Editor’s note: This essay includes allegations of sexual assault and physical abuse.
On Wednesday, testimony is scheduled to begin in a Brooklyn courthouse in the first of two federal trials against singer, songwriter and producer R. Kelly. Across two sets of indictments in New York and Illinois, the one-time R&B king is accused of abusing 11 girls and women over more than two decades; making child pornography; making hush-money payments to silence alleged victims; and building a criminal enterprise specifically to “prey upon young women and teenagers.”
Additionally, the New York prosecutors want to admit what they say is evidence that Kelly sexually and physically abused girls and women as far back as 1991, sexually abused a boy and committed bribery. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and has consistently denied accusations that he abused anyone.
Often, when I’ve told people that I’m covering the New York trial, they have been confused. Allegations have swirled around Kelly for over 25 years now, and so they ask me: Wasn’t he arrested years ago? Yes: he was arrested most recently in July 2019, and he’s remained in custody for the two years since, awaiting trial. But they may also be thinking of his first big trial in 2008 — and those accusations, and that trial, figure into some of the current charges.
In 2002, in his hometown of Chicago, Kelly was indicted on numerous child pornography charges after a notorious sex tape circulated: it purportedly showed the singer having sex with and urinating on a female whom prosecutors said was about 14 years old at the time. A full six years later, Kelly went to trial and was acquitted of all charges. The young woman who was thought to be the girl on the tape and her parents refused to testify.
That 2008 trial figures heavily into some of the current Illinois charges, which include accusations that Kelly and members of his circle intimidated the girl and her father, and persuaded them to lie to both police and a grand jury. Their subsequent refusal to testify, despite 14 other witnesses identifying the girl, seems to have swayed many jurors to acquit Kelly. (That same woman, now in her thirties, said in 2019 that she was cooperating with federal investigators.)
Back then, it seemed like much of the pop-culture conversation was primarily about Kelly and his alleged predilections and behaviors, and not so much about anyone who may have been hurt. In certain ways, the culture has shifted since Kelly last stood on trial. Many fans today seem far less willing to overlook what they perceive as problematic content or context in an artist’s work — whether it’s related to racism, sexism, unfair power dynamics or homophobia.
The intervening 13 years have also seen dogged, tenacious reporting on Kelly, including Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, a book by former Chicago Sun-Times journalist and music critic Jim DeRogatis, and Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries helmed by dream hampton that aired on Lifetime. Both were released in 2019, in the midst of the #MeToo movement.
In the early days of #MeToo, many prominent accusers were white women. But the Kelly-related projects explicitly centered the mostly Black girls and women who allegedly were harmed.
As those projects were being developed, a #MuteRKelly movement — founded by two Black women, Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye — gathered steam in an effort to pressure large entertainment companies to sever their ties with Kelly. In writing about #MuteRKelly, Washington Post columnist Christine Emba cited a 1962 speech by Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
In an interview Barnes gave to DeRogatis for BuzzFeed News in March 2018, she asserted: “We don’t give a damn about Black girls. If R. Kelly was white, every civil rights leader would be marching in every street in this country. If the girls were white, every feminist group would be coming out enraged in droves of pussy hats to march against him. The bottom line is that R. Kelly and his victims are the perfect storm of people we don’t care about. We protect problematic Black men in the Black community, and we discard Black girls in all communities. Essentially, he is the greatest example of a predator in that he went after the most vulnerable that no one cares about.”
A few months later, though, Kelly’s management called #MuteRKelly “a public lynching,” noting that “since America was born, Black men and women have been lynched for having sex or for being accused of it.” At the time, #MeToo founder and activist Tarana Burke told me, “The reality of lynching in America is so, so painful and so real. This is not a public lynching. This is a call for public accountability.” (Moreover, in many cases Kelly’s accusers have said that they were underage girls, not women, when they began sexual contact with him.)
“We have seen 24 years of allegations leveled against R. Kelly, and he has gone unscathed,” Burke continued in that 2018 conversation. “What we are looking for, in our community and out, is some accountability from the corporations that support this person who has a 24-year history of sexual violence perpetrated against Black and brown girls around the country.” (At the end of that year, Burke was one of the victims of a gun threat called into an advance screening of Surviving R. Kelly in New York; Kelly’s former manager, Donnell Russell, has been charged with making that threat. His case is ongoing.)
To a large extent, #MuteRKelly came to fruition, albeit years after Kelly’s commercial and creative peak, and sometimes in highly qualified ways. In May 2018, for example, Spotify dropped Kelly from its playlists, the way that many listeners use the service, rather than seeking out particular artists or songs. If you actively search for Kelly’s music on Spotify, however, it’s still there, as are the songs he wrote and/or produced for other artists, including Celine Dion, Janet Jackson, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Ciara, Missy Elliott and another artist some listeners consider problematic: Michael Jackson.
There’s been one notable exception: Much of the music by Kelly’s protégée Aaliyah — whom he married in 1994, when she was 15 years old and he was 27 — is not on Spotify or other streaming services at all. But in an interesting bit of timing, Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah’s uncle and the former manager of both artists, announced just days before the Kelly trial began that he is making her recording catalog available to streaming services. The New York prosecutors refer to Aaliyah in their indictment as “Jane Doe #1,” for whom they say Kelly and associates bribed a public official to create a fake ID before their marriage.
In Jan. 2019, Kelly’s longtime record label RCA and its parent company, Sony Music Entertainment, dropped him from their artist roster after pressure mounted from #MuteRKelly. But that decision, apparently made in the wake of Surviving R. Kelly airing, came 16 years after his last big chart hit, 2003’s “Ignition (Remix).” Furthermore, RCA and Sony never publicly acknowledged having dropped Kelly.
Long before the most recent wave of accusations and reporting, Black and brown voices were calling for a reckoning. Nearly two decades before Surviving R. Kelly, longtime Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote many pieces asking why the alleged victims were being dismissed or ignored, and why so many Chicagoans were s0 eager to side with Kelly.
Still, many fans adored him. Quite a few fellow artists brushed aside the allegations and continued to work with him. And comedians like Dave Chappelle joked about the alleged Kelly tape and its contents.
In the aftermath of the debut airing of Surviving R. Kelly, then-New York Times culture editor (and now NPR colleague) Aisha Harris wrote about how the allegations against Kelly became pop-culture joke fodder: “For years,” she wrote, “those who laughed at Kelly were able to ignore the charges against him.”
In retrospect, that particular spin cycle is reminiscent of what happened to Britney Spears in the same era. (She was one of R. Kelly’s labelmates at Jive and then RCA, and Kelly wrote and produced her song “Outrageous,” released in 2004.) Spears’ public struggles, which became little more than a joke and grist for the 24/7 grind of gossip blogs and cable channels vying for eyeballs, happened nearly simultaneously with Kelly’s Chicago trial. The girl at the center of that trial, like Spears, largely became a punchline.
Several of the women who have accused Kelly of sexual, physical and/or psychological abuse say that when they met him, they, too, like that girl allegedly featured on the infamous tape, were teenagers attempting to become professional musicians, and hoped that the king of R&B would help them chart their own musical careers.
In the music industry, this is a familiar story. Young men strive to make it in the tough, unforgiving music industry; if they succeed, it’s often at least partly through the help of older male mentors. Young women striving to make it in the tough, unforgiving music industry might also seek the help of older male mentors; after all, there are still far more successful men in the business than women. But sometimes, rather than being given guidance or opportunity, they instead are cultivated as sexual conquests—and those dreams fade away.