The R. Kelly verdict leaves unhealed wounds
Though the singer has been found guilty, there’s still a lack of resolution
It was always going to be hard to predict the reaction. Even if it was decades in the making.
The verdict in R. Kelly’s five-week trial came down Monday in a New York courtroom. A jury of seven men and four women read Kelly his fate. He was expeditiously convicted on all counts, including sexual exploitation of a child, racketeering, bribery and sex trafficking. He faces 10 years to life in prison — with another federal case in Illinois looming and a state case in Minnesota on charges of prostitution with a minor.
But even that definitive finding by the jurors felt anticlimactic. Because, really, what’s a just sentence for a man who’s done immeasurable harm? That’s not only a fair question to ask, it’s a necessary one. Monday’s decision has been 30 years in the making. It’s been a public journey both defined and maligned by gross levels of manipulation, corruption and greed. A public journey, too, not just for Kelly himself, but for so many of us who played a role in enabling him.
There’s no denying how brightly Kelly’s star once burned. His box score of accomplishments as one of R&B’s crown jewels consists of monster singles, successful albums and his coveted songwriting. That success made his downfall all the more gripping — and slow. Kelly made a lot of people a lot of money, including himself. This intense, rarefied level of fame and wealth allowed for many in his orbit to overlook the atrocities he was committing.
But the signs were always there. Young Black girls and women and boys were the collateral damage for the music we played in churches, family gatherings, homecomings and our bedrooms. There was, of course, his illegal marriage to a then-15-year-old Aaliyah while he, her producer, was 27 and was behind naming the R&B starlet’s first album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. Or the infamous tape of a man widely assumed to be the singer engaging in sexual activity and urinating on an underage Black girl. The 14-year-old happened to be former R&B artist Sparkle’s niece, who was one of Kelly’s previous protegés. He even paraded himself as “The Pied Piper of R&B.” In European folklore, the Piper and his magic pipe would lure children to leave their homes and follow him once citizens refused to pay him for his vermin-ridding talents. Kelly always knew what he was doing. And so did society.
That’s why it was impossible to feel relieved or joyous about this verdict. An entire generation has seen every single part of Kelly’s story and the evolving societal conversations that made what he did so corrupt. That generation of fans, this writer included, had to come to grips with our thoughts regarding Kelly, the artist, and Kelly, the man. In his case, his indiscretions were too great and documented to separate the two.
Kelly could potentially spend the rest of his life — or at least the next chapter of his life — behind bars for crimes not even five lifetimes could erase. The verdict, a landmark moment in the era of #MeToo, especially for Black women, didn’t feel loud or boisterous. It came and went.
Maybe, though, that’s for the better. Kelly can answer for his abuse away from the public eye and the industry that he once made his bedroom of horrors. Kelly worked with nearly every artist of the last quarter century, including Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga, Diddy, Mariah Carey and more. But now, he’s becoming a stain. Like Ludacris last year when he name-dropped Kelly in a song previewed during his spotty internet-riddled Verzuz battle with Nelly, saying, “I love R. Kelly, but around my daughters I’m uncomfortable.” Or Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s producer, issuing a statement on Instagram explaining having to use an R. Kelly sample on the chart-topping album Certified Lover Boy. Ja Rule and Fat Joe collectively decided not to play their songs with Kelly in their recent Verzuz. Kelly, for the rest of his life, is a pariah.
Jim DeRogatis, the reporter who initially brought Kelly’s crimes to light in the early 2000s, asked a series of questions in a poignant piece he recently penned for The New Yorker.
“My biggest question, though,” he pondered, “is how the many people Kelly victimized will begin to heal?”
It’s a question we’ll be asking ourselves the rest of our lives. The scars in Kelly’s actions run deep. For victims as high profile as Aaliyah to young women the world will never know about, Kelly was the source of much trauma. Their lives were forever changed, their families forever fractured due to Kelly’s wickedness.
“I was trying to grasp, ‘How are you guys not getting this? This person violated your 14-year-old daughter. Where are you guys?’ ” Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards told The Cut of how Kelly’s alleged assault on her niece alienated her from her own family. “I have five siblings and except for one brother, there was basically no more communication with most of my family for the next 10 years.”
For decades and across multiple platforms, they’ve seen his predatory life be used as creative fodder: the Chappelle’s Show skit. The chilling Boondocks episode. The documentaries, decades of investigative journalism and books. Through it all, he evaded justice.
Now, the world knows his fate. In the long, painful and ugly chapter that was the crippling of Kelly, a new one begins. He’ll potentially serve the remainder of his natural life for the sins he once believed he’d never have to pay a moral debt for. One verdict doesn’t change just how much society still has to change how it discusses and combats sexual abuse. But this feels like the turning of a chapter because it is.
It’s day one in a post-R. Kelly world. The real crime is that it took so long to get here.