A Tale of Two Chicagos: What I Learned From Becoming and Surviving R. Kelly
America’s major cities each have their own vibe. The hustle and bustle that weaves between New York’s skyscrapers is legendary. Los Angeles is well-known for its sunny weather, beautiful people, and Hollywood sign towering over America’s most historic film industry. The Las Vegas Strip beckons tourists with its bright lights, drive-thru weddings officiated by Elvis, and empty promises of winning it big on a slot machine. Even if you have never visited these places, you know the city’s personality.
Chicago also has a vibe. As a former Midwesterner, Chicago is a place that I became familiar with over nearly a decade (especially #SummertimeChi). The people, food, festival season, sports teams and music scene (among many other things) make it a great city. Unfortunately, recent years have focused on they city’s perceived propensity for violence.
For me, what has always stood out—more than Michael Jordan or the former Sears Tower or that silver bean-looking thing—is how much people from Chicago LOVE Chicago. And I mean…LOVE Chicago. I don’t care who a person is, if they are from Chicago they will let you know within the first 3-5 seconds of your interaction with them. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard an interview with Common or Chance the Rapper where they don’t mention their city. The Chi is always on their minds.
The city has also been on my mind a lot lately. I, like more than 3 million other people on the planet, bought Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, when it came out. Almost immediately after the book’s release in November 2018, I began getting texts from others in my circle who literally could. not. put. the. book. down.
Despite the rave reviews, Becoming sat on my floor in its Amazon.com box for several months. I did not begin reading it until around the New Year. True to Chicago form, Mrs. Obama shouted out her city (and especially her neighborhood on the South side of Chicago) literally on page 1 and continued throughout the book to reference her beloved hometown.
Around this same time, the Lifetime network was preparing to set a huge, raging dumpster fire in the internet’s front yard. On January 3, 2019, Lifetime released part one of Surviving R. Kelly, a SIX-PART documentary about the girls and women who survived harrowing, horrible, disgusting [I need like a million more words here] pedophilia, predatory behavior and abuse at the hands of R. Kelly, an R&B artist that many folks muted long before the documentary aired. The six part series is jarring, shocking and incomprehensible (the decisions made by people, not the documentary itself) at times.
R. Kelly is also from the South Side of Chicago, and the city serves almost as a featured character throughout the documentary. The documentary describes his childhood and high school days in Chicago, his common presence at a McDonald’s near the high school, and his local studio and home. Chicago is front and center from the first few minutes of part one, and it plays a major role throughout the full documentary, which aired in parts over the span of several days.
Interestingly, I was finishing the last few pages of Becoming at the same time that Surviving R. Kelly was being aired. I went back and forth about whether I should watch it, because I knew it would be tough to hear the stories—when I was in law school, Criminal Law was the class I hate most…I could barely stand to read the details of the cases describing various types of homicides and assaults. I knew the Surviving R. Kelly documentary was going to make my stomach churn. I ultimately tuned in several days after it originally aired, perhaps out of some feeling of shared solidarity with the many black women talking about its themes across my social media platforms.
As I read about Mrs. Obama’s life and experiences in Chicago, I was struck by the reverence with which she talked about Chicago and the South Side. It nurtured and supported her, and later, her soon-to-be famous husband. When I watched the Lifetime documentary, Chicago seemed literally to be a different place. It was a place that had knowingly protected and revered R. Kelly despite being well-informed of his dangerous and evil predilections. It was the evil and depraved Mr. Hyde to Mrs. Obama’s Dr. Jekyll.
I was fascinated by this contrast and have a couple of observations to share.
Now, look—before we get into this. I know people from Chicago LOVE Chicago. I also appreciate that, as much as people from Chicago LOVE Chicago, they HATE equally as much (if not more) when people who ain’t from Chicago have something to say about Chicago. If that is you…bear with me. And take your finger off the holster of your Twitter fingers. I come in peace.
I should say at the outset that it feels weird comparing Becoming with Surviving R. Kelly.
If the forever first lady is on one end of the spectrum as it relates to protecting and championing the cause of young girls, Robert Kelly is so far on the other end of the spectrum that he ain’t even on a spectrum. Even his own daughter has called him a monster.
