R. Kelly was in trouble again, and it was really bad this time. It was 2002, and police were investigating a sex tape that appeared to show the R&B superstar with a 14-year-old girl. Of all the scandals that had stirred around Kelly in his decade of fame, this one felt especially dire.
But Kelly remained a potent talent, a hitmaker who suavely skipped from sexy make-out jams (“Bump n’ Grind”) to inspirational tear-jerkers (“I Believe I Can Fly”), and the industry wasn’t done with him yet. Even as bad publicity swirled, Kelly could always retreat to the studio, where he wrote No. 1 hits for some of the world’s biggest stars, including Michael Jackson and Celine Dion. And that’s just where David McPherson needed him.
A rising young executive at Epic Records, McPherson had made his name by signing the Backstreet Boys and Mandy Moore and was eager to launch the label’s new boy band, B2K, with Kelly’s behind-the-scenes guidance. He did, however, ask one question about the star’s offstage life.
Is this stuff true? he asked Rocky Bivens, a Kelly assistant, according to Bivens.
“Did you watch the tape?” Bivens recalls saying.
McPherson told him he had not. Bivens said he hadn’t either.
“Because, Dave, if I watch the tape and that’s him, I’m gone and you’re not getting those records,” Bivens said he told McPherson. “I’m glad you did not watch those tapes.”
In February 2003, B2K soared to No. 1 with “Bump, Bump, Bump,” a hip-hop earworm featuring P. Diddy, written and produced by Kelly. Two months later, McPherson soared to a new job, promoted to run the new urban music division for Epic’s parent company, Sony.
McPherson, who has since left Sony, did not respond to multiple interview requests. He is far from the only industry figure who worked with Kelly and benefited from the partnership, even as a cloud of allegations — mostly involving the sexual abuse of young women — began to grow around the star.
For more than two decades, the recording industry turned a blind eye to Kelly’s behavior as his career continued to thrive and he was afforded every luxury of a chart-topping superstar.
A Washington Post investigation found that this disregard for the singer’s alleged behavior played out on many levels, from the billionaire record executive who first signed the dynamic young vocalist in the early 1990s to the low-paid assistants who arranged flights, food and bathroom breaks for his traveling entourage of young women.
Six women once connected with Kelly spoke to The Post about what they say were abusive relationships. Two of those women, Tracy Sampson and Patrice Jones, have never publicly spoken about him before.
“He makes you feel like he’s a wounded puppy, like he’s hurt so deeply, that there’s good there — he just can’t get it all out,” said Sampson, who was a 16-year-old Epic Records intern when she says Kelly first approached her in 1999. “Being so much older [now], I see how wrong stuff was and how ultimately gross and pedophile-ish it was, but that’s something you have to have your adult brain process.”
Back in 2002, Sampson didn’t speak, silenced by a familiar, legal tool: A non-disclosure agreement. Kelly continued to settle with more women as allegations against him mounted, but music industry luminaries remained silent, instead smiling for pictures alongside him at platinum record ceremonies. That chilling code of silence remains today, almost 25 years after the singer’s illegal marriage to 15-year-old protege Aaliyah, and only weeks after a Dallas woman accused Kelly of knowingly giving her herpes. (Kelly denies the allegations made by the Dallas woman.) Kelly remains an active recording artist for RCA Records, a division of Sony, and continues to get booked for arena shows that are promoted by local radio stations.
But a shift seems to be taking place, sparked by a damning 2017 report by BuzzFeed’s Jim DeRogatis that focused on the women who remain with Kelly, combined with the growing power of the #MeToo movement.
The Time’s Up’s Women of Color, a powerful anti-sexual-harassment group that includes producer Shonda Rhimes, actress Rashida Jones and director Ava DuVernay, demanded this week that RCA drop Kelly and that “over two decades” of allegations be investigated. A Kelly representative called the effort the “public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”
Mika El-Baz, executive vice president of RCA Records and Sony Music, declined to comment.
Kelly’s management provided a statement to The Post early Friday saying that the singer “has close friendships with a number of women who are strong, independent, happy, well cared for and free to come and go as they please. All of the women targeted by the current media onslaught are legal adults of sound mind and body, with their own free will.”
