R. Kelly’s Trial Is Captivating a Black Audience Online. Here’s Why.

The trial of the R&B superstar R. Kelly has featured some 50 witnesses across more than a month of testimony — a blizzard of sordid and sometimes grotesque accusations and counterclaims.

For help making sense of it all, hundreds of thousands of viewers have turned to YouTube, where a host who posts videos as thePLAINESTjane offers near-daily recaps that sometimes stretch 90 minutes long and include the same images and documents seen in the courtroom.

“Come on in, have a seat on my bus,” the presenter said at the outset of one recent video, sitting next to a house plant, a collage featuring a courtroom sketch of Mr. Kelly superimposed over her shoulder. “I’m going to pick you up and give you the rundown.”

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

Thousand-member Facebook groups dissect PDF transcriptions of each individual witness’s testimony; accounts on Instagram post updates on the court day against colorful backgrounds; TikTok users break down the legal underpinnings of the racketeering charge against Mr. Kelly.

The online interest in Mr. Kelly’s trial stands apart from earlier 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 smooth melodies and charismatic persona captivated many Black households from the mid-1990s to early 2000s. And the majority of Mr. Kelly’s accusers are Black women — many of whom were adolescents or young adults when they say Mr. Kelly abused them.

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

He added: “Many Black folks grew up in a context where R. Kelly was literally the soundtrack of their lives.

In previous high-profile Me Too cases — the downfall of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which helped ignite a national reckoning, and the conviction of the comedian Bill Cosby that unfolded in its aftermath — most of the accusers were white women.

It was Mr. Kelly’s case that first offered many Black families the sense that they too were part of that conversation.

Whitney Davis, 34, has delved into the trial on her YouTube channel, reading through and reacting to transcripts of most days’ testimonies.

The singer served as an influential force in her upbringing, she said, and his music was hugely popular with her family. He inspired her as a teenager in the early 2000s and provided an “anthem” for her high school class in the form of his megahit “I Believe I Can Fly.”

But after the parents of several women spoke out publicly against the singer in recent years, accusing Mr. Kelly of holding their daughters in an abusive cult, Ms. Davis, who is from the Dallas area, said she was shocked and began to wonder, “He’s still doing this?”

She said she attentively followed other similar, high-profile accusations even before Mr. Kelly began to face legal blowback. But Ms. Davis said that his case carried a distinct resonance for a confluence of a reasons: the omnipresence of the singer’s music as she grew up; the fact that the accusers at the heart of the case looked like her; and the sexual abuse she said she endured in her own childhood.

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

Mr. Kelly, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, is charged in New York with nine counts of racketeering and inducing people to travel across state lines for the purpose of committing sex crimes. He has denied all the accusations.

The government rested its case on Monday after more than a month of testimony, and closing arguments began this week.

And as the focus of the trial shifted, so did the attention of online spectators, apparently made up of a largely Black audience. Some said that their interest was informed by the seeming rarity of accusers like those in Mr. Kelly’s case taking center stage in the public view.

Several referenced the disappearance of Gabrielle Petito, a 22-year-old white woman whose case has captured 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, from Florida, who has been following the trial in part though a large Facebook group.

But a portion of the fascination with Mr. Kelly, who is now 54, is more prurient. Bootleg VHS and DVD copies of the 27-minute sex tape that his 2008 child pornography trial in Chicago was based around were sold on street corners around the time of the case. (He was acquitted in that trial.)

And the current social media landscape often features clashes between Mr. Kelly’s detractors and defenders that can turn vitriolic or threatening.

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

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

There’s an attachment to him and there’s this sense that what is happening to him is part of a larger history of Black men being criminalized and villainized as sexual predators and held to standards that white men are not held accountable to,” Treva B. Lindsey, a professor at Ohio State University, said in describing the beliefs of his supporters.

Ms. Lindsey, who focuses largely on Black women’s history and culture, added: “You have the perfect storm of celebrity and history” — and, she said, an unwillingness among Mr. Kelly’s supporters “to grapple with the ways that patriarchal violence shows up in our society.”

There is also intense anger at Mr. Kelly in Black communities among those who strongly believe he is a predator. “This is about child sexual abuse and trauma that was inflicted on some of these women for years and years and years,” said Oronike Odeleye, the co-founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign.

To other onlookers like Sharné Haywood, 26, the trial has helped to bring greater awareness to the experiences of women who experts say have historically been overlooked in conversations around sex crimes.

The effort to increase public attention on the accusations against Mr. Kelly helped fill in what Ms. Haywood saw as a frustrating gap in the Me Too movement.

“There was an absence of the Black female perspective and how Black women are disproportionately harmed,” said Ms. Haywood, who works at a health care policy organization in Washington, D.C.

The case and trial — and the widespread attention it has garnered — feel valuable, but not all-encompassing, she said. “It’s an important step in holding people accountable and centering Black women and girls,” she said. “But I think that there’s so much further to go.”

Source: Read Full Article