R Kelly’s 25-year career has been defined by two constants: allegations of sexual misconduct involving underage women and a succession of hits that helped insulate the R&B superstar from the legal repercussions of these claims.
Rumours about Kelly have swirled since the Chicago native swaggered onto the R&B charts with the release of his 1993 debut solo LP 12 Play. The title was a wink to the carnal braggadocio that would come to define much of Kelly’s output, with the title implying that while other men offered foreplay, Kelly’s sexual prowess was three times as potent. It would in retrospect be a foreboding declaration.
The title of Kelly’s next collaboration was similarly suggestive, if more problematic. Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, the 1994 debut from R&B singer Aaliyah, was co-produced by Kelly and named after a track he had written for her. Kelly was 27 at the time. Aaliyah was 15. In a 1994 interview she called him her “best friend in the whole wide world”, and in August year they were married at a Chicago suburb Sheraton with a forged marriage certificate falsely stating Aaliyah was 18.
Divorce proceedings began two days later when her family learned of the wedding. The marriage was annulled by fall. Aaliyah received $100 from Kelly as part of a settlement also stating she would not pursue legal action and neither would publicly discuss the matter (Kelly has long denied the pair had a sexual relationship). Age Ain’t Nothing’ But a Number went platinum, and Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash eight years later.
While the singer was Kelly’s most famous target, their relationship demonstrated a template repeated with scores of underage women, some allegedly as young as 14 and almost all of them black. Lawsuits and stories define Kelly as controlling and physically, emotionally, mentally and sexually abusive.
Myriad women say he lured them with talk of boosting their singing careers before manipulating them into obedience and servitude (Kelly “unequivocally” denied the allegations, claiming to be “alarmed and disturbed” by their existence). Critics allege that society’s entrenched bias against black women and its subsequent failure to protect this demographic has allowed Kelly to maintain his star power, while high-powered men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Louis CK have seen their careers swiftly crumble in the face of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
“The bottom line is that R Kelly and his victims are the perfect storm of people we don’t care about,” activist Kenyette Tisha Barnes, who started the #MuteRKelly campaign last year, recently told BuzzFeed. “We protect problematic black men in the black community, and we discard black girls in all communities.”
But a new wave of allegations and the reinvigoration of #MuteRKelly have brought decades worth of charges back into the spotlight. On 30 April, the Women of Color faction of Time’s Up threw its support behind #MuteRKelly, with prominent black entertainers including Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis and John Legend calling for “investigations and inquiries into the allegations of abuse made by women of color and their families for two decades now”.
The campaign is also demanding corporations including RCA Records, Ticketmaster, Apple Music and Spotify cut ties with the singer. In response to the campaign Kelly’s management has referred to it as an “attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture”.
In a social climate now vastly less tolerant of predatory men, the hope is that Kelly, now 51, might be brought down for good.
Robert Sylvester Kelly was born in Chicago in 1967. Raised by a single mother, he was sexually abused starting at age eight, when he was asked to photograph an adult sexual encounter. In his 2012 autobiography Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, Kelly wrote of being repeatedly raped by an older female family member and sexually abused by an older man in his neighborhood.
Kelly was first accused of having sex with a minor nearly 20 years later. A 1996 lawsuit claimed Tiffany “Tia” Hawkins met Kelly in 1991, when he visited her high school choir class. She was 15. He was 24. Hawkins said they began having sex shortly thereafter, and that the relationship lasted for three years and caused psychological and emotional trauma that led her to attempt suicide.
The case was settled in 1998 with the condition that Hawkins was prohibited from discussing it publicly. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, she received a $250,000 settlement.
By 1996, Kelly’s career had hit the stratosphere. He had written Michael Jackson’s 1995 smash You Are Not Alone and released I Believe I Can Fly, the soaring ballad that became his signature. The song won three Grammys at the 1998 ceremony – best song written for a motion picture, best male R&B performance and best R&B song.
But behind the scenes, Kelly’s social life was unsettling, with underage women often being invited into his circle. In 1999, his former assistant Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards told Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis that “[Kelly] likes the babies, and that’s the sickness”.
