Update: On July 23, R Kelly released a 19-minute song called ‘I Admit’ on Soundcloud. On the track, he admits to infidelity, struggles with alcohol and a litany of other things that range from not going to church to money problems. What he does not admit to, however, is the sexual assault allegations detailed below. Instead, he directly addresses some of the specific accusations in order to deny them. Of the multiple women who claim that they were held against their will by R Kelly in a sex cult, he sings: “Say I’m abusing these women / What the fuck, that’s some absurd shit / They brainwashed, really? / Kidnapped, really? / Can’t eat, really? / Real talk, that sounds silly.” Elsewhere in the rambling song he says it’s “crazy” that he is being called a “pedophile.” He also addressed Spotify’s removal of his music from its promoted playlists after the #MuteRKelly campaign: “Spotify, took me off they playlist / I admit that I been underrated / I’m not convicted, not arrested, but dragged my name in the dirt / All this work to be successful and you’re bending me because of what you heard.” When this update was published, the track has been played over 230,000 times.
R. Kelly has allegedly been up to no good for decades.
Over the last 25 years, the Chicago R&B singer has faced charges of child pornography, been subject of several publicly filed lawsuits—including by women who said they had sexual relationships with the star when they were underage—and has reached numerous out-of-court settlements with people who’ve accused him of sexual assault and misconduct. He’s also been accused of holding women against their will at his Atlanta home in what a BuzzFeed investigation described as a “sex cult.” Most recently, Kelly was the subject of a BBC doc called Sex, Girls & Videotapes, which dove into the sex abuse allegations and showed a very dark side of the singer. Suffice to say, Kelly’s alleged interest in underaged girls has been well-documented.
Despite all this, his career has remained largely intact. But now—slowly—things are starting to change.
On May 21, a woman named Faith Rodgers filed a lawsuit against Kelly alleging “that the singer sexually assaulted her, locked her in rooms to punish her for failing to please him and infected her with herpes,” as reported by the Chicago Tribune. According to the report, during Rodgers’ relationship with Kelly—which lasted less than a year—the star would routinely abuse the 20-year-old “mentally, sexually and verbally” and would record her “submitting to deviant and compromising sexual contact” against her will. Rodgers says she only found out Kelly had herpes after she had been infected, and that she was locked in “secluded areas” for extended periods of time as punishment “for failing to please” Kelly sexually.
The lawsuit comes just after music streaming service Spotify announced on May 10 that it would stop promoting Kelly’s music on certain playlists, per a new policy around public hate content and hateful conduct. “We are removing R. Kelly’s music from all Spotify-owned and -operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations such as Discover Weekly,” Spotify said in a statement to Billboard.
Billboard reporting Spotify users will no longer be able to find R. Kelly’s music on any of the streaming service’s editorial or playlists, under the terms of a new public hate content and hateful conduct policy Spotify is putting into effect. pic.twitter.com/qIFbCksQb3
— Eric Alper (@ThatEricAlper) May 10, 2018
“His music will still be available on the service, but Spotify will not actively promote it. We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behaviour, but we want our editorial decisions… to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.”
The move came weeks after Hollywood heavyweights publicly joined the efforts of the #MuteRKelly campaign—an initiative that wants Kelly off the airwaves and “out of concert halls.” On April 30, celebrities including Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, Ava DuVernay, Janet Mock, Kerry Washington and #MeToo creator Tarana Burke were among the Black women of Time’s Up who wrote an open letter urging Spotify and Apple Music to stop streaming his music, Ticketmaster to stop selling tickets to his shows and RCA Records to drop him as an artist.
The celebrity advocates also released a statement demanding “appropriate investigations and inquiries into the allegations of R. Kelly’s abuse made by women and their families for more than two decades now.”
— Lupita Nyong’o (@Lupita_Nyongo) April 30, 2018
So while recent efforts to shine a long-overdue spotlight onto the sex abuse allegations against 51-year-old Kelly seem to be working, it’s important to ask: why did it take so long for people to denounce Kelly? And why are people finally starting to pay attention now?
Kelly’s alleged victims were overlooked
The young women (and in many cases girls) that Kelly allegedly preyed on fit a profile: young, Black and often poor. According to reports, Kelly often lures in girls with promises of career advice and access to his connections. In reality, his motives are allegedly more sinister.
