Lady Gaga Needs to Talk About R. Kelly

R. Kelly and Lady Gaga perform at the American Music Awards, November 24, 2013.  (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Update (January 9, 2018, 10:27 pm PT):

Lady Gaga has released a statement addressing her work with R. Kelly:

Gaga accompanied this image with the words: "I stand by anyone who has ever been the victim of sexual assault."
Gaga accompanied this image with the words: "I stand by anyone who has ever been the victim of sexual assault." (@ladygaga)

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R. Kelly has persistently been accused of disturbing treatment of women, particularly underage girls, ever since he illegally married 15-year-old Aaliyah in 1997. His career has survived child pornography trials, rumors of a sex cult and even the organized effort by frustrated bystanders to #MuteRKelly. Kelly hasn't just dodged every bullet fired in his direction, he has reveled in the attention, even shrugging his shoulders in song form with his shocking single, "I Admit," last September.

Over the weekend though, Lifetime docu-series, Surviving R. Kelly, somehow had a greater impact than anything that has come before. In the six-hour documentary, credible abuse survivors told stories that were harrowing to listen to and obviously extremely difficult for them to relive. There can be no doubt, after Surviving R. Kelly, who this man is and what he continues to get away with.

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Unfortunately for the survivors in question, almost all of the household names approached to participate in the series refused interviews. Executive producer dream hampton has revealed that those who refused participation include Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, L'il Kim, Dave Chapelle and Lady Gaga. Though she has gone some way towards excusing the absent celebs, saying: “It’s not because they support him, it’s because it’s so messy and muddy,” she has also said she "wanted to know how Lady Gaga could be on SNL with [Kelly] as someone who advocates for domestic abuse survivors."

Even back in 2013, Gaga's collaboration with R. Kelly caught a lot of people off guard. Given the already well-established rumors about him, the lyrics of "Do What U Want" weren't just inappropriate, they were deeply insensitive. The fact that Gaga, an outspoken advocate of women's rights, so enthusiastically embraced and supported Kelly, only compounded the confusion. At the time, she told confused journalists: "R. Kelly and I have sometimes very untrue things written about us, so in a way, this was a bond between us." The video, directed by another alleged predator, Terry Richardson, was scrapped in the midst of the controversy, and Gaga did a hasty re-recording of the track with Christina Aguilera.

Though little has been made of that situation in the time since, it was Lady Gaga who received much of the Surviving R. Kelly backlash on social media over the weekend:

There are too many musicians and industry people culpable in R. Kelly's ongoing career to name. (Let's not forget that Spotify amended its decision to remove R. Kelly from its platform last year after pressure from Kendrick Lamar. Or that Damon Dash and Jay-Z's friendship ended after Dash told Jay about Kelly's abuse of Aaliyah, and Jay moved forward with 2002's Best of Both Worlds collaboration anyway.) And it's true that women almost always end up doing the heavy lifting when it comes to issues around sexual abuse, while men get to stay in the shadows. But the truth is, no one else in this picture is in quite the same position as Gaga.

Her current silence isn't just a PR nightmare for her, it's becoming a dividing line and a focal point, an egregious example of how white women, even ones actively involved in social justice causes, can discard the experiences of women of color. Where Erykah Badu can take to Instagram and plead the fifth on the subject ("A wise woman once said...nothing" she just posted, under pressure from fans), Gaga's silence carries more weight, not just because of her higher profile, but also because of her inherent privilege.

The longer Gaga stays uncharacteristically silent about the plight of these women at the hands of one of her collaborators, the larger the gulf feels between white feminists and feminists of color, all of which creates even more division at precisely the time when intersectionality should be taking center stage. A united front is needed now if justice is to ever be done.

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All of the musicians who refused to appear in Surviving R. Kelly might pay some sort of price for not doing so, but Gaga has both the most to lose by staying silent and the most power to wield by speaking up. If she publicly turns her back on Kelly now, it might actually bring some comfort to those survivors who've been discarded as collateral damage, repeatedly, for years, by a music industry that cares more about sales than women's personal safety. Gaga, of all people, should already know that.

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