DeRogatis’ reporting was instrumental in forming a comprehensive narrative of the mounting accusations against Kelly. Published in 2000, his first major report outlined charges including group sex with underage women.
In 2001 and 2002, DeRogatis anonymously received two videotapes showing a man who appeared to be Kelly having sex with two young women of indeterminate age. These tapes were turned over to Chicago police, with the second resulting in 14 child pornography charges against Kelly. It took six years for the case to go to trial.
There was no shortage of other problems in the meantime. A 2001 lawsuit filed by Tracy Sampson claimed Kelly took her virginity when she was 17 and an intern at his label, Epic Records. In April 2002, Patrice Jones filed a lawsuit alleging Kelly had impregnated her when she was underage, and that she was taken to get an abortion by someone in his circle. (Jones said she met Kelly at a Chicago McDonald’s while having dinner with her date and another couple on their prom night.)
In May 2002, Montana Woods filed a suit claiming she was secretly videotaped having sex with Kelly. All three cases were settled out of court for undisclosed sums received in exchange for signing nondisclosure agreements. Susan E Loggans, the lawyer who represented two of these women, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Kelly made additional payments to several women who threatened similar lawsuits.
“The thing that makes me sick to my stomach is it’s impossible, in Chicago, to walk three or four blocks in the music communities of the south and west side and not find ten people who have stories about R Kelly, or their cousin has a story about him or their sister,” DeRogatis told Vox last July.
In May of 2002, Kelly was arrested on child pornography charges stemming from images found on a camera during a police raid of his home in Florida. (These charges were dropped when a judge ruled that police didn’t have sufficient cause to conduct this raid.) Meanwhile, his 2003 album Chocolate Factory was nominated for a pair of Grammys and featured two of his biggest hits, Step in the Name of Love and Ignition (Remix).
In 2005, Andrea Kelly – who R Kelly married in 1996 and with whom he has three children – filed a protective order against her husband, who she says hit her when she asked for a divorce. The child pornography case went to trial in May 2008. Kelly was found not guilty, as neither the young woman – whom Kelly is seen urinating on in the tape – nor her family would testify.
During the trial, Kelly met Jerhonda Pace, a 15-year-old fan who skipped school to stand outside the courthouse each day. They began having sex a year later. Last July, Pace’s story was published in an exposé by DeRogatis that alleged Kelly kept Pace and other women in an abusive cult, and that he slapped, choked and spit on her when he caught her texting a friend.
Last week, DeRogatis and reporter Marisa Carroll published a story about Lizzette Martinez, who says she began having sex with Kelly when she was 17. (The story also focused on a woman still in Kelly’s “cult” whose parents believe has been brainwashed.) On 4 May, the Washington Post published a piece featuring six women who say they were in abusive relationships with Kelly, including two women telling their stories for the first time.
“R Kelly has close friendships with a number of women who are strong, independent, happy, well cared for and free to come and go as they please,” his management said in response. “We deny the many dark descriptions put forth by instigators and liars who have their own agenda for seeking profit and fame.”
Whether this groundswell against Kelly will result in an indictment remains to be seen. On 26 April, Bill Cosby was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault, demonstrating how deeply #MeToo and Time’s Up have permeated the culture. R Kelly has sold 60m albums, but he is hardly at the height of his powers.
There is only one show on his current tour schedule and sources close to him told BuzzFeed his finances and career prospects are dwindling. Meanwhile, #MuteRKelly is trending.
But for as adamantly as Kelly and those around him have maintained his innocence, there also seems to be a part of him that understands the nightmare of getting no acknowledgement from someone who has hurt you.
[They] didn’t want to talk about it,” Kelly told GQ in 2017 while reflecting on the person who sexually abused him. “[They] didn’t own up to it. Told me: ‘Sometime when you’re kids, you think you’ve been through something or did something, that you didn’t do, probably was a dream.’ Things like that. But it was definitely not a dream.”
The bad dreams R Kelly has caused for nearly 30 years now seem more real than ever. So, too, does the possibility of finally seeing him held accountable for these crimes. (The Guardian)