“I’M WONDERING about R. Kelly.” That is the question that was posed to the Chicago police sex crimes unit by a journalist who had received an anonymous fax urging him to look into the R&B singer’s alleged misbehavior with girls and young women. “Oh. It’s about time somebody finally called about this. I can’t talk” was the response from a police official. That was nearly 20 years ago. Now it is not about time, but clearly long past the time, for questions about Mr. Kelly’s behavior to be answered and reckoned with.
A recent Lifetime documentary series detailing accusations of abuse and manipulation of girls and young women by the singer has reportedly prompted prosecutors in Chicago and Atlanta to begin examining Mr. Kelly’s conduct. Allegations of abusive behavior — which Mr. Kelly has repeatedly denied — have been a persistent refrain throughout his career. There was his marriage (later annulled) at age 27 in 1994 to a 15-year-old singing protege; the out-of-court settlements first detailed in 2000 by the Chicago Sun-Times with women claiming inappropriate relationships that started when they were underage; the videotape in which he appears to have sex with a young girl; his subsequent trial and acquittal on child pornography charges related to that video; and an explosive article in BuzzFeed in 2017 detailing claims that he runs an emotionally abusive sex cult.
Despite the allegations, his career flourished; some believe he even profited from his image as a predator. Why? That is the troubling question raised by the documentary, “Surviving R. Kelly.” Did the music industry look away because of his influence and the money that flowed from his No. 1 albums? Did fans give him a pass — even joining in laughter when “Chappelle’s Show” spoofed the video seemingly showing him urinating into the mouth of a 13-year-old — because of his musical artistry? Was it easy not to pay attention because the allegations involved marginalized young black women? “If it was one white girl from the suburbs, this may have been a different story,” Jim DeRogatis, veteran journalist who has been reporting on Mr. Kelly for nearly 20 years, told Vox.
The documentary created a backlash, invigorating the #MuteRKelly movement, prompting some artists to pull their collaborations with Mr. Kelly off streaming services and causing some radio stations not to play his music. Illinois denied a permit for a concert he was set to host, and on Friday Billboard reported that he had been dropped by RCA Records. Whether further efforts to sanction Mr. Kelly will succeed remain to be seen. But let’s hope the message has been sounded that the mistreatment of vulnerable girls and women — even by musical stars — will not be tolerated.