Editorial note: The following article includes explicit descriptions of physical and emotional abuse and sexual assault.
The first three weeks of the criminal trial against R. Kelly corroborated decades of accusations about the disgraced R&B musician. To date, witness testimonies have detailed his seemingly coercive and definitely illegal marriage to one-time protégé Aaliyah, as well as an entourage employed to prey upon and groom sexual partners—many of whom were underaged and several of whom Kelly knowingly infected with an STI. Descriptions of forced and exploitive sex and domestic abuse have also been consistent in witness accounts, as have Kelly’s predilection for child pornography; extortion and blackmail; sex trafficking and abusive work practices.
However, as the fourth week of Kelly’s trial began in Brooklyn federal court, yet another explosive set of allegations surfaced as a woman identified as “Sonja” took the stand, testifying that she had been assaulted while imprisoned at Kelly’s Chicago studio for several days.
Sonja recounted being around 21 years old and interning at a Utah radio station in 2003 when she met Kelly outside of a Utah mall following an appearance (h/t Buzzfeed). Taking the opportunity to approach him for an interview, she was offered the opportunity to do so at Kelly’s Chocolate Factory studio in Chicago. “It would’ve been my first big celebrity interview,” she testified. “I thought it would really just kickstart my career.”
More from Buzzfeed:
Arrangements were eventually made for her to fly to his Chicago studio, but as soon as she arrived, Sonja began feeling uncomfortable. She said an employee of Kelly’s had greeted her and asked her some “crazy questions,” including whether she needed “protection”—a question she did not initially understand.
“[Then] he just came out and said, ‘Do you need a condom?’” Sonja testified. “[I said,] ‘No, I’m not here for that.’”
Sonja said she was then asked for her ID, which was photocopied, and her cellphone, from which the aforementioned employee wrote down information for several personal contacts from her list of recent calls—including her mother, grandmother and two close friends, according to the New York Times. Buzzfeed reports another employee rifled through her luggage while Sonja “was informed of several ‘rules’ she had to follow while there, including that she ‘wasn’t allowed to look up’ or ‘talk to anybody,’” consistent with earlier testimony about “Rob’s Rules” for the women in his orbit.
Sonja was then compelled to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA), “which she said she did not read in full because the room was too dark.” Subsequently left alone in the room, she was alarmed to find she was unable to open the door. “It was locked from the outside,” she said, Buzzfeed reports.
Sonja spent the next three or four days locked in that room, she said, banging on the door and repeatedly calling the studio’s reception to be let out. There were no windows and no bathroom; whenever she had to use the toilet, she would have to call reception and be escorted there. Sometimes an employee would make her leave the bathroom door open while she was in there, she said.
She said she wasn’t given anything to eat or drink for at least two days, and then she was offered Chinese food and a cup of Sprite. Despite being very hungry, she said, she became “extremely full and tired” after consuming very little.
The next thing she remembered was waking up on the couch. Her underwear was hanging on the couch arm, and there was a wet, white fluid on her thighs and vaginal area. It felt like something had been “inside” her, she said.
Kelly was in the corner, Sonja said, “doing up his pants.”
“It just made me feel like something happened to me,” she testified—though neither she nor the prosecution used the term “drugged” to explain her loss of consciousness. “I know my body. I know when something’s not right,” she added, further testifying that while still disoriented, she approached Kelly, who “grabbed my butt with both hands and pulled me closer.”
He then reportedly left the room, saying he’d return. Several minutes later, an employee entered to tell Sonja she could leave—but not without signing a second NDA, which she did, again without reading it (as she explained to the court, “I just wanted to go home”). As she did, the employee allegedly issued a warning, reminding her that Kelly’s team not only had her address, phone number, and the name of her then-infant child, but information on several of her family members and friends.
“He said, ‘Don’t fuck with Mr. Kelly,’” she testified, Buzzfeed reports. “He said you can’t tell anybody,” she added (h/t NY Times). “He had my address. The address to where my daughter was at.”
In cross-examination, Kelly’s defense team asked Sonja, now 39, why she didn’t call for help, her cellphone seemingly still having been in her possession. In response, she not only noted her fear for her loved ones but uttered a refrain common to survivors of sexual assault.
“I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” she said, also adding: “I was scared...I was ashamed. I was embarrassed.”
Still, as the defense team pressed to prove Sonja was fabricating her story, noting that it was only after the highly publicized 2019 docuseries Surviving R. Kelly that she’d retained an attorney and spoken with federal prosecutors, she maintained it was true.
“I was sexually assaulted,” she said (h/t NY Times). “There was something in me that was something I had not invited.”
Sonja’s is the second testimony that outright accuses Kelly of rape; during week two of the trial, another witness testified to being sexually assaulted by Kelly when she was 17, while meeting him backstage at a tour stop. The incident allegedly took place just days after he’d married Aaliyah, who was scheduled to appear at the same concert but didn’t.
Also on the stand Thursday was a witness identified as Anna, who detailed her relationship with Kelly from approximately late 2016 to 2018, during which she moved in with him after meeting him at a South Carolina concert when she was 19 or 20. Noting that “it was always fun in the beginning,” the relationship quickly darkened, as Kelly became “more controlling” and occasionally violent. Like several of Kelly’s former “girlfriends,” Anna recounted having to follow a strict set of “rules,” including being made to wear baggy clothing with baseball caps and no makeup, and avoid to eye contact and verbal interaction with other men.
From the Times:
Sometimes, breaking the rules led to spankings or restrictions on her movement, Anna testified, adding that Mr. Kelly recorded the spankings on his iPad. He also told her to send him messages saying she enjoyed the spankings and that it turned her on, she said. (She told the jury she did not in fact enjoy being spanked.)
Echoing Sonja, Anna recalled frequently being sequestered with “little access to the world,” during which her cellphone might be taken away for a couple of days —or even a few months.” She further testified to having been forced to write letters as “collateral,” in which she falsely claimed to have been molested by her father and accuse her mother of blackmailing Kelly. Anna was also allegedly forced to engage in unwanted sexual acts with not only Kelly but several other accusers—including the individual and alleged fellow victim several witnesses have identified as “Nephew.” These interactions were also often taped, as were other forced acts of humiliation, as reported by Buzzfeed:
Kelly would occasionally make Anna record videos of herself as punishments, she testified, including one where she was made to walk back and forth while naked and calling herself “stupid” and a “slut.”
In another video, Anna said Kelly made her be “sexual and seductive with bodily fluids.” She did not further specify what she was made to do in the video, but another alleged victim previously testified Kelly made her make a video as punishment in which she smeared her face with feces.
Thursday was the thirteenth day of testimonies in Kelly’s trial in Brooklyn, which began on August 18. Sonja and Anna were the eighth and ninth accusers to testify against the entertainer, who is currently charged with 22 federal counts across three states, including New York, Illinois and Minnesota. Those charges include sex crimes, human trafficking, child pornography, racketeering, and obstruction of justice, kidnapping and forced labor. He has pleaded not guilty.
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual violence, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24 hours at RAINN.org or 1-800-656-4673.