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 the wake of #SurvivingRKelly, there’s been a deafening collective silence among gospel artists and leaders within the Black Christian community. And that silence is complicit. I wrote about it. https://t.co/NpSwpCQ4xx— Candice Marie Benbow (@CandiceBenbow) January 9, 2019
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."
"There was a point when the only place that black man could find power and respect and refuge was in our black churches," Benbow told NPR. "So during the height of the civil rights movement, during times of rampant anti-blackness during reconstruction, if you could not be in a space in larger society where you were respected, you definitely could come to the church and be ... a leader in our communities and our congregations, and so that leadership became ... protected over and above caring for and protecting black women and girls."
Rather than condemn Kelly, Benbow said that some in the church have leaned on the belief that everyone is a sinner — and that even Biblical figures like Moses or Noah were flawed.
"While that's true, there's a difference between Noah and Moses and a pedophile," she said in her interview. "When we decide to cloak our lack of accountability in God speak and in God talk, what does that signal for our broader congregations?"
Of course, not all churches and pastors have remained silent or supported Kelly. Some, such as the Catalyst Church in West Philadelphia, have spoken up to address issues of abuse within the black community.
Instead of addressing abuse on a church-by-church basis, Benbow argued that there should be a larger, concentrated dialogue within the community.
"We are in a moment where we have to draw the line in the sand and say that we cannot continue to support someone who has done these unconscionable things," she said.
In her written piece, Benbow points out the church made these types of efforts in response to racial injustice, such as when pastors organized "Hoodie Sunday" in response to Trayvon Martin's death.
She said she wants to see the same type of response to Kelly's alleged actions, as well as to the larger issues of sexual abuse and violation.
"There are so many black girls and black women who have experienced violation, who look to gospel music and who look to pastors," she said. "If they can't hear their favorite gospel artists or their pastors say 'this is wrong and we have to address it,' then we really have to think about what is the true message of the church and ... of gospel music."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's new focus on R. Kelly and accusations that he committed sexual abuse now that "Surviving R. Kelly," the Lifetime docuseries, has aired. Pop artists, including Lady Gaga and the band Phoenix, have apologized for their collaborations with Kelly and expressed support for his accusers.
But Robert Kelly still has defenders and fans, including leaders in the gospel music industry. Candice Benbow wrote about that allegiance on her website in a piece called "Supporting R. Kelly: When Gospel And Black Church Get It Wrong." She joins us now from member station WUOT in Knoxville, Tenn. Thanks so much for being with us.
CANDICE BENBOW: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: R. Kelly has a deep relationship with gospel music and the black church, doesn't he?
BENBOW: He does. So from "I Need An Angel," with "I Believe I Can Fly," writing for Whitney Houston with "I Look To You" - these are songs that are sung in our churches - recently working with Marvin Sapp. So he has a record and a history of creating songs that speak to black Christians in particular. And that reach has been one that has been both long-standing and has allowed him a certain kind of insulation from critique.
SIMON: Well, help us understand that insulation. Is it as simple as a lot of people are indebted to him for extraordinary work? Do they like him personally?
BENBOW: It's a both-and, right? So on one level, because you've written these monster hits for people, there's a way in which that power insulates you from critique, right? But in a larger sense, we have to look at the structure of our churches and the structure of our theologies.
There was a point when the only place that black men could find power and respect and refuge was in our black churches, right? So during the height of the civil rights movement, during Reconstruction, if you could not be in larger society where you were respected, you definitely could come to the church and be a leader in our communities and our congregations. And so that leadership became protected over and above caring for and protecting black women and girls.
And so even when - before we saw "Surviving R. Kelly," there were a number of allegations that, again, nobody touched in this particular community because it was easier for us to say, I'm going to pray for him, rather than say, I'm going to attack this head-on because if we attacked it head-on, we will have to talk about other issues that are similar that are happening in churches every day.
SIMON: You mentioned Marvin Sapp. And that 2017 album "Close" has a track that he worked on with R. Kelly. Marvin Sapp is a bishop - isn't he? - not just a recording artist.
BENBOW: He is. So - and that makes it even more dangerous, right? Because when people critiqued Marvin Sapp for not only doing the record but intentionally keeping the record on his album, he said, you know, I would rather pray for him rather than condemn him and then went on to make a broader statement that God has used flawed men in the Bible, citing Noah and Moses, to do great things and great work. And while that's true, there's a difference between Noah and Moses and a pedophile, right?
BENBOW: So we have to be very clear that when we decide to cloak a lack of accountability in Godspeak, what does that signal for our broader congregations every single day?
SIMON: Can you listen to R. Kelly's music?
BENBOW: I would be hypocritical if I said that I wasn't listening to "I Believe I Can Fly" because I was, right? But I think that there comes a point, particularly as I grew as a feminist and had experienced friends telling me their own experiences, coming into honesty around my own experiences around sexual trauma and assault - it became important for me to reckon with the fact that if I am going to support R. Kelly by listening to him, then I am saying that these experiences do not matter. And I'm saying that black girls' and black women's voices don't matter. And I can't say that because then that means that my voice doesn't matter.
And so I think that we are in a moment where we have to draw the line in the sand. There are so many black girls and black women who have experienced violation who look to gospel music and who look to pastors to help them navigate these experiences. And if they can't hear their favorite gospel artists or their pastor say, this is wrong, and we have to address it, then we really have to think about, what is the true message of the church? And what is the true message of gospel music?
SIMON: Candice Benbow. Her piece appears on her website, candicebenbow.com. Thank you so much for being with us.
BENBOW: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.