We’ve known for decades now that R. Kelly is an abuser, a child molester and a sexual predator. How has it continued for so long?
Megastar R. Kelly has long been revered as the king of R&B, at times being one of the world’s best-selling recording artists. He has millions upon millions of record sales, platinum hits from “Bump n’ Grind” in 1994 to “I’m a Flirt” in 2007 and collaborations with the biggest names in the industry, including Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. He also jump-started the career of the late Aaliyah, among other proteges. Few artists are as accomplished as Kelly.
However, Kelly’s story is not a glamorous one: He was born and raised in the projects in Chicago, grew up without a father figure and was molested in his home. He earned his fame through pure talent and dedication to his craft.
When he skyrocketed to superstardom, Kelly was a hero to the Black community, especially in his hometown. Songs like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “I’m Your Angel” were played in churches, choirs, graduations and weddings.
Disturbingly, though, over the last three decades numerous women have come forward accusing Kelly of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Earlier this month, several victims, former associates and even family members of Kelly’s made their voices heard in the Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly.” Survivors described their lives with Kelly in gruesome detail. Several of the victims’ loved ones explained how Kelly lured the women in, often with promises of help in the music industry, only to manipulate them into dropping all contact with friends and family and dedicating themselves solely to Kelly.
I watched the docuseries to learn more about the accusations. As I watched, a pattern of the victims quickly emerged: their age. Most met Kelly between 15 and 17, though he has been known to prey on older women if they seemed open to his manipulation. Suddenly, the nickname “Pied Piper of R&B” (in reference to the German folklore figure who lured children away with music) seems eerily fitting. Writing and producing an album titled Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number is just prophetic.
In a society where Black women’s voices are constantly swept under the rug, it’s no surprise that Kelly’s stardom continued to be enabled by labels, collaborators and fans — no matter how many young victims he left in his wake.
Decades of abuse
The abuse dates back to the late ’80s and early ’90s, even before R. Kelly’s rise to fame. In the early days after launching his musical career, Kelly would reportedly lurk outside his alma mater, Kenwood High School, looking for young girls to bring back to the studio with him and begin a sexual relationship. (Today, even as recent as the last few years, rumors cite Kelly as lurking around Chicago in a blacked out Mercedes, slinking around high school parking lots and basketball games with his entourage.)
In 1994, at 27 years old, Kelly illegally married his 15-year-old protege and collaborator Aaliyah. Their marriage was annulled shortly after. In 2002, the infamous “pee tape” surfaced, allegedly showing Kelly having sex with (and urinating on) a 14-year-old girl. In 2008, after several delays, Kelly finally went to court. The woman identified on the tape refused to testify, and a jury acquitted him of all charges.
In the years before and in years to come, many women who had a relationship with Kelly as a teenager filed lawsuits against him. Nearly all of them were settled out of court, sometimes for six-figure sums of money.
In 2017, veteran music journalist Jim DeRogatis broke the story of Kelly’s alleged sex cult. In the article, family members describe how their daughters have been manipulated into staying with Kelly. Former members of Kelly’s inner circle allege that Kelly controls “every aspect of (the victims’) lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.” A social media campaign, “#MuteRKelly,” followed the allegations.
For years, a horrifying case has been built against Kelly. The evidence has continued to pile up: victim testimonies, audio recordings, text conversations and lawsuits. The average person is numb by now: You could tell me anything about Kelly and I’d probably find it plausible. We’ve heard so many stories that headlines like “R. Kelly Is Being Accused Of Sexually Abusing And Possibly Impregnating His 14-Year-Old Cousin” are met with a “yeah, probably,” by most. And yet, R. Kelly has denied all allegations of sexual misconduct.
The unspoken subject
Few artists and collaborators would speak up about the allegations against R. Kelly, despite overwhelming evidence of sexual abuse.
Amid all the clamor against Kelly between the sex tape and trial in the 2000s, the music industry failed to take action. Chocolate Factory came out in 2003, a year into the sex tape scandal, and went triple platinum. Many young women were staunch defenders of Kelly, with entourages showing up to his trial to express support. Artists continued to make records with him, and distributors continued to profit off of his stardom.
Last year, Spotify removed Kelly’s tracks (among other artists who faced allegations of misconduct) from official playlists while keeping the music available for streaming. An industry uproar over censorship and targeting black artists caused Spotify to walk back on their “hateful conduct” policy a few weeks later.
Dream Hampton, executive producer of “Surviving R. Kelly,” struggled to get the support and testimony of recording artists who worked with Kelly. The only celebrity willing to speak up for the docuseries was John Legend. When asked about celebrity involvement in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Hampton said:
“When it comes to celebrities, It was incredibly difficult to get people who had collaborated (artistically) with Kelly to come forward. We asked Lady Gaga. We asked Erykah Badu. We asked Celine Dion. We asked Jay-Z. We asked Dave Chappelle. (They’re) people who have been critical of him. That makes John Legend even more of a hero for me.”
Since the release of the docuseries, celebrities have been racing to disavow R. Kelly and express regret for supporting him. Two weeks later, he was dropped by his label, RCA. Universal Music Group quietly did the same last spring, though they still hold his money-printing back catalog of hits.
Why did everyone wait until now? After all, the music industry has known about Kelly’s true nature since the ’90s. But even the sex tape scandal was not enough to end his career.
At the heart of the industry’s guilt is money over morals. Only now has Kelly faded from relevance enough for the industry to flip on him. Even though we’re finally seeing a change in attitude towards Kelly, when it comes to accountability, the industry remains silent. Everyone will speak up to say “I don’t support R. Kelly.” But who would speak up to apologize to the victims? Who would speak up to say, “I knew about and enabled R. Kelly’s behavior, and I’m sorry for not speaking up?” If he was still making platinum hits today, would we even be having this conversation?
Should we “drop” R. Kelly?
When I first started hearing about the allegations against R. Kelly two years ago, I didn’t hesitate to believe them, but I pushed them to the back of my head. You would have to pry “Ignition” from my cold, dead hands.
I know now that ignoring those thoughts was no different from supporting Kelly.
Watching “Surviving R. Kelly” made me conscious of my own apathy. The tearful recollections of Kelly’s survivors shook me to my core. Entire families have been destroyed by Kelly’s actions. His cult-like operation runs at an enormous scale, with layers of mental abuse that border on brainwashing. Kelly’s precautions to protect himself and his image are nefarious, painting him as a sociopath with a god complex. How did I continue to enjoy Kelly’s music for so long, without sparing a thought for his victims?
At one point in the docuseries, a clinical psychologist describes a phenomenon in which people tend to minimize the wrongdoings of others who have done good by them in the past. I thought about how I brushed off the mild discomfort I felt blasting the new Kanye West, while he spouted morally nebulous tweets. I don’t regret listening to Kanye West because of his Twitter outbursts, but I did recognize how I put those thoughts aside because of how much I liked his music.
I realized I was doing the same thing with R. Kelly’s music—letting it slide that R. Kelly has been abusing women for decades just because I had too many fond car rides blasting “Ignition” for me to give it up. Maybe that’s part of why so many people have continued to gleefully ignore the piles of evidence. Nobody wants to believe the soundtrack to their high school graduation or wedding ceremony was recorded by a pedophile.
In that sense, we as fans are complicit. Supporting Kelly with Spotify streams is at odds with disapproving of his behavior. But personally? I think we share more blame for subconsciously dismissing the stories of young Black women. After all, if the girl in the sex tape was white, would R. Kelly still be walking free right now?
I’m not the first to say it, and I won’t be the last: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world his contributions to R&B outweighed the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against him.”