LaKisha Michelle Simmons: Surviving R. Kelly: Church and Gendered Respectability in the 1990s

Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, by LaKisha Michelle SimmonsWe welcome a guest post today from LaKisha Michelle Simmons, author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans.

What was it like to grow up black and female in the segregated South? In Crescent City Girls, Simmons blends social history and cultural studies, recreating children’s streets and neighborhoods within Jim Crow New Orleans and offering a rare look into black girls’ personal lives. Simmons argues that these children faced the difficult task of adhering to middle-class expectations of purity and respectability even as they encountered the daily realities of Jim Crow violence, which included interracial sexual aggression, street harassment, and presumptions of black girls’ impurity.

Crescent City Girls is available in both print and ebook editions.


Surviving R. Kelly: Church and Gendered Respectability in the 1990s

On January 3rd, Lifetime television began a three-day event, Surviving R Kelly, a docu-series focusing on R&B singer R. Kelly’s alleged pedophilia and sexual and domestic abuse of black girls and young women.  After watching the allegations, listening to survivors, and seeing evidence mount, many viewers wondered how did R. Kelly’s sexual abuse of black girls continue unchecked for so long? How did we—as a society—allow this to happen?

Scholars of black girlhood have carefully documented how black girls are not granted childhood innocence in American culture. Black girls are pushed out, overpoliced, and underprotected.  As a young Black teenager, Tressie Mcmillan Cottom listened to family reactions to the 1992 boxer Mike Tyson’s rape trial and learned: “black girls like me can never truly be victims of sexual predators.”

There are a multitude of cultural narratives—both within the Black community and within American society at large— that have left Black girls underprotected, making sure that they can never be seen as victims of sexual predators. After watching Surviving R Kelly, I was reminded of how R. Kelly maintained his reputation by drawing support for himself and his music from the Black church. Feminist theologian Candace Benbow recently documented some of this support by pastors and well-known gospel singers, much of it after R. Kelly was charged with child pornography in June 2002. How did R. Kelly manage this relationship?

Kelly and Gendered Performances of Religiosity

In 1994, twenty-seven-year-old R. Kelly illegally married his protégé, fifteen-year-old singer Aaliyah. After her parents found out and had the marriage annulled, R. Kelly refused to do interviews. Later, when interviewers would ask about the relationship, Kelly would sulk, refuse to answer questions or storm off.  This appears to have been a possible moment of crisis for Kelly’s career, what would people say about his relationships with teenage girls? But R. Kelly maintained his reputation by deliberately performing religiosity. In his interviews post-Aaliyah marriage scandal, he professed a commitment and connection to God and gospel music. His religious performance of the “sinful and sanctified” was gendered—only available to Black men within the Black church.

In the first interviews Kelly gave after his illegal marriage, he talked specifically about his relationship to God. In this way, Kelly (and the writers covering him) redirected the conversation from sexual predation to his gendered performance of decorum. As Kelly explained, it didn’t matter what he did in private in his bedroom, or up on stage, what mattered instead was his relationship to God. In a 1995 article for the LA Times, writer Cheo Coker explained, “God, not sex, is actually the driving force in Kelly’s life, to hear him tell it.” In the same interview, Kelly suggests that one day he might go “straight to gospel.”

In a 1996 Vibe profile, Coker again argued that “Like Prince, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green, Robert S. Kelly melds the sinful and the sanctified.” Ebony writer Keven Chappell also picked up on this theme in his reporting on R Kelly. In 1996 Chappell’s subtitle noted Kelly’s “Controversial Mix of Shock and Salvation.” In that interview, R. Kelly again flirted with the idea of turning into a pure gospel singer, claiming, “I look what I’m doing on-stage as taking a step more towards God, because if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.” In 1997 Chappell covered Kelly’s turn “from raunch to religion.” And in 1998, Chappell writes another story where R Kelly “Talks about Women, Money, Power, and Religion.” Despite writing about Kelly’s supposed turn towards God two years earlier, Chappell argued that “R. Kelly’s commitment to his personal growth didn’t surface publicly until last year when he proclaimed at a concert by hip hop gospel artist Kirk Franklin that he ‘used to be flying in sin—now I’m flyin in Jesus.’”

In the 1990s, writers time and again gave Kelly space to create narratives of redemption and religiosity. Many of them briefly noted his marriage with Aaliyah, his raunchy song lyrics, his partying, and his on-stage antics, but they used this to build the central conflict of their stories: this was a man who sold sex on stage but in private was driven and chosen by God. I read Kelly’s promise to start singing gospel—as early as 1995—as a strategy to distract from his relationships with underage girls.

Black Girls, Church and Respectability

The performance of sinful sanctification is only available to Black men. Indeed, the Black girls who have been victims of Kelly have never been allowed to be both sexual and devout.

Black feminists have noted how performances of respectability have been central to Black women and girls’ worthiness.  To be taken seriously or deemed innocent, Black girls have had to first prove their purity. In her groundbreaking Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins noted that “Some accuse the Black Church of relying on a double standard according to which teenaged girls are condemned for out-of-wedlock pregnancies but in which the men who fathered the children escape censure. The girls are often required to confess their sins and ask forgiveness in front of the entire congregation whereas the usually older men who impregnate them are excused.”

Feminist scholar and cultural critic Brittney Cooper was a teenager in the 1990s. In Eloquent Rage, Cooper wrote about her own experience of sexist double standards in the Black church of her youth. She grew up “steeped in all kinds of Christian guilt” and was “in sanctified denial about my desire to be sexual in the first place.” “Black girls and Black women,” argues Cooper, “particularly those how have had any sustained encounter with Christianity, are often immobilized by the hyperregulation of their sexuality from both the church and the state.”  Tamura Lomax, a preacher’s daughter and scholar of religion and Black feminism, writes about the “rules” given to black girls growing up in the church: “don’t wear clothes that show your body, don’t wear clothes that are too tight or too revealing, watch where you go and who you’re with at night, and always, I mean always, make sure your breasts and behind are covered.”  She recalls, “I was eleven years old when a prominent male elder of my childhood church told my father that he could not focus during altar call because he was sexually overwhelmed by my prepubescent derriere. As opposed to chin checking the man for sexual harassment toward a child, I was lightly chastised for looking ‘too grown’ and prohibited from ever again wearing the black-and-red fishtail cotton dressed that donned my eleven-year-old body that Sunday.” Lomax and Cooper’s experiences echo my own as a teenager in a Black Baptist church. When I was abused by a prominent church member, the pastor offered cover and protection for the perpetrator.

The Black church culture of the 1990s allowed for the religious redemption of R. Kelly, while also very carefully blaming Black girls for their own sexuality. How did we—as a society—allow R. Kelly to happen? The narratives of forgiveness for R. Kelly’s sins, and guilt for his Black girl victims already existed within the Black community.

Robert Kelly—with the aid of entertainment writers who detailed his stardom—cleverly used the language of religiosity to conceal his illegal behavior. In the 1998 Ebony Magazine letters to the editor after one of Chappell’s article, women and teenage girls wrote in to commend Kelly’s religious conversion. One woman wrote: “This Brother has to be an angel sent from God because he’s so real and in tune with God. God will use whomever He chooses, and R. Kelly has been chosen to fly high, from rags to riches, good to best, like some type of fairy tale that turned into a reality.”


Quoted Texts & Recommended Reading

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and New Racism (Routledge, 2005).  

Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers her Superpower (St. Martin’s Press, 2018).

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church (Harvard University Press, 2004).

Tamura Lomax, Jezebel Unhinged: Losing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture (Duke University Press, 2018).


LaKisha Michelle Simmons is assistant professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter.