It's Not Just R. Kelly: A Survivor Speaks Out on Rape Culture in the Music Industry
Musician and journalist Jordannah Elizabeth: "R. Kelly reminds you it could have been you."
Breck Omar Brunson
If you’re a black girl who was born between 1980 and 1989, R. Kelly reminds you it could have been you.
I remember standing in a circle of girls in our local mini-mall parking lot talking about R. Kelly’s sex tapes. A couple of girls knew some girls who had been with him. This was in Baltimore in 2002, when the tapes had been made public, and I was nearly 15 years old. At the time, I didn’t think it could have been me because I wasn’t his type. I wasn't thin and didn’t have the hint of innocent glamour that he apparently liked. Besides, being chosen by him at a concert was furthest from my mind. I was still a virgin and was concerned with other things, like hip-hop and Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers. At 15, I knew Kelly wasn’t my type, either.
When you’re a black girl or woman in towns like Chicago, Baltimore and Atlanta, the existence of R. Kelly makes you think seriously about sex, and what you’d do if you knew a girl who’d fallen for him. It makes me personally think of Aaliyah, and all the black girls who came into the industry around her age and the producers who put them on, and how it could have been me.
Actually, it was me. I was sexually assaulted in Harlem by a man who was well-connected in the music industry and offered to “start me out as a model” to gain exposure for me while we began to develop my music. I’d seen him all over TV, so he seemed legit. I agreed to meet with him.
I was in my early 20s, dressed in a short dress and high heels. I took a car to Harlem and waited in a Dunkin Donuts until he picked me up and took me to his grandmother’s apartment a few blocks away. As we walked together, he seemed to know everyone in the neighborhood. His friends looked as me as if I was familiar. I noticed their glances and I could intuit that I was seen as “another one.”
At the apartment, we listened to my music on my small laptop. Then he asked me to stand up. He grabbed my legs and shook the fat on my thighs. I was about a size 4 at the time and he told me my weight was not acceptable. He also told me when I sat down and crossed my legs, he could see cellulite, which “in the club was fine,” but it wasn’t professional. He sat next to me, moved in and began to kiss me. Then he raped me on his grandmother’s couch.
He, of course, was not precious about anything; it hurt and it was uncomfortable. He didn’t seem like he was enjoying it. We behaved like the act was a “part of the job.” It really did feel like an act of control. Maybe it was a way to condition me to give in to further abuse that may have been coming in the future.
When he was finished, I pulled down my skirt and he walked me to the train. On the train ride, he told me not to tell anyone I was classically trained or that I was smart. He told me I needed to lose 15 pounds, and I would model, then he had producers lined up, all the beats were taken care of, and I was to sleep with whomever he told me to. I was confused, but I went home and thought about it.
I was poor, and too thin already, and had just come from rehabilitating after being raped in Los Angeles two years before as I started there to pursue a record deal. There I was raped by a photographer I’d moved in with as a roommate right when I’d gotten into town. I didn’t press charges; I was sure I’d be slut-shamed in court. After he raped me, and left for work, I left his place and found some police officers who dropped me off at a homeless shelter on Skid Row and left me there. They didn’t take a report. It took two years to get out of the shelter system, and a lot of therapy.
Because I was poor and a victim of sexual assault in L.A., I was able to get financial assistance and go to school for free. I did a few semesters of school, got an apartment and stayed out of harm’s way for a few months, but the economic crash and acute depression in 2008 forced me to move to NYC to find work.
After I thought about all I’d been through in L.A., and throughout my life as a young woman, I made the call, crying, and told the man who had raped me on his grandmother’s couch that I didn’t want to sleep with anyone for a record deal. He cursed at me and hung up on me. The phone call was scary but I was relieved that I made the decision that was right for me.
The next day, I got myself together, pawned some things, bought a cheap Fender electric guitar and amp and put an ad out on Craigslist, in search of someone who wanted to make “experimental lo-fi music.” One young man answered the ad. I ended up moving into a collective art studio space in Brooklyn and found a safe haven and arts community there. I found a group of young people who loved and supported one another and nurtured each other’s careers. As I healed and began recording music and playing shows in NYC, I began to blog and throw parties in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, which brings me to where I am today.