Kelly himself declined, through his manager, multiple requests to comment for this story. In February, he was approached by The Washington Post in the lobby of the DoubleTree Suites hotel in Detroit after a concert. He ignored a request for an interview and was shuffled away by associates.
Nothing but a number
As early as 1994, Kelly’s tour manager Demetrius Smith recalls warning Clive Calder, the founder of Jive Records, the first label to sign Kelly.
“I said, ‘Clive, you all need to tell him that you all aren’t going to put out his records if he continues to have these incidents with these girls after the show,’ ” Smith says he told Calder. “Because it was going on at every show.”
Calder, who is rarely interviewed, was reached at his home in the Cayman Islands. He said he regrets not trying harder to get help for Kelly.
“But I’m not a psychiatrist, and this guy is a troubled guy,” said the mogul, who sold Jive for $2.7 billion in 2002. “Clearly, we missed something.”
In his 2012 memoir “Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me,” Kelly described a childhood wracked by abuse and neglect. Robert Sylvester Kelly grew up in the Chicago projects, his father gone before his birth, his working mother often leaving him in a house chaotic with “cousins, aunties, friends of my aunties.” One day, Kelly stumbled upon two people having sex; they called him in and told him he could watch. Later, they gave him a camera and asked him to take pictures. Kelly was 8. That’s also when an older woman in the house, whom Kelly did not name, performed oral sex on him.
“Every time she did it — and she did it repeatedly — she warned me what would happen to me if I snitched,” he wrote. “I was too afraid and ashamed. All I could do was stash the secret — and hide it in my imaginary bread box.”
‘Edge of Fame’ podcast: R. Kelly and the Savage Family
As an adult, Kelly set up a system of rules to maintain secrecy. Certain rooms in his studio are off-limits to colleagues, who may be sitting just feet away at the mixing board. But Peter Mokran could guess what was going on behind those doors.
“There was a constant flow of women,” said Mokran, an engineer whose production work on Kelly’s 1993 solo debut, “12 Play” led to jobs with Michael Jackson, Christina Aguilera and Mary J. Blige. “I’d have to be like, ‘Hey, Rob, come listen to this.’ And it’d be, ‘Oh, he’s in a room with a girl.’ ”
This culture of open secrets and official avoidance became entrenched around the time of Kelly’s relationship with Aaliyah Haughton, the teenage singer who rose to one-name stardom before her death in a plane crash in 2001 at the age of 22.
She was 12 when they met. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was Kelly’s manager at the time. By 1993, Aaliyah was flying from her home in Detroit to work with Kelly in Chicago. Jive released her debut album in May 1994. “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” produced and written by Kelly, that would go on to sell millions.
That summer, the pair appeared on BET’s “Video Soul.” Leslie Segar, the show’s co-host, remembers Jive representatives telling BET it should not ask about their personal relationship or Aaliyah’s age.
But Kelly, then 27, and Aaliyah, 15, came before the cameras wearing conspicuously matching plaid shirts. Segar found it impossible to not to go there.
“Okay, let’s clear something else,” she said on air. “Everybody seems to think y’all either boyfriend or girlfriend, or cousins or friends. Let’s just get the record straight.”
“No, no, we’re not related at all,” Aaliyah replied. “We’re just very close. This is my best friend.”
Later, Segar broached the second topic.
“For the record, you are how old?”
“That’s a secret,” Aaliyah said, playfully putting a finger to her lips. “Shhhhh.”
Kelly decided they should get married. At 15, Aaliyah would need her parents’ permission. But Kelly didn’t tell them of his plans. In late August, he flew her to Chicago, where Demetrius Smith, his tour manager, says he took her to get a fake ID stating that she was 18. Kelly and Aaliyah were married Aug. 31, 1994, at the Sheraton Gateway Suites in Rosemont, Ill., according to paperwork filed with the Cook County Clerk on Sept. 6, 1994.
The marriage collapsed within days, after Aaliyah returned home and told her parents. The Haughtons eventually got the marriage expunged. (Michael Haughton died in 2012. Diane Haughton could not be reached.)