Speaking to BuzzFeed in March, one of Kelly’s alleged victims, Jerhonda Pace, said she was angry that her story—which came out just weeks before the explosive Harvey Weinstein investigations—was overlooked, but she wasn’t shocked. “Blacks are always Black, and we’re always at the bottom of the barrel,” she said to the outlet.
Pace, who broke her non-disclosure agreement in 2017 to reveal how Kelly allegedly abused her and had sex with her when she was underage, told BuzzFeed that if Kelly had victimized white women, the situation would be much different.
“It angers me. It pisses me off to know that he’s still progressing; he’s still out there making moves and doing everything that he wants to do,” Pace said. “He’s still a free man, yet he has abused so many Black women, and they are being ignored.”
#MeToo founder Burke echoes this stance. She’s been vocal about how Black women have been calling out Kelly for years, but the public didn’t listen. “We’ve had this discussion a hundred times: 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,” she told BuzzFeed.
RKelly has been PROTECTED by the industry for 20+yrs. This indepth report from @geoffedgers unpacks how his predatory conduct was overlooked and brings us back to that same conclusion that @JimDeRogatis made: nobody matters less than #Blackgirls. Nobody. #MuteRKelly #metooMVMT https://t.co/dvi7Lp6TJx
— Tarana (@TaranaBurke) May 5, 2018
“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.”
Kelly’s celebrity status also makes it easier for him to get away with his alleged crimes, says Yamikani Msosa, a survivor advocate and specialist at Ryerson University’s Sexual Violence Support and Education office.
“R. Kelly is reflective of someone with power, someone with access,” she says. “He manipulated these young women—if R. Kelly promises you that you’re going to have a record, or that he’s going to help you elevate yourself, of course you’re going to take it. We see this in every single industry.”
Here’s what Kelly has allegedly done
The singer, songwriter and producer Robert S. Kelly has a long history of alleged problematic behaviour. In 1994, at age 27, he married a then-15-year-old Aaliyah (the late singer’s age was illegally changed to 18 on their marriage certificate) and was allegedly forced to end his relationship with the teen after Aaliyah’s family learned of their union. Then, in 1996, the performer married choreographer Andrea Lee, who he reportedly made “knock before entering any room in their house.” Lee and Kelly have three kids together—two daughters and a son—but divorced in 2009, a few years after she filed an emergency protective order claiming he physically abused her.
The same year Kelly married Lee, a Chicago woman named Tiffany Hawkins sued him for $10 million USD claiming he started having sex with her when she was just 15 and an aspiring singer. The suit claims Kelly, “engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with [Hawkins] including but not limited to engaging in group sexual intercourse with [Hawkins] and other minors.” Kelly and Hawkins settled out of court in 1998 for an undisclosed sum, but sources told the Chicago Sun-Times that the amount was $250,000 USD.
But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Kelly’s most publicized legal troubles began. After the Chicago Sun-Times received an anonymous fax saying that the Chicago Police sex crimes unit were investigating Kelly and that his “problem is young girls,” reporter Jim DeRogatis began looking into the performer. The newspaper published its first major investigation into Kelly’s alleged behaviour in 2000; soon after the outlet was sent a videotape of Kelly allegedly having sex with a young woman.
Months later in 2001, Kelly was sued by a second woman who said the R&B star “coerced” her “into receiving oral sex from a girl” she did not want to have sex with and “was often treated as [a] personal sex object and cast aside.” That case was also settled outside of court for an undisclosed sum. Around this time, DeRogatis was sent another videotape that showed a man who looked to be Kelly having sex with an underaged girl, instructing her to call him “daddy” and urinating into her mouth. In 2002, Kelly was sued two more times: one woman alleged Kelly impregnated her when she was underage and had his people take her to get an abortion, while the other claimed she was videotaped during sex without her consent. These cases were both settled outside of court for undisclosed sums.
That urination video eventually landed Kelly in court. After the Sun-Times turned the video over to police, Kelly was charged with 21 counts of making child pornography in 2002. Seven of those charges were eventually dropped, but 14 counts remained. After a length legal battle—which included the alleged underaged girl in the tape refusing to testify in court—Kelly was found not guilty in 2008. Jurors said that while they were sure it was Kelly in the sex tape, they were not certain about the identity of the girl in the footage, and therefore could not confirm her age and determine if the tape was child porn.
