In July of 2019, Robert Sylvester Kelly, better known by his stage name as simply “R. Kelly,” was arrested on 22 federal counts, which include child pornography, sex trafficking and racketeering. Racketerring refers to his enterprises of employees —such as managers, drivers, and bodyguards—helping him recruit young girls and women as his alleged sex slaves. Employees arranged for women to fly from different states to see Kelly and stay with him in his many residences and tour buses.
As a result of the charges, Kelly has been incarcerated and his trial in Brooklyn, NY began on Aug. 9. He’s also awaiting trial in Chicago, sometime in September. Kelly has allegedly sexually, emotionally, and psychologically abused 11 teenage girls and women. He’s also being accused of paying them hush-money for their silence.
“I don’t know if race played a part in this trial or not but if it were White children that were being molested by a Black man, in this case,” Music Producer Craig Williams and former acquaintance of Kelly said in the 2019 docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly.” “I’m sure Rob would have gone to jail very swiftly.”
The witnesses who came forward so far have been only identified as “Jane Doe’s” as well as “John Doe’s.” However, many of these women who took the stand already spoke out against the singer in the documentary.
R. Kelly’s Childhood
Kelly himself declared that he fell victim to sexual abuse, sharing that his abuse lasted from age seven until age 13. He mentioned he has been abused by a woman in his family and by an older man, who was a family friend. According to an interview by YouTuber Latasha Transrina Kebe known as “Tasha K,” Kelly’s younger brother Carey confessed that Theresa Kelly, their older sister who was a teenager when Carey was six, molested both Kelly and Carey.
Dr. Candice Norcott, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience in Chicago, said in the documentary that “Child sexual abuse confuses power and control with sex.”
The Chicago native grew up in poverty in the projects without a father. According to his older brother Bruce and Carey, the singer was shy as a child, suffering from a learning disability – which was untreated – leaving him without the ability to read or write.
“Feeling powerless and taken advantage of as a child can lead to the need or desire – often unconscious or subconscious – to dominate one’s environment as an adult – to thereby ‘correct’ for those feelings of inadequacy, fear, felt as a child,” said Dominic Wetzel, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY.
Although Kelly grew up in a rough neighborhood, he never participated in committing any crimes, but mostly kept to himself, and eventually started singing in the choir of the church he visited.
Kelly gained first recognition after winning a grand prize at the TV talent show “Big Break” and after that, his career and explicit lyrics took off, and the sexual allegations started.
”When you get that type of power, you kind of lose perspective of reality,” Williams said.
Kelly often referred to himself as a musical genius and compared himself to other talented musicians.
“Look at Jerry Lee Lewis,” Kelly said. “He’s a genius and I’m a genius. We should be allowed to do whatever we want. Look at what we give the world.”
Lewis married his 13-year-old first cousin, once removed.
Power and control were important to Kelly, according to his accusers and former employees. Some have suggested that as Kelly felt powerless as a child, the adult-Kelly felt powerful by taking away power from others, in this case, the women he “trained” to become his personal sex objects.
Kelly openly spoke about his abuse and even confided in one of his accusers, Jerhonda Pace, who was also sexually abused as a child.
“Children may want to say like ‘I want to be the one that is in that power position, I never wanna be a victim again, I wanna be the person in power in the sexual relationship.,’” Norcott said in “Surviving R.Kelly.” “So as they get older they want to make sure they are always in that power position, and there is really no more powerful positions in that sexual relationship than to be the abuser to the child.“
Looking at Kelly’s work, he often put his experience, desires, shame, as well as hope, in his music as a way to cope, perhaps. However, experts say trauma can only be worked through with therapy.
“That is how you break the cycle of repetition; by becoming conscious of the forces at play within yourself. Only then can you stop the cycle of repetition and abuse,” Wetzel said. “The fact that R. Kelly denies all allegations suggests that he has not done the work of self-confrontation and processing of past trauma that he clearly needs.”
Surviving R. Kelly
In the early ‘90s, when Kelly was 23 years old, witnesses – such as Williams – saw Kelly hanging out at Kenwood Academy, Kelly’s former high school, years after he graduated, allegedly picking up teens. This is also where he met his first accuser, Tiffany Hawkins.
“He [R. Kelly] liked high school girls, he could influence them more,” Chicago Journalist Kathy Chaney of the Chicago Sun-Times said in the documentary. “They were more impressionable.”
