After R. Kelly’s sentencing comes a tough look in the mirror for music fans
Disgraced singer could spend the rest of his life in prison
On Wednesday afternoon in a New York courtroom, R. Kelly, convicted last September on charges of sexual exploitation of a child, racketeering, sex trafficking and bribery, finally learned his fate. Judge Ann M. Donnelly handed down a 30-year sentence, telling the disgraced R&B crooner, “You left in your wake a trail of broken lives … you taught them that love is enslavement and violence and humiliation.”
R. Kelly’s world of sexual perversion, rape, abuse and violence was an openly kept secret for decades. His knack for infectious melodies, catchy lyrics and features from a who’s who of artists — Michael Jackson, The Notorious B.I.G., Jennifer Hudson, Celine Dion, Jay-Z, Ty Dolla $ign and more — overpowered the heinousness of his deviancy. The music, often fueled by eroticism (and sometimes religious revival), created a smoke screen that many used to justify continuing to listen to R. Kelly’s hits despite years of reporting about his proclivities.
Separate the art from the artist — that’s what many fans told themselves, even as powerful investigative journalism about R. Kelly’s misdeeds was released, more victims came forward and a groundbreaking Boondocks episode aired on TV, repeatedly driving home the truth that R. Kelly was a predator.
Now, that same truth is as concrete as the walls and bars R. Kelly will call home for the next three decades. It’s 30 years after his debut album, Born into the 90’s, was released, and R. Kelly will likely spend the rest of his life in prison. While he and his defense team are preparing an appeal (and he faces another trial in Chicago in August), his fans are left to grapple with the fact that it took so long for the right thing to be done.
And the cost of that should haunt us all.
There are 47 quotes attributed to R. Kelly on the singer’s IMDb page. But one particularly stands out.
“If you’re gonna tell your life story, you gotta be honest, or don’t do it.”
That would be true if it weren’t so hypocritical, and R. Kelly failed to heed his own advice. Throughout the trial, he never took ownership of his actions. Even as his victims shared how he torpedoed their lives through coercion, sexual, mental and emotional abuse, and, in at least one case, knowingly spreading a sexually transmitted disease, R. Kelly didn’t show much emotion. He had to know a hefty sentence was imminent and, still, remorse was one emotion he couldn’t seem to muster.
Citing R. Kelly’s upcoming criminal case in Chicago, his attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, said he wouldn’t address the court during Wednesday’s sentencing hearing. She said the singer “accepts that he is a flawed individual, but he is not this one-dimensional monster that the government has portrayed and the media has portrayed.”
R. Kelly, a victim of childhood sexual abuse as well, likely never felt the remorse of his abusers either. Trauma feeds trauma, and despite the damage inflicted on R. Kelly, and his superstardom, it was never an excuse for the carnage he inflicted on others. Kelly’s actions were never truly a secret. People around him knew he liked to hang out where young people congregated. In the documentary Surviving R. Kelly, music producer Craig Williams said he “heard that [R. Kelly] was picking up a lot of kids from the school,” but no one seemed to try to stop him.
Additionally, R. Kelly’s time with singer Aaliyah was public fodder in the mid-1990s (they were famously coy about the nature of their relationship in interviews). In 1994, R. Kelly reportedly doctored a fake ID for the then-15-year-old singer, whose debut album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number was produced by R. Kelly, and married her in a Chicago hotel room. Despite the anger of Aaliyah’s father, R. Kelly would allegedly call her family’s home, demanding they “put my wife on the phone.” This is after singing, “Little cute Aaliyah’s got it (Yeah, she’s got that vibe),” on Public Announcement’s 1991 hit “She’s Got That Vibe” when Aaliyah would’ve only been about 12.
At his peak, R. Kelly was a superstar of the highest level — and Aaliyah was one of his most high-profile transgressions, though far from his only one. For years, R. Kelly preyed on one of society’s most vulnerable groups, Black girls. His intentional hunting of young Black and Latino girls (and some boys) was purposeful. America largely chooses to ignore these girls, so why would anyone care if R. Kelly harmed them? The sick part is, for years, he was right.
In Surviving R. Kelly, journalist and filmmaker Dream Hampton showed how R. Kelly’s sexual deviancy impacted young Black and Latino women and played out in his music. Survivor Lizzette Martinez described how R. Kelly would force her to have sex in cars while others watched — making “You Remind Me of Something” sound far more repugnant than it does enticing. He penned Jackson’s hit “You Are Not Alone,” allegedly about a teenager who suffered a miscarriage with his child. And on 1998’s “Home Alone,” a 31-year-old R. Kelly boasted, “Parents out of town, ladies all around/Me and the crew doin’ what we do.”
For the better part of his life, R. Kelly has been a master of manipulation. He not only manipulated his victims, but a lot of Black music fans as well. His crimes occurred during a time when the conversation about sexual violence — especially against Black women and girls — wasn’t just muffled, it was hardly ever discussed. Not even a very public sex tape showing R. Kelly with an underage girl could kill his career. After the tape hit the internet in 2002, R. Kelly released five albums that went platinum, four of them hitting the top spot on the Billboard charts.
While R. Kelly ruined lives and fractured families, music fans also failed them by continuing to buy tickets to his shows and listening to his music. Many convinced themselves they could separate R. Kelly’s art from his personal life, even though people knew and outright laughed at him for being the creep who engaged in grotesque actions with a young girl on video. But music fans also leaned on the belief many of us would never mimic those actions — it was always him, not us. But it’s disingenuous to act as if R. Kelly’s genius made being willfully ignorant (or even complicit) of his sins less of a burden.
While not everyone was willing to give R. Kelly a pass (Vince Staples famously called him a “child molester” and sex trafficker after the rapper’s Coachella performance in 2018), the cloak of celebrity and an industry that benefited from R. Kelly’s musical gifts made him close to Teflon. R. Kelly’s 30-year prison sentence likely wouldn’t have happened in 1992 (it didn’t happen in 2008 when he was acquitted of child pornography charges).
But in recent years, especially after the #MeToo movement took down some of Hollywood’s biggest power brokers, from former film producer Harvey Weinstein to former comedian Bill Cosby, the conversations about men with power and their violent control of women’s and girls’ bodies is more necessary than ever.
R. Kelly is still alive, but he’ll be referred to in the past tense for the rest of his life. The music has almost been reduced to a footnote (even the prison odes). The only part of R. Kelly that can be spoken of in the present tense is the consequences of his vile actions — that’s the easy part of the discussion.
As for how long it took for music fans to change their tune about R. Kelly? Well, that’s an issue we’re going to have to examine for years to come. Thankfully, for R. Kelly’s victims, justice was finally served. It should have never taken this long.
If you have been sexually assaulted or know someone who is a victim of sexual assault, please call the National Sexual Abuse Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or visit https://www.rainn.org.