state of the arts

R Kelly’s decades of abuse tell a story that never ends

Wealth, power, racism and misogyny protected the R&B star, says Fiona Sturges, and we are a long way from dismantling the culture that enables predators and abusers

Friday 01 October 2021 11:00
<p>R Kelly leaving court in 2019 </p>

R Kelly leaving court in 2019

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The conviction on Monday of 54-year-old R Kelly would seem, on the surface, a victory. The R&B star, best known for his 1996 hit “I Believe I Can Fly”, has lost his freedom and his career, having been found guilty of eight counts of sex trafficking and one of racketeering (he is also facing a separate trial in Chicago on child sex images and obstruction charges). And yet it has taken an astonishing 25 years to get to this point. Why? Because of wealth, power, and the racism and misogyny that is endemic in the music industry and justice system.

I won’t go into the ways that Kelly humiliated, degraded and abused his victims, of which there were scores of women and girls, and at least one boy. The details are out there, in filmed testimonies, newspaper reports and court documents, and they are unassailably bleak. The fact is that the world knew what kind of man he was – the red flags were everywhere. Yet still the abuse continued.

When Kelly produced the debut album by the niece of one of his bosses at his first label, Jive Records, it was called Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. The artist was Aaliyah and she was 14 when she and Kelly met in 1993. A year later, after procuring a fake ID for her, Kelly married her in what has since been reported as an attempt to avoid statutory rape charges – he thought she was pregnant and wanted to be able to arrange an abortion without having to alert her parents. After her family found out about the marriage, it was annulled.

In 1996, aspiring singer Tiffany Hawkins sued Kelly for “personal injuries and emotional distress” relating to their relationship, which began in 1991 when she was 15. Hawkins’s case, along with several other lawsuits filed by accusers over the next decade, was settled out of court. In 2000, the Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis received an anonymous fax concerning Kelly and his “problem with young girls”. That year he published the first of many articles examining the ways Kelly used his fame and influence to abuse minors. Later DeRogatis was sent two videos that appeared to show Kelly having sex with girls as young as 13. One of these would become the focus of a trial in 2008 on child pornography charges which featured 14 witnesses. Kelly was acquitted.

Despite the lawsuits, the newspaper investigations and one high-profile public trial, the impact on Kelly’s career was negligible. He performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics, at the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, at the 2011 Grammy gala and at Coachella. He toured endlessly, continued to release albums and, over the years, collaborated with Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Chance the Rapper, Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. It was only in 2017, after DeRogatis published a BuzzFeed article entitled “Inside The Pied Piper of R&B’s ‘Cult’”, in which concerned parents claimed their daughters were being held by Kelly in various properties in Chicago and Atlanta, that the MuteRKelly hashtag was launched and his shows started being cancelled.

In 2018, The Washington Post alleged that executives in the music industry were well aware of Kelly’s sexually abusive behaviour, reporting that, as early as 1994, the singer’s tour manager had urged Jive label boss Clive Calder to refuse to release his records until the “incidents” with young women after his concerts stop. Meanwhile, in the same article, another former Jive executive Larry Khan suggested Kelly’s private life wasn’t the label’s responsibility. It took until the 2019 documentary series Surviving R Kelly, featuring the testimony of multiple victims, for Kelly and his most recent label, RCA, to part ways.

So again, you might ask: why did a conviction take so long? Because Kelly was surrounded by music industry enablers who put profit before the welfare of women and children, a tale that is as old as the music industry itself. But there is another reason that justice was slow to arrive, and it’s that Kelly’s victims were primarily black and, as such, were not trusted or listened to. As Drea Kelly, who was married to R Kelly for 13 years, noted: “I’ve always said that if any of his victims were blonde and blue-eyed it wouldn’t have taken this long.” One episode of Surviving R Kelly tells how Kelly would hang out at a Chicago McDonald’s and prey on the girls coming out of high school. Asked why no one noticed, the cultural critic Mikki Kendall says: “The answer is that we all noticed. No one cared because we were black girls.”

So while the Kelly verdict may bring with it relief, it also underscores the ways wealth and status continue to insulate men from the consequences of their appalling actions, and the iniquities of a justice system that habitually depicts women of colour as liars and opportunists. It’s also interesting to note how some high-profile men, among them Public Enemy’s Chuck D and convicted rapist Bill Cosby, have been doggedly defending Kelly following his conviction. While the #MeToo movement has helped to embolden victims and made abuses of power more visible, we are a long way from dismantling the culture that enables predators and abusers. One man has been made accountable but this is a story that never ends.

If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, you can contact your nearest Rape Crisis organisation for specialist, independent and confidential support. For more information, visit their website here