Hankerson said he was “legally” prohibited from discussing Kelly. When asked if he had regrets, Hankerson grew emotional.
“Let me tell you something. I’m a Muslim,” he said. “I do my prayers every day, and I lost my niece in a plane crash, and please excuse my language, but I don’t really give a f— about none of them people you’re talking about.”
Later in 1994, Hankerson and the Haughtons came to Calder’s office. There was no talk of reprimanding Kelly. Instead, the family demanded that Jive let Aaliyah go.
“And they basically tell me that they want a release from the contract,” Calder said, saying they thought Aaliyah would never get the proper promotion if she was on the same label as Kelly.
Calder agreed to let her leave, but only after securing a percentage of her future album sales on a new label.
One thing Calder didn’t do: Press pause on Kelly’s recording career. In 1995, Jive released his self-titled second album. It went to No. 1.
In response to questions about Kelly’s relationship with Aaliyah, Kelly’s management team said the following: “As is well known, Mr. Kelly wrote and produced Aaliyah’s recordings. Their collaboration created great music and the world along with Mr. Kelly mourned the loss of her great talent.”
‘We didn’t look at their ages’
By 2007, Kelly had achieved singular status in the music world. His six No. 1 albums made him a clear commercial success, but his popularity differed from other chart toppers. He was beloved, but also a punchline. A popular “Chappelle’s Show” sketch from 2003 directly addressed Kelly’s infamous sex tape and the specific acts within it. In 2005 there was “Trapped in the Closet,” a gotta-see-it-to-believe-it, 12-part melodramatic song cycle/film that managed the feat of being praised by die-hard fans and embraced as campy brilliance by tastemakers. He even made a record with Jay-Z, though a dispute between the two megastars led to the collapse of a promotional tour midway through its run.
Even as his sales flourished, Kelly stayed in Chicago, where he would drop by the Rock N Roll McDonald’s on N. Clark Street for burgers, head to the courts at the Hoops gym for pickup games, and wind up at Chicago Trax for all-night recording sessions.
And in his hometown, Kelly could develop the systems that walled-off his entourage from his public life.
The accounts of Kelly’s routines and household details come from former staffers, court documents, text messages and six women — Tracy Sampson, Patrice Jones, Jerhonda Pace, Asante McGee, Kitti Jones, and Lisa Van Allen — who spoke to The Washington Post about their relationships with Kelly.
Smith, the former tour manager, said the singer, a high school dropout, didn’t feel comfortable around mature, educated women.
“We didn’t look at ages,” Smith said, “because their mamas let them stay out all night.”
They included a rapper named Tiffany “Tia” Hawkins, who in 1996 sued Jive and Calder’s Zomba Recording Corporation, accusing Kelly of picking her up during a visit to his old high school, Kenwood Academy. In her suit, Hawkins said she first had sex with Kelly in 1991 when she was 15 and he was 24. Kelly settled with Hawkins in 1998 for $250,000. Jive’s attorneys successfully argued that the label and publishing company should not be found liable.
Barry Weiss, the chief executive of Jive from 1991 to 2011, told The Post he never talked to Kelly about his behavior — it was none of his business, he said. Weiss said he didn’t know that Jive had been named in the Hawkins lawsuit, nor in a second suit by another woman, Montina Woods, settled in 2002.
“I was a record company putting out R. Kelly’s records,” said Weiss, who later served as head of the Island Def Jam Group and Universal’s Republic Records until 2014. “That was all I knew. I wasn’t involved in his criminal cases. We were a record company, for God’s sakes.”
In 2001 and 2002, DeRogatis, the BuzzFeed writer who was then the Chicago Sun-Times music critic, obtained sex tapes from an anonymous source that allegedly showed Kelly. He turned them over to Chicago police. Their investigation led to Kelly’s eventual indictment on child pornography charges.
Calder recalls calling Gerald Margolis, Kelly’s high-powered Los Angeles lawyer, whose other clients included Mick Jagger and Robin Williams. Calder said Margolis, who died in 2008, told him the women filing lawsuits were not credible and were taking advantage of the singer.
