Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly ... and R. Kelly will likely be a predator for the rest of his life. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, new allegations surfaced Monday that couldn’t be more fitting or less shocking about the man who calls himself “The Pied Piper of R&B.”
Nearly 23 years after his illegal marriage to a then-15-year-old R&B sensation named Aaliyah Haughton, and more than a dozen since the videotape scandal that led to his criminal trial (not to mention numerous other allegations), multiple sources now accuse R. Kelly of sequestering several young women—albeit of (barely) legal age, this time—from their families; purportedly sexually exploiting and manipulating them in cultlike fashion. As BuzzFeed reports:
[Informants] claim that women who live with Kelly, who he calls his ‘babies,’ are required to call him ‘Daddy’ and must ask his permission to leave the Chicago recording studio or their assigned rooms in the ‘guest house’…Kelly confiscates the women’s cell phones, they said, so they cannot contact their friends and family; he gives them new phones that they are only allowed to use to contact him or others with his permission. Kelly films his sexual activities, [they] said, and shows the videos to men in his circle.
Forgive my sarcasm; predation brings out the worst in me. And R. Kelly’s predation is by now a well-established pattern. In fact, these accusations are eerily similar to detailed claims made by the family of ex-wife Andrea Lee Kelly more than a decade ago. But while this newest set of allegations is deeply disturbing, it was also entirely avoidable. After all, this is not exactly out of character for the man who famously sang, “My mind’s telling me no, but my body’s telling me yes.”
It’s safe to say that impulse control—like age-appropriateness—has never been Robert Kelly’s strong suit. Similar to journalist Jamilah Lemieux’s experience, my adolescent years in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood were peppered with gossip and warnings about the then 20-something Kelly: He was known to frequent the nearby Kenwood Academy parking lot after school, shamelessly pursuing much younger girls. In college, when I learned that he’d illegally eloped with his underage protégé, Aaliyah, I assumed the scandal would force a public reckoning with his alleged pedophilia, since “age ain’t nothin’ but a number” had long been his M.O.
But nothing happened. The record barely even skipped.
With a swift annulment of the marriage and professional affiliation, Kelly’s and Aaliyah’s careers continued to respectively flourish as if nothing untoward had occurred—which may have been great for Aaliyah, but not for the scores of girls who followed.
Former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis spoke to many of those girls after an anonymous tip prompted him and a colleague to investigate other allegations of Kelly’s sexual misconduct. The resulting revelations compelled another anonymous delivery: this time, videotapes of what appeared to be Kelly engaging in sex acts with underage girls.
When DeRogatis turned those tapes over to police, it triggered an explosive six-year trial that inextricably linked R. Kelly’s already hypersexualized image to reports of his disturbing sexual appetites.
And yet, despite the persistent stories, well-documented pattern of behavior, previous lawsuit settlements, more than a dozen witnesses and the infamous videotape, again nothing happened—this time, largely because Kelly’s alleged victim conveniently didn’t appear in court. Instead, she issued a statement through Kelly’s attorney that she wasn’t the girl on the tape—despite multiple testimonies identifying her.
Rumors later emerged that the singer had funded an extended international vacation for the young woman and her family. Case closed. But not for DeRogatis.
In the years since, he’s repeatedly revisited the story, consistently revealing more alleged victims and threads in the web of Kelly’s pathology. As a result, Monday’s big reveal felt less like a bombshell than an update confirming that, yes, the Pied Piper is still a predator. And admittedly, the plaintive appeals from “J.,” the mother of a young singer allegedly in Kelly’s clutches, evoke little sympathy when coupled with the fact that the woman initially approached him to guide her daughter’s career:
“J. said she’d heard about past sexual misconduct accusations against Kelly, but wasn’t overly worried. She is a fiercely devoted stage mom ... and was confident she could protect her daughter,” DeRogatis reported for BuzzFeed.
“‘In the back of our minds, we were thinking [my daughter] could be around him if I was with her,’ J. said,” the report continued. “‘It didn’t really hit home. Even with the Aaliyah situation, now that I think about it, ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number’ ... but you don’t think about that. You grew up with the song, and you like the song.’”
Let that sink in: She didn’t think about that because she liked the song.
Kelly can be accused of many things, but being lyrically ambiguous is not one of them. His catalog of hits is far heavier on sex anthems than gospel-tinged soul ballads, so if it’s true that people tell you who they are, then Kelly’s songs are ample testimony. Even a full two decades after suggesting that “it seems like you’re ready to go all the way,” his 2013 release was provocatively titled Black Panties. Surely it’s no coincidence that the 50-year-old Kelly purportedly demanded that J.’s 19-year-old daughter report daily on the color of her panties?
Undoubtedly, the comments on this article will include the inevitable defenses: “She’s legal … and Kellz was acquitted. Why can’t you stop trying to crucify the greatest entertainer in R&B, and let us ‘Step in the Name of Love’ in peace?” And technically, while these new allegations are alarming, they’re not illegal ... this time.
No doubt the mother of another alleged victim once felt the same, telling DeRogatis:
My thing was I trusted. I have never been in the music industry before, ever. He is a lyrical genius—he is R. Kelly! And the fact is he went to court, he was never found guilty—he was acquitted—and we were led to believe there was no truth in it. Now I got all of these people asking about why my daughter is there, telling me, “All of that, the charges against Kelly, was true.” Well, how come you didn’t tell me that before?
We did. Repeatedly. Honestly, it takes a special and sustained kind of cognitive dissonance to think it’s safe for R. Kelly to “mentor” your teenage daughter in the year of our Lord 2017. But while it’s fair to accuse these parents of contributory negligence—along with misplaced idolatry and faulty logic—there’s a deeper culpability that made this possible, and it lies with us.
After all, we created and maintain the culture in which known predators can continue to have platforms large and aspirational enough to attract more victims. Every time we turn up “Ignition” and tune out the transgressions, every time we defend the indefensible, every time we decide that the benefit of the doubt belongs to the superstar (or clergy-teacher-politician-coach-relative-friend-parent-etc.), we confirm that their security is more important than the safety of their victims.
In his autobiography, Robert Kelly admits that his own sexualization began with abuse at the tender age of 8. He recalls being instructed to watch and photograph adults having sex, being raped “repeatedly for years” by an older woman who demanded his silence and possible later abuse by a man—all before he ever reached Kenwood Academy. When we consider how his own pathology evolved from that point, isn’t it worth considering how many daughters could have been spared if his own childhood had been protected?
Because every time we characterize victims as “gold diggers” and “fast-ass girls” who “knew what they were getting into,” we excuse the predator and endorse the perception that our children are mature beyond their years—and, therefore, ripe to be sexualized. When we refuse to believe them and adjust our collective standards accordingly, we perpetuate the culture in which predation thrives. And in the ongoing saga of R. Kelly, whose preferred prey is barely budding into womanhood, we once again signal to the world that black girls are worth less.
Tell me, what song is special enough to supersede our concern and protection of black girls? Are we so enamored by fame that we will sacrifice black girls on its altar? Are we so intent on not airing our collective dirty laundry that we will hang our daughters out to dry?
What promise is fulfilled by continuing to support the music of a man who clearly needs help more than a harem?
And while I consider DeRogatis an American hero for his commitment to continuing to report on this, what does it say when a white man seems more invested in protecting young black women from a serial predator than we are? DeRogatis, in his own investigative journalism, holds the unfortunate answer:
“The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”