Michelle Obama, as an accomplished, 55 year old professional woman from the South Side of Chicago, is the physical embodiment of an American success story, no matter whether you agree with her political or ideological views. She grew up in a working class family, worked her butt off in public and magnet schools, went to college, and worked her way through several upwardly-mobile job opportunities. Her accomplishments are impressive and plentiful and she has positively impacted the lives of countless girls of all backgrounds.
On the other hand….
Robert Kelly, a 52 year old man also from the South Side of Chicago, grew up in a home where he was sexually abused from age 7 to age 14 or 15, barely made it through grade school, and is functionally illiterate. In some ways his story could have also been a success story (and probably is to his ride-or-die fans). There was a time when he was the golden goose of the music industry, despite his upbringing. He is, by the numbers, one of the best selling music artists in the United States. Rolling Stone has said that he is "arguably the most important R&B figure of the 1990s and 2000s.” But, as we have learned at varying points in history, he is, quite literally, a monster. Surviving R. Kelly, for many people, was the exclamation point on decades—quite literally generations—of stories about his predatory, pedophilic, abusive behaviors again (primarily black) women.
Despite the fact that these two people have nothing in common other than being members of the human race (and I’m not even sure he deserves to be considered human), two things stuck with me as I compared and contrasted Becoming and Surviving R. Kelly.
Because similar paths can starkly diverge, we must carefully sow principles of love & survival into our children.
Obama starts Becoming with a description of her formative years in her South Shore neighborhood at the end of the 1960s. Because she was a good student who worked very hard, Obama had the opportunity to attend the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Because the school was across town, she had a roughly 90 commute by bus to get there. She describes the experience in the video below. The part I’m talking about goes from about the 1:30 minute mark until the 3:00 minute mark.
This magnet high school exposed her to all kinds of new things—she met black kids from wealthy, professional families, which she had never seen before. As Obama articulates in the video, the school helped her "find a place where [she] could be smart and feel good about it.” Because every student there was striving for success, Obama was able to cultivate her own dreams of success. Because she was in this environment, she would spend each day of her 90 minute bus commute doing homework and preparing for the next day of school.
In part 1 of Surviving R. Kelly, the documentary recounts an eerily similar commute for Jerhonda Pace (then Jerhonda Johnson). In 2008, Pace also had a long city bus commute to her Chicago high school, where she was a 15-year old freshman. Pace was also an R. Kelly superfan. When Kelly was criminally prosecuted on child pornography charges, his trial was held in a downtown Chicago courtroom. When Pace found out, she skipped school and instead traveled 40 miles by train and bus to attend his trial—it wasn’t hard for her to do because she had to take the bus to school anyway, and her single-mom was working several jobs and oftentimes not at home.
Pace was a visible attendee at the trial—She was photographed alongside Kelly and was a mainstay during the entire trial.
The photo below is of her in 2008, at 15 years old, waiting outside the court house.
At 15 years old, Pace was even quoted by MTV after Kelly was acquitted, saying:
"They can't call him a pedophile anymore," Johnson said. "They can't say he likes little girls. They don't have proof of that. Because he's innocent now. He's free."
This is one place the Surviving R. Kelly documentary began to throw me for a loop. Pace describes how, after the trial, Kelly called her (he was 41/42 at the time and she was probably 15/16). He invited her to his home and took her virginity that same day. This led to a multi-year spiral of abuse.
Listening to Pace’s story and thinking about Obama’s experience starkly illustrated for me how similar paths can diverge.
Obama’s long commute led her to a supportive place where the people around her had a vested interest in her success. Because she felt this all around her, she was propelled in the direction of her dreams. Pace’s commute, on the other hand, led her to a place where the one person she believed in ravaged both her mind and body for two years. She has said the last straws for her were when he slapped, choked, and spit on her.
These two things lay bare how carefully we must sow love and survival principles into our children. They can and will find themselves having to make any number of decisions. How we guide them could lead to either heaven or hell. There are good and bad people in the world waiting to exert their influence, and we owe it to the children in our lives to expose them to the ways that their paths can diverge.
