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This month marks two years since singer and producer R. Kelly was convicted of nine counts of sexual trafficking and racketeering, following dozens of allegations made against him over a nearly 30-year period. Kelly’s conviction represented a significant moment within a larger push to hold abusers in the entertainment industry accountable: It was the first high-profile case following the #MeToo era that focused primarily on crimes committed against Black women and girls.
Though activist Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement in 2006, it gained global visibility only after abuse allegations from mostly White women in Hollywood. Black women’s experiences and perspectives have been historically overlooked or silenced in mainstream media. This reality is compounded for Black women and girls who have experienced sexual violence or domestic abuse, who are often depicted as unsympathetic or as aggressors, according Briana Barner, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Maryland.
Barner’s latest paper, published this summer, analyzes three Black-hosted podcasts that discussed the allegations against R. Kelly and the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary by centering assault survivors and evaluating conversations happening about sexual abuse within Black communities.
Barner wanted to explore how the podcast format in particular allowed Black hosts to unpack the media’s complicity and silence on Kelly’s crimes, while also providing content focused on the people most affected. Barner spoke with The 19th to about the role podcasts play in elevating racial and gender justice, and where the media stands currently on its depictions of Black women and girls.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Candice Norwood: In your paper, you talk about the relationship between the viral wave of the #MeToo movement and #MuteRKelly, which were happening in tandem in 2017. #MuteRKelly was a call to stop supporting him financially by declining to listen to his music or attend his concerts.
Do you think #MeToo helped to bolster the demands of the #MuteRKelly movement? Or do you think there was some overshadowing of #MuteRKelly since the #MeToo at that time was overwhelmingly focused on White women?
Briana Barner: I think that the #MeToo movement definitely helped to bolster the #MuteRKelly movement. They were happening simultaneously, and I think that the #MeToo movement helped to give vocabulary to some of the issues and conversations raised by #MuteRKelly.
I think that initially with #MeToo, a lot of Black women didn’t see themselves reflected because of the overwhelming focus on White women. So when it was publicized that Tarana Burke was the creator and has been doing this work for a long time, I think that it helped to elevate what Black women were talking about in terms of the violence they experience.
I think these movements helped make way for the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary to gain the attention it received in 2019. I think if the documentary had come out years prior, it would not have received the same press or the same support.
In terms of the particular podcasts that you looked at for your research, what are the elements that make them survivor-centered podcasts for you?
Some of the other coverage at that time was more sensationalized or focused on R. Kelly as a celebrity and things like that. Whereas the survivor-centered podcasts were more concerned about the people who were harmed the most by his actions rather than what happened to him.
And it wasn’t just about labeling R. Kelly as the boogeyman, but also looking at the people in his orbit who helped him commit these crimes, and who enabled these crimes for decades. The podcast hosts also thought about whose voices weren’t included, what stories weren’t included and other nuances.
For example, some of the hosts criticized people featured in the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary who were also accused of abuse themselves. So I think the podcasts looked at this media landscape through a critical lens.
- More from The 19th
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- More than a ‘Weinstein survivor’: Women continue to reclaim their voices five years after #MeToo
- How ‘Meghann Thee Reporter’ became the go-to source for information on the Tory Lanez trial
There’s a long history of Black press outlets and Black media that has evolved over the years with technology. Where do you feel Black podcasts like the ones you highlight fit within that larger legacy?
I think that Black podcasts fit within a long tradition of not only Black media and Black press, but also within Black oral culture. A lot of the elements of Black oral culture — the storytelling, the candidness, the laid back nature — are reflected within Black podcasts.
Black podcasts center Black audiences and issues that affect Black people. I think the podcast format is perfect for this because podcasts tend to serve a niche audience. They don’t have to worry about speaking to everyone because they are concerned with their particular audience.
And in terms of the content, some podcasts are two or three hours long. So given the length, they can also dive into really tough issues like sexual violence, and facilitate really in-depth conversations that might be difficult to do on other platforms that might need to have commercial breaks or shorter segments.
I can think of a number of times where a media platform attempts to center a marginalized group like abuse survivors but may end up doing more harm than good. Is there anything else that the podcasts you discuss in your paper did well?
Yes. One of the podcasts, “Tea with Queen and J,” did a trigger warning before they started talking about the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary. And they say, “If you are a survivor and this topic is too much for you, then you can turn this off.” And they put timestamps for the different topics in the show notes to allow people to skip certain sections or to completely opt out of listening.
I think these survivor-centered podcasts also brought different perspectives to light. For instance, the podcast “Marsha’s Plate” talked about these issues from the perspective of LGBTQ+ individuals and how grooming and sexual violence can take place among Black queer people. So the podcast took the issue highlighted by the R. Kelly documentary and drew a parallel that centered LGBTQ+ issues.
We also later learned that one of R. Kelly’s accusers was a John Doe, so drawing that parallel resonated even more.
That gets at another aspect of this that I’ve observed: It feels like there are some conversations that can be particularly difficult to raise within Black communities because of harmful stereotypes that exist. For example, it can be tough to accuse a prominent Black man of violence given the long history of narratives that depict all Black men as violent.
And with the example you just gave, it’s really tricky to call out sexual abuse within queer communites because of the narrative that portrays queer people as sexual groomers and uses that to take people’s rights away. That is just my observation — do you think that added pressure exists?
Yes, and I think that also encourages silence among survivors and the public. We see and hear the way that people will defend abusers, and the way that people defended R. Kelly for years and years and years. If we’re in a society where abuse is normalized or overlooked, then of course people will think that silence is going to be better, because if they do speak up no one will believe them.
I’m from Chicago, where R. Kelly is from, and so I have seen up close and personal how supportive people are for him. I remember being a teenager and hearing the way that people would speak about the young girl he abused in the videotape, and how they just put the blame on a teenager for the sexual violence that she endured on tape.
Looking to today, we can also see that mindset in the way that people took up for Tory Lanez and the abuse that Megan Thee Stallion is still enduring after he shot her. It’s mind-blowing to me that people will go so far to believe Tory Lanez and to completely disregard everything that Megan was saying. That speaks to the idea that Black women and girls are not seen as victims.
Building on that point, we saw what happened with the Tory Lanez case when he was accused of shooting Megan Thee Stallion. For the past three years, people have blamed her, harassed her and denied the shooting ever happened. Given that, where do you think we are now in the media landscape in terms of depictions of Black women survivors?
That’s a really complicated question, because I want to say that we’ve made progress. I think even the fact that Tory Lanez was convicted should be seen as progress. But I think that treatment of Megan proves that the needle hasn’t really moved that far.
Even after the conviction Megan is still being viewed as a traitor. When she was on the stand in court, she said that she wished that he would have killed her. The fact that she wished death upon herself, as opposed to dealing with the backlash that she received, was telling and it was heartbreaking.
But I do think some progress has been made if you look at the way that a lot of Black women supported Megan. Black women do the work of holding people down, as they did with Megan, and so I do think that some progress has been made, but progress is slow.
I am cautiously optimistic that things will turn around. I do think that in the age of social media, even in the age of podcasts, that more attention is being called to different injustices.