The DIY community saved my life. After experiencing what so many female musicians have experienced with producers and, on the most extreme levels, men like R. Kelly, I feel like I got lucky. Many woman become silenced, quit music altogether, or keep their music local and as far away from the spotlight as possible.
Specifically, with regard to the many allegations against R. Kelly, I do believe the girls and their families who came out and spoke against him, and sued him over the last 20 years. I believe what they say. I truly cannot fathom why Kelly continues to work and tour without being forced to at the very least rehabilitate for sex addiction. I don’t understand how anyone can honestly deny the evidence and firsthand accounts of his actions, and how we as a culture and community have not confronted this man and forced him to change his ways. I don’t understand why I and others who have gone through similar ordeals have to expose ourselves and do this emotional labor in an attempt to have a truthful conversation about rape culture and to remind people that every Kelly allegation should be taken seriously.
I cannot speak for Kelly’s fans, family and friends. But if he was surrounded by people who actually cared about him, he’d agree to rehabilitate himself. So I hope for Robert Kelly’s healing, as condemnation does not being healthy change to anyone or any situation.
What I lost as a girl — my innocence, my choice, my chance at major success — and what I endured — chronic homelessness and depression; an inability to make love more than once or twice a year for a decade; my struggle to become intimate and bond with men as friends, colleagues and partners — I never want any girl to have to go through that. It is a heavy burden to bear, and the trauma of what I went through has affected me for life. I am in therapy to this day. I am not volatile; I just work to support and manage my own mental and spiritual health, so I am balanced enough to help others.
I owe the music industry nothing, but I’ve forgiven it and I remain committed to it, and I have healed myself. I write a dozen articles a month promoting and plugging other artists. I now develop artists, and walk with emerging women and queer artists, and speak to seasoned male artists in the music industry for interviews. I can look rappers, producers and male artists in the eyes, and feel equal and safe, because I never compromised myself. I can work with them as a whole woman. And I still make music and tour independently. I owe the women musicians who lost their careers, and the women who continue on, everything.
Women in music are more than just “sexy.” Our brilliance, ability to write, make beats, produce and arrange our own music is largely underappreciated, and rarely portrayed in the media. We’re not just made to wear sexy clothes and dance; we’re not just made to appeal to the sexual appetites of listeners, producers and men in music.
It’s time we take a look at how women experience breaking into the world of music. This is my story and my story only. I’m doing this in the hope of creating a safer experience for girls and women and LGBTQ people in music, and to open the conversation for more creativity and image control for women in music. We know ourselves more than anyone; we know what makes us sexy, and it’s more than a wardrobe and choreography. Our sexiness also comes from our ability to survive and withstand all we endure from the hands of sexism every single day.
I’d like to thank journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has investigated R. Kelly for 16 years and broke the latest story about the singer’s alleged abuses, for his intense concern for the safety and voices of the girls and women Kelly has preyed upon. I want to thank Jessica Hopper, Sasha Geffen and Jes Skolnik and all the unsung black feminist and womanist journalists and editors for inspiring me, and the few men and allies who know my story, and ask me if I’m OK, and stand with me with patience and support.
We as a culture, and we in the media, have got to do a better job of addressing rape culture in the music industry. My life could have gone very wrong; if it wasn’t for the strength and the roots that my parents and grandparents planted in my mind and spirit, I wouldn’t be where I am today. We’ve got to start making the music industry a safer place for everyone — girls and boys, young women and men, queer and trans emerging artists — because not all victims of sexual assault in the music industry are born female.
Our lives matter, and I’m so thankful I survived and committed to music long enough to be mature enough and ready to tell my story on my own terms. I love my job, I love music, I love promoting, interviewing and supporting emerging and seasoned artists. I love being a musician. I just truly wish I’d have gotten a fair shot, and I hope in the future, stories like mine and R. Kelly’s victims' become the exceptions and not the norm.
Jordannah Elizabeth is a musician, author, journalist, feminist and lecturer. She's the founder of the literary organization Publik/Private and the author of Don't Lose Track Vol. 1: 40 Articles, Essays and Q&As and The Warmest Low.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.