Why R. Kelly’s trial captivates black audiences online

The trial of R&B superstar R. Kelly has brought together some 50 witnesses over more than a month of testimony – a storm of sordid and sometimes grotesque accusations and counterclaims.

To help you figure it all out, hundreds of thousands of viewers have turned to YouTube, where a host who posts videos as thePLAINESTjane offers near-daily recaps that are sometimes 90 minutes long and include the same images and documents viewed. in the courtroom.

“Come in, sit on my bus,” the presenter said at the start of a recent video, sitting next to a houseplant, a collage featuring a sketch of Mr. Kelly’s courtroom overlaid on his shoulder. “I’ll come get you and give you the recap. “

The channel is just one cog in a vast online ecosystem that has grown around Mr Kelly as the charges against him have gained public attention in recent years. Now his Brooklyn criminal trial is at the center of a swirling social media world centered on black communities where fierce critics of Mr. Kelly argue with steadfast supporters, digging into details from the courtroom.

Facebook groups of thousands of members dissect PDF transcripts of each witness’s testimony; Instagram accounts post court day updates against colorful backgrounds; TikTok users break down the legal basis for the racketeering charge against Mr. Kelly.

The online interest in Mr Kelly’s trial stands out from previous high-profile cases involving rich and famous men accused of sexual misconduct and underscores the unique racial and generational dynamics at the center of the case.

The singer’s mellow melodies and charismatic character captivated many black homes from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. And the majority of Mr. Kelly’s accusers are black women – many of whom were teenage girls or young adults when ‘they say Mr. Kelly abused them.

“R. Kelly had a special talent for making songs that resonated with black audiences,” said Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University. “When you think of a song like ‘Step in the Name of Love’ it’s something you were likely to hear at a birthday party for a 5 year old and also a party for a 5 year old. her 50th wedding anniversary. “

He added, “A lot of black people grew up in a context where R. Kelly was literally the soundtrack of their lives.

In Me Too’s previous high-profile cases – the downfall of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which helped ignite a national record, and the conviction of comedian Bill Cosby that followed – most of the accusers were women white.

This is the case with Mr. Kelly who first made many black families feel that they too were part of this conversation.

Whitney Davis, 34, looked at the trial on her YouTube channel, reading and reacting to transcripts of testimony most days.

The singer was an influential force in her education, she said, and her music was extremely popular with her family. He inspired her as a teenager in the early 2000s and provided a “hymn” to her high school class in the form of her “I Believe I Can Fly” megahit.

But after the parents of several women have spoken out publicly against the singer in recent years, accusing Mr Kelly of keeping their daughters in an abusive cult, Ms Davis, from the Dallas area, said she was shocked and started to wonder, “Does he always do this?”

She said she had closely followed other similar and high-profile accusations before Mr Kelly even began to face a legal backlash. But Ms Davis said her case had a distinct resonance for a confluence of several reasons: the singer’s music pervasiveness as she grew older; the fact that the accusers at the heart of the matter looked like him; and the sexual abuse she says she suffered in her own childhood.

“To be honest, this was the first case that involved mostly black girls, black women, black boys – and so it was intriguing for me to see if they would get justice,” Ms. Davis said. “To see righteousness for them, oh, my God, that will mean righteousness to myself in a way.”

Mr Kelly, real name Robert Sylvester Kelly, is charged in New York with nine counts of racketeering and of inciting to cross state borders for the purpose of committing sex crimes. He denied all the charges.

The government closed its case on Monday after more than a month of testimony, and pleadings began this week.

And as the focus of the trial shifted, the attention of online viewers shifted, seemingly comprised of a largely black audience. Some have said their interest was driven by the apparent scarcity of accusers like those in Mr. Kelly’s case who take center stage.

Several spoke of the disappearance of Gabrielle Petito, a 22-year-old white woman whose case gained national attention, and their belief that a similar story involving a young black woman would not have garnered similar coverage.

“It feels like the focus is finally on black women, and it never is,” said Michelle Cole, 38, of Florida, who followed the lawsuit in part through a large group. Facebook.

But part of the fascination with Mr. Kelly, who is now 54, is more lustful. Bootleg VHS and DVD copies of the 27-minute sex tape on which his 2008 Chicago child pornography trial was based were sold around the corner around the time of the case. (He was acquitted in this trial.)

And today’s social media landscape often features clashes between detractors and supporters of Mr. Kelly who can turn scathing or threatening.

Some YouTube channels functioned as makeshift talk shows, inviting a rotating group of guests from an online audience to join in the video chats. Often they describe Mr. Kelly’s interactions with his accusers as consensual relationships and say that the accusers’ stories were fabricated for financial gain.

Mr Kelly’s base of support also appears to be distinct from that of the accused in many other high-profile trials in its intensity and size. Experts attributed this to the convergence of a wide range of dynamics exposed in his trial.

There is an attachment to him and there is this feeling that what is happening to him is part of a larger story of criminalized and naughty black men as sexual predators and subjected to standards that white men are not. held accountable, ”Treva B. Lindsey, a professor at Ohio State University, said in describing the beliefs of his supporters.

Ms Lindsey, who focuses primarily on the history and culture of black women, added: “You have the perfect storm of fame and history” – and, she said, reluctance among supporters of Mr. Kelly “to fight the way in which patriarchal violence manifests itself in our society.

There is also intense anger against Mr. Kelly in black communities among those who strongly believe he is a predator. “It’s about child sexual abuse and the trauma inflicted on some of these women over years and years,” said Oronike Odeleye, co-founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign.

For other onlookers like Sharne Haywood, 26, the trial helped raise awareness of the experiences of women who experts say have historically been overlooked in conversations about sex crimes.

Efforts to bring public attention to the charges against Mr Kelly helped fill what Ms Haywood saw as a frustrating gap in the Me Too movement.

“There was an absence of a black female perspective and the way black women suffer disproportionate prejudice,” said Ms. Haywood, who works at a health policy organization in Washington, DC.

The case and trial – and the widespread attention it has garnered – seem valuable, but not comprehensive, she said. “This is an important step to empower people and center black women and girls,” she said. “But I think there is still a long way to go.”

Comments are closed.