I was part of the R. Kelly problem.
The peak of my industry complicity took place nearly a decade ago when I was asked to write the liner notes for his greatest hits album The Essential R. Kelly. At the risk of sounding like a pompous git, I was offered the run-of-the-mill gig as an established journalist who had previously penned bios on everyone from 50 Cent to J. Cole. My views on Robert Sylvester Kelly were…complex. Certainly, at that time, I knew of the immense scandal that was slowly threatening to envelope a 20 plus-year career currently in a free-fall to full blown pariah.
I was aware that Kelly escaped a lengthy jail sentence when he was acquitted on charges of child pornography in July 2008 for his role in “allegedly” filming graphic sex acts with a girl who was as young as 13 years old. A jury found that it was not Kelly on the now infamous 27-minute tape despite prosecutors calling on 22 witnesses, including three relatives of the alleged victim who identified her as the girl in the clip. For many, the case had become a punchline to be told on a 2003 episode of The Dave Chappelle Show: Did you hear the one about R. Kelly peeing on girls?
I knew of the very adult singer’s long-whispered, disturbing early ‘90s relationship with late R&B princess Aaliyah when she was just 15—which by that point had morphed into some bad boy rock ‘n’ roll folklore in the same statuary guise of Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra Brown, Elvis and Priscella Presley, David Bowie/Jimmy Page and Lori Mattix. It was deemed water-under-the-bridge. Old news.
I heard the decades-long whispers that R. Kelly has a “type.” And it was said by those in the know that he liked them young. Too young. Unfortunately, at that time, very few victims were willing to go on record about Kelly’s alleged obsession and sexual encounters with underage girls.
And so, like many others in a business that overlooked such problematic issues, as long as the product was bringing in flush monetary rewards and the media stayed indifferent, I knowingly cashed the check. My lauding, flowery words (“R. Kelly stands today a man triumphant…”) were used to elevate a gifted yet clearly troubled artist who long ago should have faced repercussions for his destructive, monstrous behavior.
I now know I contributed to helping Kelly prolong what has since been exposed to the public as his systematic sexual, mental and physical abuse of women from puberty to adulthood. The turning point for me was fueled at multiple points. The much-valued rebuke of Kelly led by Atlanta Arts Administrator, Oronike Odeleye, who implored many radio stations across the country to ban the singer’s music, was major in helping me understand that R. Kelly had only been able to skate free for so long because his victims were black girls. Because black women are often times depicted as fast, aggressive or sexually beyond their years. If Andrea Constand, the white woman who finally brought Bill Cosby to justice, was among Kelly’s many victims, chances are he would have already met the same fate as the tarnished comedian.
Also impactful was the most recent work of dogged reporter Jim DeRogatis, whose peerless, sobering investigations into Kelly have been indispensible, unearthing new revelations such as Kelly’s penchant for beating women.
Yet it should be noted that I am not sharing my mea culpa for some frivolous pat on the back. I am extending a public apology to the many victims of Kelly’s alleged abuses; the same victims who displayed gut-wrenching bravery by telling their stories in the six-part Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly. For the first time all the allegations, rumors, and innuendo that have dogged the multiplatinum 51-year-old singer-songwriter-producer have been laid out in a meticulous, powerful, persuasive, and emotional fashion.
Veteran music journalist, author and filmmaker dream hampton, who produced the riveting doc, and her relentless team, delivers an alarming portrait of a man who continues to ruin many lives. Forget whistling. Kelly is stepping in the name of love past the graveyard. The contextual details surrounding the performer’s molestation by a family member as a child is never utilized as a cover for his abhorrent behavior.
And there’s a beyond troubling breakdown of a sickening collusion of record executives, family members, handlers, parents and even Chicago law enforcement, who covered for Kells. Some employees on the payroll were often times tasked with finding young girls for the artist’s next conquest. Aaliyah’s alleged pregnancy by a 27-year-old Kelly is even discussed, giving the entire scandal the much more serious dissection it has long deserved. This wasn’t simply some cute dalliance designed to drum up album sales. It was straight-no-chaser pedophilia.
Listening to heartbreaking experiences of Kelly’s ex-wife Andrea Kelly (she opens up about her famous husband’s physically violent streak and how she often times was not allowed to speak unless given permission) brought fresh insight into a story that is as much about power and control as it is about the unchecked sexual abuse.
Among the other interviews: Kelly’s former protégé Sparkle, who after discovering that Kelly was having sex with her 14-year-old niece––the same girl who was at the center of the child porn tape case––alerted police, leading to the aforementioned trial. Watching survivor after survivor like Asante McGee,Jerhonda Pace, Lisa Van Allen, Faith Rodgers, Lizzette Martinez, Kitti Jones and Michelle Kramer go on the record about their harrowing experiences with Kelly forced me to confront some troubling realities.
I no longer question just how R. Kelly got away with the disturbing visits to his old Chicago high school Kenwood and McDonald’s to pick up young girls. Because as a fellow Chi native, I somewhat fell into the R. Kelly trap of being at times enamored by his talent. Don’t get me wrong; I have never been a Kells fanboy. I thought much of his later success in the ‘00’s was made possible because of a weak field of male R&B vocalists beyond the likes of Usher and D’Angelo. I laughed at some of his more juvenile musical statements like “I Like The Crotch On You,” “(Sex) In The Kitchen,” “The Zoo” and the beyond sophomoric “Trapped in the Closet” series, which all remain incredulously branded on my psyche.
But when Kelly unleashed a perfect, throwback blues gem like “When A Woman’s Fed Up” or showed his brilliance writing for other artists like Maxwell (“Fortunate”) his alleged crimes somehow became obscured. When I witnessed him give an impromptu performance at a Chocolate Factory listening party back in 2003, he channeled the great Sam Cooke while playing piano. At that split second I actually believed R. Kelly was the greatest R&B talent of his generation.
It was a notion that I was allowed to entertain given my own male privilege.
So, if by chance you find yourself hiding behind assertions that Kelly is being unfairly targeted because of his race or that white men have not endured the same level of scrutiny, take a deep breath and remember this: The court of public (and legal) opinion on the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen means very little to the black women who are still crying out for justice.
“I’m handcuffed by my destiny,” says the chest-beating man behind 12 Play at the beginning of Surviving R. Kelly. His arrogance is so prodigious as he flaunts the above-it-all, brazen defiance of a Teflon Mob Don who has just paid everyone off––including the judge. “It’s too late…they should have did this sh*t 30 years ago,” he taunts.
But karma is coming for you, Robert. And soon she will have time. All the time in the world.
(Photo: Courtesy of Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images)