When photos emerged of 49-year-old R. Kelly galavanting around with a young model named Halle Calhoun, I wasn’t surprised the R&B singer appeared unbothered and even happy.
The ‘couple’ smoked cigars, hugged up on each other and keke’d in sexy swimsuits openly in public. At this point, why should R&B’s ‘Pied Piper’ be worried?
Kells has dated younger women before – hell, he married the late Aaliyah when she was 15 and he was 27. He was accused of child pornography in the early 2000s. Dozens of women have alleged Kelly sexually abused them. The lawsuits. The sex tapes.
All these years later, he’s still in the game – playing by his own rules.
Nothing has stopped the music and he isn’t the first to do it.
What I found interesting was that even as the story trended, there was a significant portion of the online universe shouting “Let them live!”— as if ‘love conquers all’ was a motto good enough to explain a man dating a young woman his daughter’s age.
Calhoun’s true age hasn’t been confirmed, and we certainly don’t know if their relationship is sexual. If she is indeed 19 or 20, the college student is at the age of consent and weathering the public interest in Kelly’s love life with a fair amount of grace.
But there’s a reason many of us are still uncomfortable – and that’s because the issue is bigger than R. Kelly.
The image Kelly evokes when he’s seen smiling and smoking cigars with the fresh-faced Calhoun is reflected in our own communities with adults who have similar reputations for “young appetites” and unchecked authority.
We know who they are.
They are are adults who pursue teens in the prime of their puberty or even before. They can be teachers, pastors, family members, Hollywood executives, people entrusted to care for young people and those who are not.
Some of these grown-ups are pursued in court for their inappropriate relationships while others never have to sit in front of judge. They know how to manipulate and make promises to earn trust. And when many of these relationships end, they leave young people scarred.
Back when I was a teacher I recall a young woman who went missing for days thanks to the influence of an older boyfriend. Beautiful, bright and usually responsible, she took a detour that scared us all. I saw firsthand the regret and disappointment in her eyes when she finally returned and told me what happened. The definition of consent is “permission for something to happen.” And “consent” from a child is really no consent at all.
Take for example a 2003 Center For Health statistics report that of black teen mothers age 15-17 years old, 40 percent of the fathers were men over the age of 21. Across race, there was a trend of teen marriage to older partners. The startling number was cited by activist Feminista Jones in a Twitter debate about the impact of racism and toxic masculinity. She tweeted:
“What, exactly could a 25 y/o man want with a 15 y/o girl other than to exploit her, control her, and feel a false sense of power?”
What, exactly could a 25 y/o man want with a 15 y/o girl other than to exploit her, control her, and feel a false sense of power?
— ✊? Black Power ✊? (@FeministaJones) July 28, 2016
Jones’ question is one we should ask ourselves each time we see a case like R. Kelly’s in our own worlds.
“Do you like teenage girls?” cultural critic Touré pressed R. Kelly back in 2008.
“When you say teenage, how old we talking?” Kells responded.
Halle Calhoun or whatever love interest comes next are sure to fill our timelines with jokes and judgment. But when it comes to our own blocks, neighborhoods and impressionable young people — maybe it’s time to stop staring, laughing and staying quiet.
Sometimes, age is more than a number.
Natasha S. Alford is Deputy Editor at theGrio. Follow her on Twitter at @NatashaSAlford for the latest news, entertainment and pop culture updates.