Each day brings news of men who have abused their positions of wealth, fame, and power to engage in sexual harassment and assault. Yet, as the list of perpetrators grows ever longer, the name of the Chicago singer, songwriter, and producer R. Kelly is conspicuously absent from those belatedly paying a price for their actions. And it’s worth asking why.
R. Kelly has sold an estimated hundred million records, and, at age fifty, he remains one of the dominant voices in R. & B. He also has a well-documented, twenty-five-year history of allegedly victimizing women and underage girls. Between 1996 and 2002, he was subject to four publicly filed lawsuits, three by teen-age girls who alleged illegal underage relationships. All were settled, with payments made in return for nondisclosure agreements—the favored tool ofHarvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly. Since then, Kelly has reached out-of-court settlements with “numerous” other women, according to the lawyer who represented many of them. In 2002, he was indicted for making child pornography, stemming from a video that prosecutors said showed him having sex with and urinating into the mouth of a fourteen-year-old girl. The case took six years to go to trial, and Kelly was acquitted, largely, according to jurors, because the girl and her parents never testified, though prosecutors called a dozen witnesses who confirmed the relationship.
As the pop-music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, I covered Kelly’s rise from busking on subway platforms in the early nineties to mainstream success. My first investigative story about the singer’s alleged predatory behavior ran on December 21, 2000; the videotape for which he was indicted was left anonymously in the mailbox at my home, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, in February, 2002. This summer, I published two stories about Kelly in BuzzFeed News. One told the tale of Jerhonda Pace, who broke a nondisclosure agreement to talk about a sexual relationship that she allegedly had with Kelly when she was sixteen, in 2009, shortly after she met the star at his trial for child pornography. The other documented what sources call “a cult” of six women that they say Kelly currently houses in properties in Chicago and Atlanta; Kelly, sources say, has “brainwashed” the women by separating them from friends and family. (Kelly has denied any wrongdoing.)
While Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and other stars have promptly seen their careers implode after their alleged behavior was exposed, the music industry seems unconcerned about the charges against Kelly. His record label, Sony Music, refuses to comment, and Live Nation, the global concert promoter, continues to stage his shows. A petition drive, a public protest, and a vote of censure by the county board of commissioners greeted Kelly’s concert at the Wolf Creek Amphitheater, in Atlanta, in August, but Live Nation’s only comment was, “The show will go on,” and the company is promoting three of his upcoming concerts. (Live Nation did not respond to requests to comment.)
None of the many stars for whom Kelly has written and produced hits have spoken out against him—from Jay-Z, with whom he made two albums and did two co-headlining tours, to Lady Gaga, a champion of female empowerment and herself a sexual-abuse survivor. Last December, Kelly appeared on the “Tonight Show,” singing his Christmas songs and getting a big hug from the host, Jimmy Fallon. Now Kelly is climbing the charts again with “Juicy Booty,” a collaboration with Chris Brown (who was vilified for assaulting Rihanna, in 2009) and the singer Jhené Aiko.
Popular music, arguably our most forward-looking art form, seems mired in the past when it comes to examining the reprehensible behavior of male stars; there’s been seemingly little progress from the days of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and their teen-age brides. Kelly’s lure is a variation on that hoariest of ignoble show-biz clichés, the casting couch. Many of the women who’ve fallen under his spell were aspiring singers attracted by the promise of stardom from the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R. & B.” But Kelly hasn’t launched the career of a female protégée since Aaliyah, whom he illegally married, in 1994, when she was fifteen, shortly after producing and writing her début album, which he titled “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.”
When it comes to the heavy lifting necessary to expose sexual predators, the pop-music beat has attracted fewer investigative reporters than politics, or even Hollywood. Many critics have blithely ignored the long record of charges against Kelly while celebrating his hot-and-horny jams—such as “Sex in the Kitchen,” “The Zoo,” and that mostly a-capella epic of debauchery, “Trapped in the Closet”—as hypersexualized kitsch. The unexamined acceptance of Kelly continues: last month, the blue-eyed-soul singer Sam Smith sported a Kelly T-shirt at the after-party following his performance on “Saturday Night Live.”
Why is the pop-music world so reluctant to address Kelly’s alleged misdeeds? One reason may be that the genre has witnessed so much bad-boy behavior for so long that huge swaths of beloved sounds, from James Brown to the Rolling Stones, from Led Zeppelin to the many records produced by Dr. Dre, would be out of bounds if listeners didn’t separate the art from the artist. In general, we seem especially reluctant to believe the worst of artists whose music has touched us deeply. During my thirty years as a music critic, I never received more hate mail than whenever I dared to mention the sexual-abuse allegations against Michael Jackson, even when Jackson was directly addressing them in songs such as “Tabloid Junkie” and “D.S.”