R. Kelly supporters are using #FirstThem to protect him

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The hashtag is being used to deflect from the harm he caused Black girls.

Surviving R. Kelly is the docuseries that no one can stop talking about, for good reason.

The six-part Lifetime series, which aired earlier this month, highlighted the immense scale of the mental, sexual, and physical abuse inflicted on underage Black girls by R. KellyAfter decades of allegations without much consequence, response to the docuseries happened swiftly: The Georgia police opened an investigation into Kelly, his shows were canceled and denied permits, other musicians withdrew their collaborations with him, and most recently, his record label, Sony, dropped him.

Meanwhile, though, another movement has been brewing on Twitter—and it’s having a counter effect.

The #FirstThem hashtag aims to bring light to other musicians and artists, predominately white ones, who were once “romantically involved” with underage girls (aka committing statutory rape) and went unnoticed. On the surface, calling out predators who got a pass seems valuable in showing the pattern of men getting away with harming young girls.

But the hashtag has since spiraled into a defense for Kelly, with many saying that the R&B musician is a “smokescreen” to distract from allegations of abuse against white men.

https://twitter.com/keithyutica/status/1085544536858865664

Though it’s not clear who started it, there is a website for the #ThemFirst movement that refers to the #MeToo movement as a “corporate agenda” that’s been “racially tailored.” It’s been rumored to be the brainchild of media personality Tariq Nasheed, as he has shared numerous tweets as well as Facebook posts with the hashtag, calling out other artists who have a record of sexual abuse against minors. (Neither Nasheed nor the First Them movement responded to the Daily Dot’s requests for comment.)

It isn’t that the hashtag is unfounded in highlighting racial injustice: Black men are significantly more likely to be imprisoned than white or Latino men. But the “smokescreen” narrative is problematic as it implies that Kelly—who carried on his abuse in near-plain sight for almost three decades without much fallout—is now having to face consequences because he is Black, not because he has allegedly raped dozens of young girls. That isn’t to say white predators shouldn’t be called out and held accountable too—all predators should. But the diversion implies that Kelly should be protected and that his crimes do not matter. 

In fact, Surviving R. Kelly sparked a lot of conversation about the intersection of race, sexual abuse, and protecting (and not protecting) those in one’s community. As Jelani Cobb wrote aptly in the New Yorker: “There’s a gulf between the accusations directed at Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Les Moonves—wealthy white men whose alleged excesses were understood as a prerequisite of their status—and those directed at Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, Black men for whom success represented some broader communal hope that long odds in life could be surmounted. Cosby and Kelly know this, which is part of the reason that they were so effective at manipulating public sentiment around their various accusations.”

Then there are Kelly’s victims: underage Black girls. Experts who testified in the exposé repeatedly stressed that a big reason why Kelly went years without being held accountable for his crimes is because his victims were Black girls, for whom society didn’t prioritize justice.

The #FirstThem hashtag, in this way, takes away from that narrative by again putting the focus on “poor Kelly,” not the young Black girls who were his victims.

This brand of thinking is exemplified in Nasheed’s long response to the series, in which he noted it was Black girls who had been Kelly’s biggest supporters. He specifically called out Kelly’s song “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” saying in his experience, it wasn’t a sentiment that Black men expressed, but that high school girls said.

“They’ve been trying to flip that narrative about this R. Kelly thing from day one,” he said. “They’re trying to make it seem like Black men allowed this to happen.”

Many are pushing back against ideas like Nasheed’s and the implications of #FirstThem.

“Tariq Nasheed and the #FirstThem hashtag are classic examples of people parroting convoluted, circular logic to avoid dealing with cold, hard, linear facts. The idea that Black people should be more concerned with dealing with sexual predators outside of their community, than the ones inside of their community, is both illogical and self-defeating,” Oronike Odeleye, co-founder of #MuteRKelly, the worldwide movement to boycott Kelly, told the Daily Dot.

She added that the #MuteRKelly movement, which has seen resounding results over the past year, “centers the Black community and Black, female victims as important.” However, Tariq Nasheed and his followers “are of the mindset that Black predators should get away with their crimes because some white perpetrators do. THIS is the equality and justice they think our ancestors fought for. They are not interested, as they claim, in dismantling the systems of oppression that subjugate us. They’re only interest is gaining a position of power within those systems.”

#MuteRKelly rejects this “logic” outright, Odeleye said. “#FirstThem is ridiculous. Our battle cry will always be #FirstUs.”

Editor’s note: Updated to include comment from #MuteRKelly and clarify language around the purpose of #FirstThem.

Samira Sadeque

Samira Sadeque

Samira Sadeque is a New York-based journalist reporting on immigration, sexual violence, and mental health, and will sometimes write about memes and dinosaurs too. Her work also appears in Reuters, NPR, and NBC among other publications. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School, and her work has been nominated for SAJA awards. Follow: @Samideque