“[Margolis] said to me, ‘There’s this guy, Jim DeRogatis, at the paper in Chicago that’s got an ax to grind for Rob,’ ” Calder said, “and they’re looking to sort of stir up s—,’ basically like that. And that was it.”
After Calder sold Jive in 2002, little changed at the label when it came to Kelly, even after a second child pornography arrest in Florida in 2003. Investigators found photos on a camera in one of Kelly’s summer homes they alleged showed him in sex acts with a minor. The charges were dropped after a judge ruled that the evidence had been improperly seized under an unrelated warrant to search for drugs.
Larry Khan, who was then a Jive senior vice president for marketing, said he had no problem working with Kelly even after seeing a clip of the singer’s sex tape. Khan, now with Interscope Records, questioned whether it’s a record company’s duty to deal with a performer’s offstage behavior, referencing stars such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, who also consorted with young girls.
“Should NBC have stopped Mr. Cosby?” he asked rhetorically, of the entertainer recently convicted of sexual assault, who was once the network’s top star. “I don’t know the answer. I just stayed at the Wynn Hotel. Nobody was talking about Steve Wynn,” the former casino magnate recently disgraced by sexual harassment claims.
Jive wasn’t the only record company to ignore Kelly’s behavior.
In 1999, Tracy Sampson says she started working as a 16-year-old intern for Epic Records. Now 35, she has never before spoken publicly about her relationship with Kelly and her 2002 settlement. She says she is doing so now out of concern for the young women who remain entangled with him and her frustration with how she was treated by the star and his supporters.
Sampson, who had graduated from high school early, said she met Cathy Carroll, an Epic regional promotions manager, through a friend. Carroll, who managed Kelly briefly in the 1980s, brought her on as an intern. She formally introduced her to Kelly and brought her to the studio when the singer offered to play some of his new songs.
When Carroll briefly left the room, Sampson recalled, Kelly told the teen to pretend that she had to go to the bathroom because he “wanted to show her something.” Sampson said no. Later, Sampson said she told Carroll that the singer made her uncomfortable.
But Kelly also could be charming, polite and funny. A few weeks later, Sampson said, he gave her his phone number and urged her to call. In the weeks before starting her freshman year at Chicago’s Columbia College, Sampson said she began having sex with him. (She says she was still 16. Court documents from her subsequent legal claim indicate their sexual relationship began when she was 17, but Sampson says that attorneys agreed during the settlement process to mask the timeline.)
The relationship was difficult, Sampson said. They often fought, including one night when Sampson said Kelly brought a naked girl into the room and pressured Sampson to have sex with her. Another time, she says, she noticed a red light blinking in the dark and realized she was being filmed. She said she felt conflicted, hiding her relationship with Kelly from her parents and Carroll.
Sampson said Kelly would laugh when she fretted about missing work at Epic and angering Carroll. But when Carroll found out about the relationship, she confronted her intern.
“She told me I was a stupid b—- and I shouldn’t have talked to him,” Sampson said. “ ‘You know he’s married?’ she said. ‘You lied to me and he lied to me and you made him lie to me.’” (Kelly wed backup dancer Andrea Lee in 1996. They had three children and divorced in 2009.)
Carroll fired Sampson. But for years, whenever Sampson would run into Carroll, even after Kelly settled her lawsuit for $250,000 in 2002, Sampson said her former boss would chastise her. Sampson attempted a career managing other artists but gave up because she was told her dispute with Kelly had poisoned her reputation.
Carroll, who now works as a senior director of radio promotions and strategy for the Sony-owned gospel label RCA Inspirations, has a different view.
“Rob is really a good person,” she said. “I think he’s just troubled like a lot of these other artists are. . . . And I just know that people who are artsy are kind of kooky, I guess, different. But he’s got a very good heart.”
Sampson, said Carroll, was “star-struck.”
“A lot of these women who claim stuff, they put themselves out there like that, and then they want to turn around and sue people and sue men,” Carroll said. “A lot of times it’s not really the men.”
