Twenty years ago, Courtney Desiree Morris was invited by a friend to see R. Kelly perform at the Smirnoff Amphitheater in Dallas. At that time, Morris enjoyed Kelly’s music and live shows, so she agreed to attend the concert. What she saw there, as she would later describe in a paper for a graduate school seminar, was horrifying:
A cage rises from the center of the stage, and suddenly the amphitheater is echoing with the sounds of the jungle, monkeys screeching, an occasional roar, indecipherable growling and moaning. Suddenly the smoke clears and Kelly is swinging around the cage, scantily clad in a bikini brief, frolicking in the cage with two equally half-dressed female dancers. For several minutes the threesome chase each other around the cage, clawing at each other and pantomiming sexual acts. The jungle scene climaxes with the three of them hanging from the top of the cage, Kelly sandwiched between the two dancers, as the three of them gyrate against one another wildly, crawling over one another, until the stage is once again bathed in darkness.
The image of a powerful man literally chasing women inside a cage while relegating Black sexuality to ugly, animalistic tropes stayed with the then–18-year-old Morris. It pushed her away from Kelly’s music—and, as she wrote in the same paper, “unwittingly introduced me to Black feminism.” This concert would come to Morris’ mind again in 2006, when, as a graduate student at the University of Texas–Austin, she heard the school had booked the R&B star for a show. At that point, the calculus around Kelly had drastically changed: In 2002, Chicago Sun-Times journalist Jim DeRogatis reported on the existence of an underage sex tape that seemed to feature Kelly, and the singer had been charged with multiple counts of child pornography. The fact that this didn’t seem to factor into the school’s decision to invite him, or fellow students’ decisions to buy tickets, frustrated and angered Morris. She and a group of other Black women on campus decided to do something about it by staging a rally at the school’s Bass Concert Hall—and were roundly scorned for it, even as their protests were covered by national press.
This September, Robert Kelly was convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking. It was an instantly historic federal ruling, which proved that “Kelly’s entire 30-year career was a criminal enterprise,” as DeRogatis put it to me in an interview before the trial got into full swing in New York. Myriad events in recent years led to this verdict: the fading of Kelly’s once-ubiquitous stardom; DeRogatis’ harrowing 2017 BuzzFeed News investigation into the singer’s “abusive cult;” the emergence of the #MeToo movement, the wide reach of the #MuteRKelly movement; and the devastating testimony from some of Kelly’s victims in the 2019 Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. Still, the survivors, writers, and activists—like Morris—who’d long tracked and protested Kelly’s abuses can’t help but wonder why it took this long. And staunch fans of the former superstar are still defending him, even after this conviction.
This week, I reached out to Morris, now an assistant professor at the University of California–Berkeley’s Department of Gender & Women’s Studies, to speak with her about her 2006 protest against Kelly, and what she thinks true justice for survivors should look like. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nitish Pahwa: Tell me more about how you became outspoken against R. Kelly.
Courtney Desiree Morris: I was a graduate student at the University of Texas–Austin [in the mid-2000s], and our Performing Arts Center would bring out huge names every year to come and perform. In 2006, they decided to bring R. Kelly. I just remember thinking, “How on earth could you invite somebody who’s facing 14 counts of child pornography?” There were a number of other graduate students, all young Black women in the program, who were really disturbed by this, so we decided we were going to start our own organization, called Feminists of Color United. We wrote editorials in our student newspaper. We wrote an open letter to the directors and administration of the Performing Arts Center and expressed our outrage that our student fees were being used in this way. The people at the Performing Arts Center basically said, Well, R. Kelly brings out a huge crowd. We’ve brought him out here before, and Black audiences really like him. I remember thinking, “There are lots of artists Black people like. R. Kelly doesn’t have to be the only one.” But I just think of how untouchable he was at the moment, and there were so many people invested in protecting him and turning a blind eye.
We told the administrators that they needed to rescind the invitation, and once it was clear that was not going to be the case, we decided to protest at the event. So a small group of us marched from the Center for African American Studies over to the Performing Arts Center with posters saying things like, “Protect Women of Color” and “Remember Aaliyah.”
We got [there] while audience members were streaming in. When they saw us out there protesting, people got really angry. No one was aggressive, but people were mocking us. At one point we were chanting, “This is how many counts of child pornography he’s facing: one, two, three, four … ” and they were like, “Wow, you’re getting all this education so you can count to 14. Good on you.” Even some of our classmates were dismissive. I remember, as we were preparing for the protest, one of them was like, “Girl, I got Chocolate Factory on in my car right now. I’m not protesting R. Kelly.”
There was some local media coverage of it. Jim DeRogatis was one of the few reporters who was all over the R. Kelly story at that point, and I remember he called and was like, “I heard you’re protesting, what’s going on?”
Oh, he reached out to you?
He did. We put together a press release, we sent it out, and somehow he got his hands on it and took us seriously in a way that few people did. Other media outlets that contacted us, we’d explain to them what we were doing, and they’d be like, “So, what do you think of R. Kelly’s music?” I hadn’t been listening to Kelly’s music at that point for years, but I was like, “We’re talking about criminal charges. Why is that a relevant question?”