By saying this, I do not intend in anyway to blame Pace or her mother for the situation she found herself in. Her victimization is solely the fault of her abuser—her naïveté was exploited. <<Who among us has never found themselves in a place where they knew they had no business being?>> My point is merely that we can and should offer kids the tools and opportunities that help them both identify and avoid unsafe situations.
2. We must eradicate cultures of silence.
The second big thing that I couldn’t shake was the difference between the sibling and other familial relationships of Michelle Obama and her brother, Craig Robinson, and Robert Kelly and his younger brother, Carey Kelly.
Obama speaks with love about her big brother and how she always wanted to be like him and do the things he did. She talks about them being “tight, in part thanks to an unwavering and somewhat inexplicable allegiance he seemed to feel for his baby sister right from the start.”
Obama idolized her brother and, once she was old enough, she followed him places and learned how to navigate her adolescence by watching him. And Craig understood this. He was, to quote Obama, “the portrait of brotherly vigilance and responsibility.”
The Robinson kids were also taught to avoid being dishonest and dishonorable. There’s a story in the book that I’ll leave to page 47 of Becoming to articulate:
I can’t say that I had the moral compass or mental fortitude of 8th grade Craig. As I read this story and Obama’s other characterizations of her brother, I thought about the power of having this kind of role model as a kid and how positively these images must have been for her.
Carey Kelly speaks similarly about looking up to his older brothers, including Robert, and wanting to do everything they did. As the youngest of four, Carey followed his brothers around and emulated them. In a particularly jarring scene in Surviving R. Kelly, Carey talks about being sexually abused by his oldest sister at age 6 and going to Robert to tell him about the abuse:
Carey recounted going to his older brother, Robert (aka R. Kelly), about the abuse when he was a child. “Robert, him being my big brother, I brought that to him and told him what happened to me,” he said. “And when I told him, he didn’t really respond to it like I felt he should. When I told him, he said, ‘No, that didn’t happen.’ And I said, ‘Yes it did.’ And Robert said, ‘No it didn’t.’ And I left it alone. I really didn’t want to take it to my mom, because my brother was the test. And if he believed me, maybe I could’ve taken it to an adult.”
Whew. I was in tears through several parts of the documentary, and this was one of them. It is just sad all around. R. Kelly has also spoken in the past about being sexually abused by an older female family member, though he has never confirmed (at least publicly, who that was). Carey has said he doesn’t know if he and his brother were abused by the same person because they have never discussed it. And he did not believe any of the adults in his life would believe him.
In digesting these two experiences at the same time, I saw the striking impact that secrets can—or cannot have—on families. Fostering a culture of communication in our households can protect children from a lifetime of damage (or, in the case of 8th grade Craig, from being prematurely confronted with situations that they are not prepared for).
Keeping dark secrets is deeply rooted in African-American communities—firmly established in a history of slavery, discrimination and oppression. Themes like passing as white, rapes by slave masters of women and the resulting mixed-race offspring, and sexual abuse of enslaved men and boys helped foster this culture of secrecy. These patterns of silence have been passed down through the generations.
Of course, cultures of silence are not specific only to African-American culture, but history has certainly provided us with some unique circumstances and challenges. While it will be difficult and messy work, we can and should break free from the vestiges surrounding our arrival to this land. This includes rejecting family secrets that place children, relationships and mental health at risk.
Ultimately, both Becoming and Surviving R. Kelly illustrated for me that no place can be defined as just one thing. Chicago, like every city, is multifaceted and shaped by its people and experiences. Places can be simultaneously nurturing and dangerous. Good and evil. Accessible and inaccessible.
It is not enough to believe that good things happen in some places and bad things happen in others, or that one side of the tracks leads to success while the other leads to despair. Paths can diverge. Cultural strongholds can throw a person’s trajectory into a tailspin. If society is to improve and progress, we cannot view it as a monolith.
It makes all the sense in the world that people from Chicago LOVE Chicago. If you’re still reading at this point, you must feel some kind of way about Chicago yourself. From Becoming to Surviving R. Kelly, Chicago is a mirror for many points on the cultural spectrum in every city. I suppose we all play a role in what we ultimately see when we look into that mirror.
If you read Becoming and watched the documentary, what are your thoughts? Were there other common themes? Leave a comment below so that we can discuss those too.