a sex tape of R. Kelly allegedly urinating on a 14-year-old girl was released to the press. The “Pied Piper of R&B” has been accused of statutory rape, sexual coercion and even maintaining a “sex cult” full of young women, as multiple reports revealed last year. These allegations have been documented publicly since the Nineties, but Lifetime’s recent six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly has prompted acknowledgements of culpability and delayed apologies from the artists who have supported the singer and previously kept silent on these allegations. (R. Kelly has denied all the charges).
“I stand behind these women 1,000%, believe them, know they are suffering and in pain, and feel strongly that their voices should be heard and taken seriously,” wrote Lady Gaga in a Notes App letter posted to her Twitter days after the last episode of the documentary aired. She worked with Kelly in 2013, on the poorly titled “Do What U Want.” Chance the Rapper — who performed with Kelly at Lollapalooza in 2014 and featured the singer on his 2015 song “Somewhere in Paradise” — similarly acknowledged his regret a few days earlier, after claiming an interview with him filmed last year was “taken out of context” when it was aired as part of Lifetime’s documentary. (Both Chance the Rapper and Gaga subsequently removed their respective songs with Kelly from streaming services.)
Other collaborators, like Phoenix and Omarion, have also publicly shown their support for the survivors, while Celine Dion joined Gaga and Chance in attempting to remove her Kelly duet from streaming services.
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This is reputation insurance, meant to keep up with a news cycle that threatens to engulf more than the original perpetrator.
The long-awaited mea culpas in the latest development of Kelly’s transgressions are part of a bigger epidemic: the convenient apology. It’s an apology that doesn’t come easy or timely, more earnest and guilt-ridden than a press release and delivered via social media platforms. As The New York Times points out, it’s frequently written using the iPhone’s Notes app, then screenshotted. The ease and personalized touch (often complete with grammatical errors and personal testaments) are “rhetorical devices, making the authors seem not only unpretentious but fallibly human,” as Lindsey Weber writes. More importantly, however, these apologies tend to feign ignorance of facts that have been hard to ignore. The statements’ timing suggests these are new apologies for new revelations, but are often simply offered up when silence is no longer an option.
The Dream Hampton-helmed Surviving R. Kelly, while illuminating and devastating, is not filled with much brand new information. The police reports, trials, marriage certificates and stories from young, black women who were manipulated, abused and terrorized by Kelly have been public knowledge for years. The power in the documentary comes from the new interviews and additional details from the survivors, their friends and their families, and the regretful former associates of Kelly who piece together 20 years of stories into a single, hard-to-digest narrative.
The R. Kelly reckoning has been a slow, painful process. It’s often happened in public, with his career thriving in spite of — and maybe because of — the controversies. Many of those who weren’t affected directly willfully chose not to care, and some who did were attempting to parse what it meant to separate great art from a terrible artist. Still, as it is pointed out in Surviving R. Kelly, his “greatness” often stemmed from repurposing the sexual trauma he imposed on young women into his own hypersexual, hypermasculine brand of R&B.
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) January 6, 2019
In the long saga of R. Kelly’s reckoning, apologies from collaborators and conspirators barely existed before this moment. Those speaking out now were, in all regards, forced to by the very public combustion Kelly’s reputation is having. For anyone whose name can pop up with a quick Google search of R. Kelly and his discography, this is a PR catastrophe and potential widespread shaming. Every few years before now, new information about Kelly has come to light; in lieu of an apology for supporting him, the typical response from those who have worked with him is best characterized as a slow backtrack, then a deafening silence.
A similar flood of delayed culpability came from actors who have worked with Woody Allen since his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow alleged in an open letter in The New York Times that Allen had sexually assaulted her when she was 7 years old. He has filmed three movies and one season of a television series since the letter’s publication, working with a slew of big names like Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Jude Law, Timothée Chalamet and many more. Like Kelly, he benefitted from the entertainment industry’s continued protection of its most prestigious men, allowing transgressions for the sake of a (hypothetically lucrative) status quo. Like Kelly, Dylan Farrow’s accusations against Allen had been public knowledge since her mother Mia accused Allen of molesting their child in a 1992 Vanity Fair interview. Still, it had been largely ignored, and, as Mira Sorvino pointed out in her open letter apologizing to Dylan Farrow for working with Allen, the story had been chalked up as “an outgrowth of a twisted custody battle between Mia Farrow and him.” Like Kelly, it took multiple tellings for Allen’s reputation to be taken seriously by his former collaborators.
Sorvino’s statement, as well as ones from Chalamet, Rebecca Hall and Greta Gerwig, came after Farrow penned a second op-ed four years after her first. In her early 2018 Los Angeles Times essay, she publicly wondered why Allen had been spared by Hollywood during the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, especially when her 2014 letter pre-dated the reporting on Harvey Weinstein and others (much of which had been done by her older brother Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker). She pointed out the hypocrisy of his collaborators being quick to call out Weinstein but continuing to revere and directly profit from working with Allen without publicly acknowledging his own daughter’s on-record trauma.
“My actions have made another woman feel silenced and dismissed,” Rebecca Hall wrote on Instagram following Farrow’s second piece. Hall had worked with Allen on 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, as well as the since-shelved A Rainy Day in New York which was filmed in 2017. Both her and co-star Chalamet donated their salaries to organizations like Time’s Up and RAINN. “That is not something that sits easily with me in the current or indeed any moment, and I am profoundly sorry. I regret this decision and wouldn’t make the same one today.”
Apologies like these don’t come because any of these artists are personally fed up. This is reputation insurance, meant to keep up with a news cycle that threatens to engulf more than the original perpetrator, and it rarely feels cathartic, or even progressive. In the end, it looks as if the weight of public pressure and shame prompt these statements — not conveniently timed guilt. It’s not clear that lessons are learned.
More apologies are sure to appear — Kelly and Allen are due a few more, as are any of the other monsters of abuse our culture has been hoping to filter out but can’t quite seem to quit. As each one does, a wrong is slightly righted. But gratitude is not owed to late efforts, or attempt to salvage public-facing images after long bouts of silence. The real change occurs through the brave persistence of those whose lives were flipped upside down, whose careers were tarnished, whose self-worth has been nearly erased. They have put their faces at the forefront, daring you to look away, fighting to keep more young women like them from ever experiencing the pain they’ve gone though. It’s a much more difficult task than opening your Notes app.