Kelly chose his nickname “The Pied Piper” for a reason because he wanted everyone to follow him and his music. In his case, underage teenage girls who were aspiring singers, who also saw him as a mentor, and who did as he said to please him.
“People would say ‘but why didn’t anyone notice?’” Author Mikki Kendall said in the documentary. “The answer is that we all noticed but no one cared because we are Black girls.”
Kendall met Kelly when she was around 13 years old. They would hang out at the McDonald’s at Hyde Park, a neighborhood in Chicago. Kendall also said she didn’t have a sexual relationship with the 54-year-old and wasn’t abused by him. However, everyone was aware of his agenda.
Former backup singer, dancer, and survivor of Kelly, Jovante Cunningham shared memories – during the docuseries – she had of Aaliyah and Kelly, witnessing Kelly having a sexual relationship with the underage Aaliyah while on tour. Aaliyah first met her mentor through her uncle – who was Kelly’s manager – when she was only 12 years old. Kelly wrote and produced her music, such as the song, “Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number.” It appeared that Aaliyah was groomed by Kelly who married the then 15-year-old when he was 27 years old, by lying on the marriage license, claiming Aaliyah was 18. The marriage was later annulled.
Artist Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards collaborated with Kelly professionally and introduced her 12-year-old niece to him. First Sparkle’s niece was being supervised, then there were times Sparkle caught Kelly alone in the recording studio with her niece. When the infamous sex tape made its way anonymously to the Chicago Sun-Times, Sparkle was asked to come in for an interview and was shown the video, identifying that the minor – who was 14-years-old at the time of taping the video, and underage as the legal age of sexual consent is 17 in Illinois, was Sparkle’s niece. Kelly denied that it was him on the video – although identified by witnesses.
“Robert feels as if he’s invincible. ‘I can’t be touched.’ And in hindsight, in society we kinda made him feel that way,” Cunningham said in the series. “Because he has progressively done this for as far as I remember and nothing has been done about it.”
Kelly was hiding it well by being open about it. Oftentimes the parents of the young aspiring singers – such as Jocelyn Savage and Azriel Clary – would reach out to connect to Kelly to mentor their daughters. After a while, the contact between the young women and their parents was cut off. Kelly allegedly forced Savage to give a TMZ interview, stating that she is fine and she is staying with Kelly willingly. Clary has been reunited with her parents since 2020, the status of Savage is unknown.
“Oftentimes perpetrators would be so brave to say ‘I’m gonna let the world know, I’m gonna let everyone see what’s going on and you better not say anything,’” Clinical Psychologist Dr. Jody Adewale said in the series. “That speaks to the amount of control an individual might have over another person.”
According to Wetzel, research has shown that abuse, whether physical, psychological, emotional, or sexual, tends to play out in cycles of repetitive, learned behavior.
“This may seem counterintuitive at first, but it makes more sense when viewed from the perspective of people ‘doing what they know,’” Wetzel said. “In order to change, people need to confront their past and learn different, healthier ways of being.”
Aside from the six women who openly spoke about their experience with Kelly, there were many more young women who were groomed by the singer. Some stood by his side during his first trial regarding child pornography charges, however, some of these women have come forward since, despite hush money and non-disclosure agreements.
Since the docuseries aired in 2019, hotlines for sexual abuse and domestic violence have gotten more calls than usual.
“It takes about seven tries for a girl to successfully leave her abuser for good,” Dr. Norcott said. “That statistic tells us how difficult it is to often pull away from these relationships.”
The sexual allegations regarding Kelly have been going on for more than two decades but as the first trial showed, many women in society – mostly African-American women – shame the victims instead.
“This is not about women finding our voices – we have always had our voices,” founder of the #MeToo movement Tarana Burke said in the documentary. “This is about people’s ability to hear. We’ve just finally found a frequency that people can hear us.”
In 2018, Kelly gave a statement to TODAY regarding the women who came forward, accusing him. Kelly said he called these accusations unjust and unfair, and that the media has not spoken to enough women who support him. In another statement to Variety, his management team stated,
R. Kelly’s Survivors
“R. Kelly’s victims, nobody just cares about the Black women that speak out, especially the Black community,” survivor Jerhonda Pace said in the documentary. “It’s the Black community that bashes the Black women that speak out about abuse.”