Enforcing Daddy’s rules
Kelly’s aides helped keep his music life separate from his sex life. Their complicity has allowed him to maintain his entourage of three to five women at a time. The young women have lived with him in Chicago and Atlanta or traveled with him to gigs. They’ve typically been young African American women, often aspiring musicians or models who believed he could launch their careers.
Cheryl Mack, one of Kelly’s former assistants, worked as a talent manager in Atlanta before working for Kelly for almost a decade starting in 2005. Mack declined multiple interview requests but detailed her tenure in a book proposal acquired by The Post. In it, Mack named six women whose comings and goings in Kelly’s orbit she coordinated, using a debit card from Kelly’s bank account.
One of the women was an artist Mack said she managed, a 17-year-old rapper from Atlanta. Mack introduced her to Kelly, but after the relationship became abusive, the teenager reached a settlement with Kelly, she wrote.
While the aspiring artists believed they were going to be connected with industry players, Kelly, in reality, isolated them from even studio hands.
He expected them to follow his rules, which were told to The Post by multiple women who lived with Kelly. The live-in girlfriends refer to him as “Daddy.” They must ditch social media, hand over cellphones and cut off families and friends. They are told to avoid looking at other men — even a hotel employee delivering room service. They must text either Kelly or an assistant if they want to leave their rooms or exit one of the black Mercedes cargo vans he travels in. (Kelly is terrified of flying.) When he’s in the studio, these rules have left Kelly’s women stuck in backrooms, stranded for hours, hungry and forced to urinate into cups.
Message 1: Between a live-in girlfriend and a staffer
Message 2: Between two staffers
Kelly’s management said the allegation of “rules” was “absolutely false” and added: “Why are you asking Mr. Kelly to speak for women who can speak for themselves?”
Some in Kelly’s camp told The Post that they never interacted with the young women who were ever-present in the studio other than to occasionally bring food deliveries to their rooms. But other accusers say there were those who knew of Kelly’s ways.
Lisa Van Allen says she was 17 when she began a nine-year relationship with Kelly in 1998. She said she confided in Kelly’s publicist, Regina Daniels, about the underage girl she says was in the videotape that landed Kelly in court.
Daniels, who no longer works for Kelly, declined to comment.
Derrel McDavid, Kelly’s business manager from the early 1990s until 2013, has not hesitated to take on Kelly’s accusers.
In 2008, after Van Allen testified against Kelly at his child pornography trial, McDavid released a statement calling her “an admitted thief and liar who wouldn’t know the truth if she tripped over it.”
McDavid also got involved in the case of Jerhonda Pace. In 2008, Pace — then known as Jerhonda Johnson — was a 15-year-old superfan who attended Kelly’s child pornography trial. She was thrilled when he was found not guilty. “They can’t call him a pedophile anymore,” she told MTV News at the time.
In reality, jury foreman Jamon Mytty says that Kelly was acquitted because the girl alleged to be in the video did not testify. “I think we all agreed it was certainly him in the video,” Mytty told The Post. “But without any kind of testimony from her or her parents, you had enough reasonable doubt to say, ‘We don’t know for sure.’ ”
After the trial, one of Kelly’s friends invited Pace to a party at the singer’s house. By June 2009, she was having sex with Kelly, according to court documents. McDavid often helped her get into clubs, she said.
The relationship ended months later when Pace and Kelly got into a fight in which, she said, he choked, slapped and spat on her. In 2010, Kelly agreed to a $1.5 million settlement.
But in 2012, McDavid accused Pace of violating the terms of her non-disclosure, emails acquired by The Post show.
“Your client is either LYING or insane or both,” McDavid wrote to Pace’s attorney. “[If Pace] utters one word of this nonsense to anyone I will personally sue her and have her prosecuted.”
McDavid, speaking this week to The Post, said that he never helped Pace get into clubs, never saw her with Kelly and doesn’t even know what she looks like.
“I’m vehemently saying those are all lies,” he said “As I recall, she came back and tried to extort more money through her cousins.”
When asked if he ever tried to get help for Kelly, McDavid said he was bound by a confidentiality agreement and didn’t want to go into detail. But he said that Kelly’s issues were not ignored. “Robert did everything he could to help himself,” said McDavid. “Every opportunity I had to try to assist him to be a better person, I took.”