It felt like we were screaming in the wind, like no one wanted to have that conversation, and like we were being written off as a bunch of uptight feminists trying to bring this brother down. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for the victims, and there was a lot of hostility towards activists and cultural critics who were trying to bring attention to the issue.
We continued to do some work after that. There were a number of other issues that came up related to R. Kelly, other cases and instances of sexual abuse and violence against Black women that we thought were important and needed to be highlighted, but then we all ended up moving on in our grad program, and the group ultimately folded.
It feels like the culture now is ready for the critique we were making 15 years ago. That is gratifying, but it’s also heartbreaking that it took that long. The things that we knew were shocking and horrifying enough to mobilize us to respond to what was going on. Had people seriously taken the critiques that folks were making 20 years ago, there would be a lot fewer victims than there ultimately have been.
Were there any other activists who reached out in solidarity, or was your rally a unique occurrence at the time?
There were other young feminist organizations that were doing work around this. But at the time, we didn’t know that. We were doing this activist work in the age before social media, so you often had the feeling that what you were doing was really isolated. … Later on, I started to hear about work that young women at Spelman College were doing, or about other people who had similar critiques. But we didn’t all know one another at the time, and we didn’t have the ability to connect with one another to mobilize solidarity and support from other locations.
Why do you think so many students at that time ignored or just completely denied the child pornography allegations against Kelly?
I think part of it really stems from the narratives that exist about Black women in the culture, which we are all socialized into. … There is a prevailing narrative that Black women are not believable, that we’re not people whose word needs to be taken seriously, that we’re not honest, and that we’re not people who need to be protected.
There has been a lot of research done on the ways that Black children generally, and Black girls in particular, are seen as being much older than they actually are. I remember being 14 years old and having older men trying to talk to me and flirt with me and kind of groom me for sexual relationships. This perception that Black girls are older than they are, that they’re more experienced than they actually are, that they’re more sexual than other girls their age—all of those factors combine to create a scenario where these young Black women were not seen as victims. They were seen as complicit in their own abuse, as adults who were making choices and engaging in a consensual relationship with an older man.
The everyday exploitation and abuse and marginalization of young Black women flies under the radar because we are preoccupied with these other questions that seem more pressing, like police abuse, the criminal justice system, the prison-industrial complex. It’s much harder to turn the gaze inward and look at the ways we are enacting violence against one another. I think a lot of people were thinking that these girls are not believable, they’re gold diggers, they’re just trying to get famous, they’re just trying to bring down this guy who has made good for himself, and they’re making him and the community look bad.
In the moment, it felt like we had failed. It didn’t feel like we had shifted the discourse around what was happening with Kelly. As I recall, the Performing Arts Center invited him to perform again [in 2017]. There were many times when I remember driving down I-35, seeing R. Kelly’s name on the marquee of the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, and thinking, “Fuck. Nothing has changed. Nothing is changing.” I often had the feeling that he’s never going to be held accountable.
After this rally and after grad school, did you get involved in any other R. Kelly protests?
I didn’t. Especially after that first trial, when he was found not guilty, it felt like the energy around that work fizzled, because a lot of us felt like, “If he can have a videotape of him having sex with and urinating on a teenage girl and that’s not enough to sway 12 people, then I don’t know what else you can do.”
At that point, I was doing a lot of of youth work in the community with Black and Latina teenage girls. Instead of mobilizing specifically around Kelly, I shifted my work toward empowering young women to access the resources and support they needed to protect themselves: “Here’s how you recognize a predator. Here’s what it means when someone’s trying to groom you. Here are the resources you can access if you’ve been victimized in this way or if someone is sexually abusing you.” That was really the result of me being like, “I feel like this is the best intervention I can make, because I can scream and scream and scream, and nobody’s going to do anything about someone like R. Kelly.”
What has it felt like to finally see more mainstream recognition of this man’s crimes? And why do you think that it took until this year for his victims to see some justice?
I think, like a lot of people who have been following this issue for many years, the feeling has been bittersweet. I have really mixed feelings about the criminal justice system and incarceration, but this is the system that we live under. In that sense, I am encouraged by the fact that, finally, he’s having to answer for what he’s done, and he’s facing very real consequences. I often wonder what it’s going to take for the people who enabled that behavior to also be held accountable. A lot of people helped him do those things—finding young women and bringing them to him, lying and helping him cover his tracks.
So I feel like the accountability extends further than him, and I want to see how that’s going to play out, but it’s also a tough pill to swallow that it took so long and so many lives have been ruined in the process. That, for me, has been the hardest thing to watch, and I’m wondering what kind of support the survivors will have to rebuild their lives. Restitution goes far beyond sending someone to prison. Those women need support beyond this, and I haven’t seen much of a conversation around what that would look like. These young Black women, what happened to them wasn’t their fault. R. Kelly’s victims didn’t choose this. They were targeted, they were groomed, and then they were exploited.
In so many ways, this country is in a moment of reckoning. We’re having to reckon with the reality of racial inequality, we’re having to reckon with the fragility of our democratic institutions, and we’re also having to reckon with the legacy of misogyny and violence against women that for so long we treated as a private issue, or as something we didn’t talk about in public spaces. I think that’s necessary if we’re going to try to figure out how to create a society where we can feel safe and protected and like our lives really matter and have value. I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough, and I think there’s much more work that needs to be done before we can really put the R. Kelly case to rest.