One of the earliest memories of my childhood is of watching a music video of R-Kelly’s song, “If I could turn back the hands of time”. My young mind was fascinated by the people moving in slow motion and in rewind, with the rain drops going upwards, and a car accident reconstructing itself.
Then at the end, there is a reveal of the well laid out plot twist of multiple photos thrown over a bridge to form a collage, of the beautiful woman he wished he could turn back time for, laid out on the ground.
The song was to me, at that age, simply brilliant. Whenever it would play on one of the SABC channels I would get excited to sit and be transported to that moment of that feeling. Is that not the philosopher’s stone for all literature and media: that elusive skilled craftsmanship, that transports the viewer completely into the story and removes the corners of the screen, that is only revealed to those that are worthy.
I was transfixed. And for many years that was my happy song. Whenever I would achieve something in school I would sing that song. It became my odd happy song. It is weird, I know. But to me that song was mine now.
It was not about the sad lyrics anymore, it was about that moment in my childhood. A time of innocence, joy and a sense of security: pure bliss.
And then I went on to fiercely search R-kelly’s other songs. Those that would impart in me that same joy as before. And best of all were, The storm is over, I wish, I believe I can fly and U saved me. When I would celebrate any occasion or host any party, it would be to R-Kelly’s selection I would go to. My most treasured memories with people often have an R-kelly song on the background.
These are the memories, those that form every fibre of my being. On them is the concrete foundation of who I am and who I want to be. And so you can imagine how it might have felt for me when I heard that R-Kelly was charged with 21 counts of making child pornography, and did dehumanizing things to multiple women under age. I went through an existential crisis.
What he did is horrific. It is an entire disregard for the humanity of another human being and abuse of fame and money. He poached young girls he could pull off the ultimate patriarchal dream: to manipulate and dominate.
I knew there and then, I had to silence R-Kelly in my life. And so I stopped listening to his songs. And though to some this might seem dramatic, however, isn’t this the great challenge of our generation? A mission we can either fulfil or betray.
R-kelly and a host of other talented and impactful men throughout history and across the globe have meant so much to many. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s RNB was woven into the culture of our lives as black people. And these were times we often yearned for a short gasp of hope and laughter, but also at a time we were ignorant and naive.
Where does one take these memories? That innocent childhood love for Bill Cosby and what he meant to me as young poor black kid from Limpopo, all those different identities of mine which were flared up by the images in his show. In what compartment do I place them and under what file.
And does my disavowal of these men and their atrocious crimes relegate my personal memories spent in the profound company of their art. And what is art? Is it a measure of Character in an artist or Is it a divine impartation from above?
I grow weary, I grow old.
Brain eating marrow, as I moul over my mind on the identity that has been the foundation of those delicate childhood memories of mine. It is an amputation.
I imagine it is difficult for us men to acknowledge let alone accept that our childhood happiness was founded on the concealed rape of a cousin, the silence about the abuse of Aunt and the thousand and multiple violations on women’s bodies all around us. This is the actual reality we grew up under. A look behind the curtain.
We are more so reluctant to acknowledge that we were allowed to live, and go on pursuing ourselves and our dreams, whilst the girl child was sacrificed at our expense.
It is foolish to look at the growing number of girls starting out in school and think patriarchy has been defeated, and even go further to confuse yourself by thinking that women are the new dominators. Rather than facing the truth of who we are, fathers and uncles continue to rape little girls while mothers and aunts conceal it, from little boys.
It is nearly difficult for us as men to realise the crippling effects of a sense of powerlessness women feel at our hands. To be violated and abused is to be robbed of the security of reality.
Experiences no longer feels real anymore, there is only a constant and unyielding anxiety that at any moment and at your happiest, a man can reach his hand across to you when he so desires and tear a whole chapter out of your life’s book.
This is an actual reality in our society with too numerous incidents to count. Furthermore, to have to live with the actual possibility of rape, is a burden I imagine women carry with themselves everyday, everywhere.
This terrifying fear forces one to be always cautious and always alert in their spaces. To constantly remember that a general slip up, to forget, to be happy but a little, could mean disaster. This is but one of the inherited gifts of the trauma of being violated.
It is to live all in body alone with the fear to feel.
This is the world we have created, a world we benefit from and allow to flourish.
Those precious memories that have been the breath of our self concept as men, accompanied by R-kelly, his music and false realities ought to be one of the focus of our decolonisation. What are those things that we must dismantle within ourselves that threaten the freedom we seek?
A decision has to be made about what kind of a society we are willing to be. And what type of a country we want to be? Are we a people that sacrifices half of its population to secure the privileges of the few? Do we seek our own turn to eat at the table whilst keeping inequalities for many?
If our fight for Azanian liberation is true then we should seek to not only distance ourselves from those violent and toxic indoctrinations of boyhood, but to constantly and actively eliminate every form of patriarchy woven in everyday norms and values. And tame that insidious need within ourselves to dominate the Other.
Our commitment to the past should be only in it inspiring answers to the great questions of our age. To stare relentlessly at a distant and indifferent past is to escape from today and to long for a time that seemed simpler, but deceptively built on misogyny.
If black men decided to feel, they would realise that the freedom of black women is the freedom of self. I hope it might dawn on us that throwing off the facade of forced gender inequality will not lead us to a collapse of society but freedom to self that allows one to serve humanity. It is removing a mask that hides our fears well but also hinders us from dealing with ourselves and grow as a people.
We have sadly convinced ourselves that as black men if we decided to feel, we would be preyed upon just like how we prey on women. Since in our minds feeling is a weakness, every boy has beaten out any form of expressing any emotions.
But to hate to feel means a love for unfeeling.
*** Nkateko Mabasa is a dropout and former student of Wits University and UJ. He is currently an intern at The Daily Maverick. And serves as a member of the PAC Johannesburg Central branch. His three great loves are God, literature and politics. And looks forward to the upcoming revolution and the demise of the White-Supremacist-Capitalist-Patriarchal society.