Women have accused the singer of sexual abuse for decades. So why are they only being listened to now? Blame misogyny and racism – but also the potency of his musi
Yo, Pac!” You can almost feel the spittle as Gary Oldman launches into his soliloquy. It is 2012, and he is performing in a skit on Jimmy Kimmel’s US talkshow, reciting from R Kelly’s autobiography with the plummy majesty he later brought to the role of Churchill. “What up, baby?” he utters as the audience collapses in giggles. The joke is twofold: English people are so white! But also: R Kelly is so ridiculous!
For years, Robert Kelly, now aged 52, was seen, as Kimmel put it that night, as “great and inexplicable”. He was one of the US’s most brilliant entertainers, beloved for his uproariously carnal R&B tracks and stratospheric ballads. But there was something that set him apart from his musical peers: a knowing ridiculousness, which would prompt him to cast himself in a 33-part television opera centering around a well-endowed dwarf, describe himself as a “sexasaurus”, and make Same Girl, his duet with Usher, so hammy it would inevitably be spoofed by Flight of the Conchords in a song called We’re Both in Love With a Sexy Lady. This sense of self-mockery gained him a new, white hipster audience – Pitchfork booked him to play its festival in 2013 – and also helped insulate him from criticism. Until now.
It has been alleged for more than 20 years that Kelly has had abusive relationships with women. He wrote and produced Aaliyah’s debut album, then was reported to have married the R&B star illegally when she was 15. The album was titled – chillingly, in retrospect – Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number. In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins sued Kelly for “personal injuries and emotional distress” during a three-year relationship that began when she was 15 and he was 24. That suit, and three others since, were settled out of court. Kelly has only appeared before a judge once, in 2008, when he was accused of making child abuse images by filming sexual encounters, including one in which he urinated over an underage girl. A jury couldn’t identify the man or the girl in the video without doubt, and Kelly was acquitted.Throughout all this, Kelly’s career flourished. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University, calls him “the most visible R&B star of the 1990s … we haven’t seen an R&B figure emerge post-R Kelly that has the kind of gravitas that he or Luther Vandross or Marvin Gaye had.” Kelly created radio hits that united races and generations, and wrote commercially blockbusting albums such as R, which in 1998 sold 216,000 copies in a single week in the US alone, and boasted duets with both Jay-Z and Celine Dion.
“He had a really good ear,” Neal says. “He couldn’t read or write music, but he was able to mimic these larger traditions: R&B, soul and gospel, adding a contemporary feel so that it felt urgent and vital. And he knew how to record raunch.”Over the past two years, that success has been replaced with a flood of fresh accusations, including claims that he had sex with girls as young as 14 while running a cult-like harem. His ex-wife claimed that he choked her almost to death, part of a campaign of violence that made her suicidal. A social media campaign, #MuteRKelly, gained traction as the #MeToo movement caught fire.Then, earlier this month, the documentary Surviving R Kelly aired on Lifetime TV in the US. In it, to devastating effect, numerous women accused the singer of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. After it screened, Kelly’s daughter Joann (who goes by the name Buku Abi) described him as a “monster”, adding: “I am well aware of who and what he is. I grew up in that house.” Activist group UltraViolet flew a banner over the offices of Kelly’s record label, demanding that it drop him. Following fresh appeals from prosecutors in Atlanta and Chicago, where Kelly has residences, three more women have come forward alleging abuse, along with two other families who say their daughters have gone to live with Kelly. Lady Gaga, Phoenix and Chance the Rapper expressed contrition for working with Kelly, while John Legend, Ne-Yo and Common condemned him.
What took them so long? Kelly denies all the accusations of abuse. His lawyer, Steven Greenberg, has threatened to sue Lifetime, and says that Kelly’s sexual relationships have all been “perfectly consensual”. Kelly’s denials include statements through his lawyers, plus a 19-minute song, I Admit, in which he sings that he has been “so falsely accused”, and that his accusers were financially motivated.Complicating the accusations, one young woman has told police, who made a visit to one of Kelly’s homes, that she was living with Kelly consensually, and was “fine and did not want to be bothered with her parents”. Another told her parents – who said she appeared “brainwashed” – that “she’s in love, and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her.” A further police visit to a Kelly residence reported by TMZ this week saw two women repeatedly profess that they were safe and free to come and go. But they are outnumbered by women who do accuse Kelly of abuse. The sheer frequency – and pattern – of the accusations now means that even fans, and collaborators such Gaga, now believe the accusers.
What if Kelly’s alleged victims had been white? Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago-based journalist who has doggedly reported on Kelly for 17 years, has said that the saga has taught him: “Nobody matters less in society than young black women.” Or, as Mikki Kendall put it in Surviving R Kelly: “No one cared because we were black girls.”
“These black girls and women were not ‘ideal victims’,” says Treva Lindsey, a professor at Ohio State University whose research focuses on violence against black women. She has found “a particular kind of venom that is relatively normalised” towards them, which starts from the top: “Some of Trump’s most vicious attacks on individuals have come at the expense of black women, whether that’s [congresswoman] Maxine Waters or [journalist] April Ryan.”