Efforts to denounce Kelly have been going on for years
After Kelly was found not guilty on child pornography charges, his career continued as usual: he was protected by music executives who profited off his work and by legal teams who tried to discredit his accusers. Plus, many fans took his “not guilty” verdict as evidence that he was innocent.
And so Kelly was nominated for GRAMMYs, performed at Coachella, worked with artists like Kanye West and Lady Gaga and produced even more records. During all this time though, stories of Kelly’s alleged abuse continued, and efforts to bring attention to his behaviour fell mostly on deaf ears. (A Wrinkle in Time director Ava DuVernay called Kelly a “black girl predator” on Twitter in 2013; it got 61 retweets.)
In July 2017, BuzzFeed published a disturbing investigation by reporter DeRogatis about Kelly’s alleged “sex cult.” The report says that Kelly keeps several “girlfriends” in his house, monitors their phone use, makes them dress in sweatpants, films them having sex with him (and then shows the footage to his friends), and verbally and physically abuses them if they don’t follow his “rules.” The report also features interviews with former girlfriends of Kelly who allege that the singer manipulates women emotionally and sexually. DeRogatis also spoke to parents of a girl who is allegedly “brainwashed” by Kelly and thought to be held against her will in the singer’s mansion.
But even then, only a few celebrities, including Tiffany Haddish and Charlamagne Tha God, spoke out against Kelly. Once again, society ignored the issue Black women were trying to draw attention to.
The sickening allegations—and the lack of mainstream media buzz—caused Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye to start the #MuteRKelly campaign. The group, which organizes protests outside of Kelly’s concerts across the U.S., had only 1,146 supporters when it closed its online petition on Change.org in August 2017.
Then, the New York Times and the New Yorker published their explosive investigations into Weinstein in October 2017—a story that pushed the #MeToo movement, which had been founded by Burke in 2006, to Hollywood proportions. While many white celebrities, including Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, Reese Witherspoon and Uma Thurman, used their platforms to speak out against sexual violence, Kelly was largely left out of the conversation.
In March, the BBC released a doc on Kelly’s called Sex, Girls & Videotapes, which dove into the sex abuse allegations—including the reports that Kelly is holding women essentially hostage. The broadcaster interviewed the performer’s brothers, former staff and former girlfriends. Many confirmed that Kelly is sexually abusive and a predator who likes young women and girls. The details were grim, but the doc didn’t make that much noise in North America.
“It’s not shocking at all that they don’t care about Black bodies,” says sexual survivor advocate Msosa. “White folks are quick to talk about Kanye and his mental health issues, but they’re not quick to feed into R. Kelly. It’s just reality of how systemic racism plays out, whether or not people want to admit it—who do you choose to speak out for and who do you not choose to speak out for?”
So are things going to change now?
According Msosa, the reason people are listening to the allegations against Kelly now is because of who is speaking out against him—not because these stories haven’t been around for decades. On May 4, two more women spoke out against Kelly saying they, too, were abused by the superstar. On May 10, celebrities including Amber Tamblyn and Eva Longoria applauded Spotify for taking a stance against Kelly.
— Amber Tamblyn (@ambertamblyn) May 10, 2018
“We’re hearing about [#MuteRKelly] now not because survivors haven’t been talking about this, but because it’s been picked up by notable folks,” Msosa explained. “It’s the same thing that happened with the #MeToo Movement, because [powerful people] like John Legend, Ava DuVernay and Kerry Washington are coming out against R. Kelly, where that wasn’t the case before.”
But though Spotify’s move is a step in the right direction, Msosa says real change will only come when Black voices are heard. She says that Hollywood—and society at large—is quick to commodify Black bodies, but don’t really care about what happens to young Black women.
“I think it’s great that all these celebrities are coming forward…[but] I don’t have any expectations personally for any white celebrities,” she says. “It’s reflective of the feminist movement to be honest: who takes up space, who gets to have the platform?”
“We have to interrogate the notion of who—when do we listen and when does something become credible?”