R Kelly appears in court in Chicago. Credit: Antonio Perez/ Getty

September 29, 2021   6 mins

When did we know about R Kelly — singer, producer and sexual abuser? Definitely before Monday, when he was found guilty of all counts at his racketeering and sex trafficking trial in New York. Thanks to the evidence heard in court, we’ve learned a great deal more detail about the acts Kelly inflicted on women, girls and at least one boy.

But while the verdict is significant — most of all for Kelly’s many victims — it doesn’t fundamentally alter what we know about him as a man. You could say that his reputation was fixed in 2019, when the documentary Surviving R Kelly revealed his extensive history of predation. But eleven years earlier, he had been tried on child pornography charges in Chicago. He was acquitted, but the trial established the existence of a video featuring a man who looked a lot like Kelly having sex with (and urinating on) a girl who looked a lot like a child.

That videotape was not new information in 2008, however. It had been reported on by the Chicago Sun Times in 2002. By 2003, it was sufficiently well publicised that the comedian Dave Chappelle could include a joke about it in his Comedy Central show — a perfectly executed parody of an R Kelly jam called “Piss on You” (sample lyric: “Your body / Is a Porta Potti.”)

So we, collectively, have known about R Kelly for just shy of two decades.

Even that’s not really accurate, though. The first time I heard of R Kelly, it was 1994 and the occasion was the release of his protégé Aaliyah’s album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. Aaliyah made the record when she was fourteen. Kelly, who wrote and produced it, was 26 at the time. The title track means exactly what you think it does: the chorus goes, “Age ain’t nothing but a number / Throwing down ain’t nothing but a thing.” When Kelly gave her those words to sing, he was already having sex with her.

Back in the 1990s, there was a rumour that Kelly and Aaliyah were married. It was relayed not with shock and disgust, but generally with a salacious frisson. When Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001, music critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote this about her in the New York Times:

“She didn’t sing like a little girl — even then, she had a stronger voice and a more sophisticated approach than most pop singers — and she didn’t act like one, either: the child star was reported to be a child bride, secretly married to her mentor, the R & B crooner R Kelly.”

It’s an image of child sexuality as proof of precocity: the “all grown up” little girl, who couldn’t be a victim because she was just so mature for her age.

At Kelly’s New York trial, a very different picture emerged of this relationship. Yes, Kelly had married her when she was fifteen, and he had bribed a government employee to enable it. Their union came about not because she was a femme fatale trapped in a adolescent body, but because Kelly was worried she might be pregnant and wanted to be able to arrange an abortion without consulting her parents. Kelly had come up with the scam in consultation with his accountant and his manager: three adult men conspiring over the problem of a teenage girl’s uterus.

I remember reading about Aaliyah and Kelly at the time (I was thirteen) and feeling disquieted. But I felt very much on my own with whatever doubts I had, and in the years after I wondered whether I was, after all, the one in the wrong: prissy, censorious — even (in that classic phrase of noughties feminism) “denying Aaliyah her agency”. This was before #MeToo, before words like “grooming” were in the popular vocabulary. The framework for talking about this kind of relationship as abuse was only sketchily accessible.

And so Kelly went on making music, having hits, collaborating with artists who I not only loved, but who I obscurely associated with feminism — in 2003 he popped up on a Missy Elliott track, and in 2013 he appeared on Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want”. (After the release of Surviving R Kelly, Gaga apologised and pulled the track from streaming.)

His persona was so horny, it was tantamount to a joke. Everything he made was an orgy of priapic falsetto, full of promises to “hit it from the front and the back and the side and the side”. His 2005 hip-hop opera Trapped in the Closet is a full-on sex farce delivered with unbelievable earnestness. It all seemed to invite an automatically exonerating question: come on, would someone with a sexual secret put all this out in public? He even released a song called “I Admit It”, in which he admitted to nothing apart from being a victim of “fake people” and his own tendency to “trust too much”. In his trial, he pleaded not guilty.

Those around Aaliyah seemed unperturbed by the fact of a teenage girl delivering a slick hymn to underage sex (her uncle, an entertainment lawyer, had introduced her to Kelly), although they’ve since described their horror at learning about the abuse. Her label was similarly sanguine. Jive even took a second bite at the teenage temptress package when they launched Britney Spears in 1998: at sixteen, dressed in school uniform and panting out provocative lyrics, she was the ultimate refinement of the pop nymphette. It had worked once, and it worked even better the second time.

No one seemed to consider — let alone care — what this role did to the girls playing it. Britney’s testimony at her conservatorship hearings this year sounded, sometimes, like a cry of pain from someone who had spent her entire adult life objectified. She talked about her body as a separate entity to herself: “my precious body, who has worked for my dad for the past fucking thirteen years [the span of the conservatorship], trying to be so good and pretty.”

But in the noughties, objectification was something that women were supposed to enthusiastically embrace. How could it be bad for you if you chose it? But how could you choose anything else? The alternative was to be frigid, no fun, unattractive.

We’ll never know what Aaliyah had to say about her experiences, of course, because she died 20 years ago. From the remove of 2021, though, her careful, constrained public presentation and her precise, reserved artistry can be read as the mark of someone negotiating public life while holding herself out of reach, out of harm. “Where most divas insist on being the center of the song, she knew how to disappear into the music,” Sanneh wrote of her. It sounds like the kind of thing a person carrying deep and private damage might do.

Maybe she’d never have said anything. Kelly’s first trial fell apart largely because the girl who was allegedly in the video refused to testify. “How do you victimize a person,” wondered his defense, “when she says, ‘It’s not me’?” One of the reasons the prosecution succeeded this time was that it built its case on multiple accounts: it mattered less if one witness became uncooperative or could be made to look bad under cross-examination, because the accounts altogether produced their own corroboration.

But it was also important that this case went after racketeering charges, fixing Kelly as the lynchpin of a criminal conspiracy rather than a solo malefactor. Important because it led to a decades-overdue conviction; important, too, because it tells the truth about how these crimes occur. For Kelly to do all he did, he needed collaborators. Sexual abuse, especially at the scale Kelly committed it, is never an individual crime.

Harvey Weinstein’s crimes — and the way he used his production studio Miramax to both access victims and enforce their silence — was an open secret. Jimmy Savile had the BBC and the NHS as the venues for his rapes: the institutions simply delivered the prey and looked the other way. Terry Richardson’s crime scenes were published as fashion editorials. At the time, it just looked “edgy”.

Impunity will run out when associating with a perpetrator becomes too much of a reputational cost (look how Jeffrey Epstein’s entourage cold-shouldered him at the end), but while it lasts, it’s unbreachable. Kelly knew he had it. “I’m a genius. We should be allowed to do what we want — look at what we give to the world,” he said, according to one of his accusers. But his rule doesn’t just apply to geniuses: in schools, in churches, in care homes, in families too, there’s nearly always some complicity. A blind eye turned, the benefit of the doubt extended.

You could say that the culture of irony which grew up in the Nineties and thrived in the Noughties was the perfect environment for abusers to hide in plain sight. But just because these corruptions happened in previous decades, that doesn’t mean they don’t still happen now. There’s always some class of people you’re not permitted to suspect: someone who’s too powerful or too respected or just by definition too self-evidently good for their motives to be questioned.

In Kelly’s case, the complicity involved, obviously, the members of his entourage who were named in court. But it also implicates other parties, indirectly. That means the record label that winked at the Aaliyah album, a media that smirked at his not-really-confessions, the listeners who let it all fly because they were having a good time. It means me shouldering my own small portion of guilt for the times I ground my hips to “Ignition (Remix)” on a sweaty dance floor. I always, always knew. Everyone did.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.