Last summer, Pace told her story to BuzzFeed, breaking her non-disclosure because of her concern for an old friend, Dominique Gardner, 26, who continues to live with Kelly.
“I know that these girls are brainwashed,” Pace told The Post. “I was in their shoes and I believed everything he was telling me as well.”
And this week, Michelle Kramer — Dominique’s mother — spoke publicly for the first time about her fears for her daughter’s safety. She said that for years she tolerated Dominique’s relationship with Kelly because she came home for visits and could be easily reached by phone. But something changed, and she hasn’t seen Dominique in more than a year.
“He’s a sick, perverted person,” she told The Post. “I just believe something will happen if we don’t get them out, and I want to see my daughter. I do not want to be seen burying my child.”
Two other sets of parents are also desperate to see daughters they say are being controlled by Kelly.
Angelo Clary, a Florida man, said an older woman in Kelly’s camp impersonated a Sony employee in 2015 to persuade him and his wife to give her legal supervision rights over their daughter, Azriel Clary. She is an aspiring singer who was 17 and still in high school in Florida when she joined Kelly.
Timothy and JonJelyn Savage of Georgia have been more public, even holding a news conference outside Kelly’s rented mansion in Atlanta to demand the return of their daughter Joycelyn. She quit college in 2016 to be with Kelly.
Kelly’s manager, James Mason, has tried to stop the Savages. At one point, he told them they could talk to Joycelyn, now 22, if they praised the singer on television, according to their attorney, Gerald A. Griggs. The Savages recorded one of his calls and provided it to The Post.
“What I do need is for us to find a happy medium in which you can immediately begin communicating with your daughter, I get my client back to his career,” Mason says on the recording.
The Savages also provided The Post with another recording, one of a conversation between Kelly and Joycelyn, made by Joycelyn with the help of a friend in 2015, before she moved in with the singer. At the time, they say, she was frustrated that Kelly seemed to turn every conversation to sex. “I want you to get in the habit of telling me what color panties you have on every day,” Kelly can be heard saying.
In the statement provided to The Post, Kelly’s management team said: “Mr. Kelly will never stand between a parent and a child. If a child is an adult, that communication is between them. All of these women are adults and make their own choices.”
While Kelly has not spoken publicly about the latest round of accusations, other than to dismiss them as “rumors” in his Instagram post, he has continued recording and performing. RCA recently paid for more than six weeks of studio time in Los Angeles.
Studio workers were given non-disclosure agreements to sign and not allowed into the space while Kelly worked. But one worker said she was disturbed enough by what she witnessed to speak to The Post on condition of anonymity.
After Kelly left, she found a cup filled with urine on the baby grand piano and the studio’s wooden floor had been badly damaged with urine stains.
The recording studio representative said she contacted RCA about the damage. The Post obtained from a former Kelly staffer photographs of the studio sent to Nancy Roof, RCA’s vice president of administration. (Roof did not return phone calls.)
When asked about the damage to the studio, Kelly’s management team responded: “This is an obnoxious question that reflects a malicious and intentionally defamatory motive by the questioner.”
Kelly’s continued relationship with Sony has been noted by many of his accusers. The women speaking out hope that this time, the label’s executives will act and help end what they consider a long-running cycle of abuse.
Patrice Jones said she has found peace but has not forgotten what Kelly did to her. In September 1999, Jones, then 17, realized she was pregnant. The then-married Kelly broke down in tears, she said, and told her his career would be ruined if she had the baby. She didn’t want to get an abortion. Eventually, she said, Kelly pressured her to.
Jones broke away from Kelly. She earned a college degree, built a career as a digital marketer and had a daughter, a teenager now who’s a straight-A student, Jones says proudly. And in late April, she agreed to speak about Kelly for the first time.
“I don’t like going back into the past,” Jones said. “I feel like God is the judge. Man is not the judge. Everything that he’s doing, he’s got to pay for it. He’s probably already paying for it.”
Researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Alice Crites contributed to this story. Illustration by Mike McQuade for The Washington Post; photo by Getty Images.