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The R. Kelly Verdict Is A Relief For Those Advocating For The Voices Of Black Girls

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For decades, R&B singer R. Kelly dodged allegations of abuse toward Black women and girls. Then this week a federal jury found him guilty of sex trafficking and racketeering. It's been a relief for those advocating for the voices of Black girls, especially in Chicago, where Kelly is from. WBEZ's Natalie Moore reports.

NATALIE MOORE, BYLINE: Montana Ross learned of the guilty verdict while sitting in a graduate psychology class.

MONTANA ROSS: A classmate of mine - he actually showed it to me. And I let out the biggest squeal in class.

MOORE: Ross is earning a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling.

ROSS: I got happy. I just felt, like, this rush of energy. But it felt as if, like, everyone who has ever suffered, like, at the hands of any type of violence, gender-based violence - like, we all just had a moment.

MOORE: Thousands of miles away at Xavier University in Louisiana, Chicago native Jada Thompson reacted, too.

JADA THOMPSON: The first thing that I could think of - and it was just like, in this moment, we can offer the relief of another predator being taken off of the street.

MOORE: Over the years, she has had to convince friends to stop playing Kelly's music and think of the pain of Black women and girls who accused him of abuse. He telepathed his behavior in music. He produced an album entitled "Age Ain't Nothing But A Number" for Aaliyah. In 1994, he married the R&B singer. At the time, she was 15, and he was 27. But the marriage certificate lied about her age. The marriage was annulled.

THOMPSON: R. Kelly is not the only predator out in the world, like, doing these things to children and women, period.

MOORE: Ross and Thompson are alums of Girl/Friends, a program of the Chicago-based A Long Walk Home, which empowers Black girls to activate against sexual assault and abuse. The group has also consistently spoken out against Kelly. Ross says the community support Kelly has received for years is related to how Black girls are sexualized.

ROSS: The narrative or the concept of Black girls being fast.

MOORE: Which suggests that teen girls are at fault for being sexual with grown men. For decades, Kelly's predatory behavior toward girls was an open secret. Black girls of a certain age in Chicago have stories of him hanging out at high schools or in McDonald's parking lots. Kelly's career never suffered. A Long Walk Home co-founder Scheherazade Tillet hopes the verdict serves as a victory for women who testified during the six-week trial in New York.

SCHEHERAZADE TILLET: It's one of the most important cases that we have that centers Black women and girls.

MOORE: Tillet served as a consultant on the 2019 "Surviving R. Kelly" documentary that aired on Lifetime. Public sentiment around Kelly changed in recent years with the #MeToo movement and #MuteRKelly. Oronike Odeleye of Atlanta is a co-founder of that movement that started to get Kelly off of the airwaves and succeeded. But more work needs to be done beyond the sense of relief this week at the verdict.

ORONIKE ODELEYE: Unfortunately, our community and our society's response to allegations of sexual abuse still is very contextual. And it's based in how much we love and admire the person, whether or not we feel like the victims are worthy or perfect.

MOORE: And Odeleye says, remember; there are other Kelly victims who are still awaiting justice. Kelly is facing more criminal charges in federal court in Chicago and the county. All have to do with sexual abuse but with different victims from the New York case. For NPR news, I'm Natalie Moore in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.