On June 13, 2008, Robert Sylvester Kelly, the most successful pop star Chicago ever has produced and the dominant voice in R&B for the last two decades, was acquitted by a jury of his peers on 14 counts of making child pornography.
But as any prosecutor or defense attorney will tell you, that doesn’t mean he was innocent.
In a series of investigative reports for The Chicago Sun-Times that began in 2000, which eventually numbered more than a hundred stories and which remain unchallenged to this day, this reporter, his former partner Abdon M. Pallasch, now a top spokesman for Gov. Quinn, and numerous other colleagues at the newspaper consistently documented that Kelly abused his position of wealth and fame to pursue illegal sexual relationships with underage girls, leaving dozens of ruined lives in Chicago’s African-American community in his wake.
That seems to matter not a whit to the promoters of Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival, who have booked Kelly, along with Bjork and Belle and Sebastian, to headline the annual music festival in the West Side’s Union Park from July 19 to 21. The announcement of the headliners at the ninth annual festival went out today, along with the news that three-day passes now are on sale for $120, with single-day tickets priced at $50.
Kelly’s audience, while declining in recent years, remains considerable, both in the R&B world and in the less likely domain of Pitchfork-loving indie-rock hipsters. And really, why get hung up about a pattern of sexual predation when it’s so much fun basking in his lush grooves while snickering at those insane innuendoes in “Trapped in the Closet,” “The Zoo” or “Sex in the Kitchen”?
The man was acquitted of any crimes and we want to celebrate his art, Pitchfork Webzine founder Ryan Schreiber and festival promoter Mike Reed no doubt will emphasize if or when they respond to my request for comment on the booking. (They haven’t as yet.)
They might think differently if they could sit with some of Kelly’s victims and hear about what their relationships with him were like, as Pallasch and I did. Or in the case of one, see the scars on her wrists that were the result of her suicide attempt when her two-year affair with him ended at the ripe old age of 16.
On June 13, 2008, R. Kelly was acquitted by a jury of his peers on 14 counts of making child pornography. Here is the piece I wrote for the Sun-Times that afternoon.
As any criminal-defense attorney will attest, “not guilty” does not mean “innocent.”
During the six-year wait for R. Kelly to have his day in court, the multitalented singer, songwriter and producer—the most important voice in R&B in his generation and one of the most successful artists Chicago has ever produced—often sang of asking God to forgive him for unnamed sins.
“After all the wrong I’ve done, oh Lord/How did you manage to love me?/After I’ve been so bad, oh Lord/How did you manage to forgive me?” Kelly crooned on his 2004 album, U Saved Me. Meanwhile, on the companion disc Happy People, it was business as usual in the boudoir: “So welcome to the greatest show on earth/Welcome, girl, to my bedroom.”
An argument can be made that no artist in the history of popular music has so jarringly mixed the sacred and the profane or so thoroughly aired his sexual desires for the benefit of so large an audience. Kelly has sold more than 36 million albums under his own name, and many more again if we count his collaborations with artists such as Aaliyah, Michael Jackson and Celine Dion.
The 41-year-old artist proudly described himself as “the World’s Greatest,” a “Sexual Super Freak” and “the Pied Piper of R&B”—perhaps oblivious to the fact that the Pied Piper of medieval legend led 130 boys and girls from a German village to their doom. Yet despite his acquittal Friday on 14 counts of making child pornography, it remains difficult to dismiss his lyrics and his boasting in the media as mere hyperbole.
The prosecution chose to pursue a very narrow case against the superstar, solely concentrating on a 26-minute, 39-second tape anonymously sent to The Chicago Sun-Times in February 2002. But as the paper first reported in December 2000, for more than a decade, public records and lawsuits allege that Kelly abused his staggering wealth and fame to pursue sexual relationships with underage girls, many of whom were left deeply wounded by those encounters.
The voices of those girls were never heard in Judge Vincent Gaughan’s courtroom. But they include:
* The late Aaliyah D. Haughton, Kelly’s celebrated 15-year-old protégé, whom he illegally married in 1994 shortly after producing the debut album he titled “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” (The marriage was annulled, and Kelly paid Aaliyah a token sum in a settlement.)
* Tiffany Hawkins, who sued Kelly claiming that he began having sex with her when she was 15 after he picked her while visiting her choir class at his alma mater, Kenwood Academy. (Kelly settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.)
* Tracy Sampson, a former intern at Epic Records who sued Kelly claiming that she lost her virginity to him at age 17. (Kelly settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.)
* Patrice Jones, a Chicago woman who sued Kelly alleging that they began having sex after he met her at the Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s following her high school’s senior prom. (Kelly settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.)
* And Montina Woods, a legal-age dancer who sued Kelly claiming that he videotaped her without her knowledge while they were having sex. (Kelly settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.)
Questions concerning the truth of these lawsuits and the videotape at the heart of his trial will forever linger over Kelly’s career, as will the statements of former associates—including ex-manager Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah’s uncle, and Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards, the aunt of the girl prosecutors said was on the videotape—who claimed they repeatedly urged the star to “get help” for what they called his “compulsion” to pursue underage girls.
Music industry experts say Kelly’s CD sales and downloads are likely to benefit from the increased publicity surrounding his trial and acquittal, and he is set to release a new album in August. The artistry of his prolific output has never really been a question, and indeed, some of his most influential boosters contend that his legal troubles only enhanced his music.
“The sex scandal that threatened to derail his career in 2002 ended up doing the opposite: It made him more productive, more successful and, somehow—maybe because more people began paying attention to his excellent music—more respected than ever before,” critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote in The New York Times.
Yet while a jury of his peers has found Kelly not guilty on 14 counts of making child pornography, the artist has not had his final judgment day. As he sang on “Been Around the World,” a 2002 song released shortly after his indictment: “God gonna judge me/The same that he judge you.”