Pace met Kelly when she was 14 at his first trial and then again when she was 16 – still underage. When a sexual relationship started with Kelly, Pace didn’t disclose her actual age to the singer but eventually mentioned afterward she was only 16, to which Kelly replied that it’s fine but if anyone should ask that she is 19 and that she should act like she was 21.
Pace signed a non-disclosure agreement and received a settlement out of court, automatically protecting Kelly since it hinders the person who signs such documents to leak personal information.
However, she actually broke that agreement and decided to talk about their experience in the hope to help others to do the same.
The federal trial came after decades of frustration from women talking about the sexual abuse they experienced from Kelly. His first trial in Brooklyn is supposed to last for a month, followed by his Chicago trial.
Jane Doe No.5 took the stand recently and new allegations came to light. Namely that Kelly knowingly infected her with a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and forced her to have sex with another man. John Doe No.1 took the stand as well, saying that he met Kelly at a McDonald’s when he was 17 years old and Kelly said he would help with his rapping career.
“Thereafter, Kelly invited John Doe No.1 into his studio under the guise of helping and mentoring John Doe No.1 with his musical aspirations,” court papers say. “Kelly also asked John Doe No.1 what he was willing to do to succeed in the music business and clarified that he wanted John Doe No.1 to engage in sexual contact with Kelly.”
Their sexual relationship lasted for 10 years, the young man claimed. According to the court documents, Kelly also developed a sexual relationship with another young man known as John Doe No.2, who met Kelly as a teen. Kelly later paid him to have sex encounters with one of Kelly’s girlfriends, which were sometimes filmed by Kelly.
Although these allegations of sexual misconduct aren’t specifically identified in court papers, prosecutors are allowed to use both alleged sexual relationships Kelly had with John Doe No.1 and John Doe No.2.
Kelly didn’t plead guilty to any of the charges.
If convicted of the racketeering charges, Kelly can face up to 20 years in federal prison. Aside from the racketeering charges, Kelly is also facing charges under the Mann Act, which refers to the illegal transport of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
Kelly is being charged with racketeering “acts” involving multiple women, with the argument by authorities that Kelly’s enterprise was a criminal operation allegedly, involving sexual misconduct – such as targeting minors and psychological manipulation. These charges reflect on Jane Doe No.5 saying that Kelly and his team “ did knowingly and intentionally transport” her “in interstate commerce, with the intent that such individual engages in sexual activity for which a person can be charged with a criminal offense,” the court documents say. Since Jane Doe No.5 was underage during that period, the criminal offense would be “unlawful sexual intercourse with a person under 18 years old,” according to court documents.
The violation of the Mann Act also includes Jane Doe No.5, as well as Jane Doe No.6 with alleged enticement and coercion where Kelly “together with others, did knowingly and intentionally persuade, induce, entice and coerce” her into forced sexual activities, as well as Kelly allegedly having “unlawful sexual intercourse with a person under 18 years old,” prosecutors cite. Regarding Jane Doe No.6, Kelly’s offense is that he “engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse with Jane Doe No.6 without first informing Jane Doe No.6 that he had contracted herpes and [without] obtaining her consent to sexual intercourse in these circumstances,” according to the prosecutors.
The prosecutors in the New York trial refer to Aaliyah as “Jane Doe No.1,” which becomes Kelly’s first “act” in the racketeering charge, involving bribery of a public official to create a fake ID in order for Kelly to be able to marry the underage Aaliyah. Other acts of his racketeering charges including “Jane Doe No.2,” accusing Kelly of “sexual exploitation of a child,” and the alleged exploitation involving “sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing one or more visual depictions of such conduct,” which took place between May and October of 1999, court papers say.
Kelly is also facing kidnapping charges involving “Jane Doe No.3,” which allegedly took place between 2003 and 2004 by “knowingly and intentionally secretly confin[ing] by deceit and enticement to go from one place to another with intent secretly to confine her against her will,” prosecutors say. The same also applies to “Jane Doe No.4,” which took place between May 2009 and January 2010, “for the purpose of producing one or more visual depictions of such conduct,” court documents say.
Kelly’s attorneys referred to the accusers as “groupies” who only came forward after the #MeToo movement. However, the prosecutors said the opposite stating in detail how Kelly’s enterprise recruited girls for him. According to federal investigators, Kelly’s racketeering ring ran from 1994 until 2019.