At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the last year and a half have signaled a definitive paradigm shift in the media and entertainment landscape. As the peak of the #Metoo movement fades into society’s proverbial rearview-mirror, a new era of accountability for sexual assault has been ushered in — a necessary step towards achieving justice for victims.
While it was admittedly difficult coming to terms with the inexcusable actions of some of my favorite public figures, learning to separate the art from the artist was a small price to pay for accountability’s sake. That being said, I’m having a hard time separating R. Kelly from his wildly popular music.
As I’m sure many of you are aware, Lifetime recently released a six part documentary titled “Surviving R. Kelly,” detailing the R&B singer’s decades of pedophilia and sexual abuse. Though the documentary brings harrowing new perspectives and testimonies about the artist to light, much of the series echos accusations and rumors that have surrounded Kelly since his rise to fame in the early 90’s.
Regardless of controversy, Kelly’s enjoyed relatively unhindered success throughout his almost 30 year career — producing countless hits and accruing millions of dollars while his sexual perversions were allowed to manifest untethered.
Between Kelly signing to Jive Records in 1991 and now, the Chicago singer’s faced child pornography charges, married a 15-year-old, run an abusive sex cult, and had 54 songs chart on the Billboard Hot 100. Evidently, Kelly’s proven himself impervious to substantial consequences.
To follow the R&B singer’s trail of sexual abuse, you have to go back to 1991 when the then 24-year-old R. Kelly initiated a three year sexual relationship with Tiffany Hawkins — a high school sophomore who was just 15 years old at the time. After years of silence following the relationship’s conclusion, Hawkins filed a $10 million lawsuit against the singer in 1996, claiming that Kelly caused “injuries and emotional distress,” during their relationship- he forced her to start having sex with him until she turned 18.
After two years of litigation, Kelly settled out of court for an unspecified amount of money estimated to have been in the range of $250,000. Later that year, Kelly’s song “I’m Your Angel,” (feat. Celine Dion) charted at number one.
In 1994, two years prior to Hawkins’ lawsuit against R. Kelly, the then 27-year old artist illegally married the then 15-year old late R&B singer, Aaliyah. The relationship between the two began when Kelly offered to write and produce Aaliyah’s unfortunately titled debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.
While Aaliyah initially denied listing herself as 18 on the marriage certificate, a Vibe magazine article published in late 1994 verified that she had. The marriage was officially annulled in February, 1995. Between 1994 and 1995, Kelly released his first number one hit “Bump n’ Grind,” and saw his self-titled sophomore album go platinum five times over.
After two heavily publicized relationships with underaged girls, a $250,000 court settlement, and an actually-legal ongoing marriage with 28 year old Andrea Kelly, R. Kelly had every incentive to resist his predatory tendencies, but he didn’t.
In February 2002, a 27-minute video surfaced of the singer having sex with and urinating on a 14 year old girl. While Kelly vehemently denied the accusations, authorities found photographs of the singer with the girl in his Florida home, eventually accumulating enough evidence to charge him with 14 counts of child pornography.
When the trial was eventually held in 2008, Kelly’s expensive team of lawyers convinced the jury of nine men and three women that the girl in the video’s identity was inconclusive, leading to all 14 charges being dropped within three hours.
Kelly may have been at the tail end of his mainstream relevancy when the trial ended, but between the time the sex tape surfaced and his highly-questionable acquittal (2002-2008), Kelly released five platinum albums — cementing his legacy as one of the most beloved and successful artists of all time.
For about a decade after the trial, R. Kelly mostly stayed out of headlines. Speculation continued in his absence but it appeared that Kelly had either finally learned to abstain from pedophilia and abuse, or had just become better at hiding it. The latter was true.
In a July, 2017 investigative report by Buzzfeed, it was discovered that Kelly had been quietly holding young women, ranging from 19-31 years old, captive in an “abusive cult.” According to statements from three of Kelly’s closest affiliates at the time, Cheryl Mack, Kitti Jones, and Asante McGee, “Six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.”
While each of the women have reported consenting to the arrangement, some of their parents have been unable to see or speak with their children, accusing Kelly of “brainwashing” the six women. One of the concerned mothers in the article gave a chilling account of her last encounter with her daughter, explaining that she, “hugged her and hugged her. But she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her.” Because of the lack of blatant criminal activity and apparent consent from both sides, neither law enforcement nor the parents have been able to take action against Kelly.
With a new year and a new revealing documentary about the 53-year old serial pedophile who can sing, hope for accountability is renewed. It’s more than slightly disconcerting that John Legend was one of the only artists who agreed to appear in the documentary and that Kelly’s music sales have jumped since its release, but support for the artist appears to be dwindling rapidly among his peers.
Since the series premiered last week, Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, Questlove, and countless others have been quick to denounce Kelly while his defenders are nowhere to be found.
For the first time in the abusive middle aged child predator’s illustrious singing career, his reputation appears to be irreparably damaged. While the damage R. Kelly caused will never be undone, it’ll remain as a cautionary tale for the consequences of allowing success and artistic genius to blind us from the true nature of a depraved artist.
There’s no shame in blasting “Ignition (Remix)” at a party or knowing all the words to “I Believe I Can Fly,” but it’s important to know what kind of person you’re supporting when you stream or buy R. Kelly’s music.
Artistic contributions and influence aside, the singer deserves scrutiny and legal repercussions comparable to those of Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. His sustained success and lack of accountability is a failure on all fronts.