R. Kelly sex trafficking trial is almost over, but its impact is just beginning

Grammy Award-winning singer R. Kelly was arrested in Chicago on federal sex crime charge Picture: Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

Grammy Award-winning singer R. Kelly was arrested in Chicago on federal sex crime charge Picture: Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

Published Sep 27, 2021


By Sonia Rao, Travis M. Andrews

As the revealing federal trial against R. Kelly winds down, the jury is left to deliberate the R&B star's fate - while the public grapples with what to make of a culture that allowed allegations of sexual abuse to mount against him for decades as he racked up chart-topping hit after chart-topping hit.

Kelly, 54, is facing sex trafficking and racketeering charges in the Eastern District of New York, where the trial has lasted for more than five weeks and has involved allegations from numerous women and one man.

The testimonies, including those of Kelly's live-in girlfriends and his former employees, painted a picture of the singer using his fame, wealth and power to control and sexually abuse the alleged victims.

Many of the accusers said they were underage when they met Kelly, who they said would have been aware of their ages at the time.

A number of them were also aspiring singers and encountered Kelly, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, at the height of his professional success.

"The volume of testimony and evidence that was presented, spanning a mind-blowing 30 years of alleged criminal behavior, I think the jury is not going to be able to dismiss any of it.

“I think he's done," said Jim DeRogatis, a music critic and the author of "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly," who has covered the Kelly story since publishing an exposé with the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000.

Kelly's lawyer Deveraux Cannick did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

For years, as the recording industry ignored the accumulating allegations against him, Kelly seemed untouchable.

As The Washington Post previously reported, "disregard for the singer's alleged behaviour 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 travelling entourage of young women."

A turning point arrived when DeRogatis, having received a tip in 2016 from a Georgia woman who believed her daughter to be part of a sex cult run by Kelly, spoke to nearly a dozen corroborating sources and published a second exposé with BuzzFeed News in July 2017.

In January 2019, after the #MeToo movement picked up in the entertainment industry, Lifetime released a six-part docuseries "Surviving R. Kelly" that presented a sweeping exploration into the years of allegations.

Kelly had been acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008, but renewed interest in the case led to additional legal action on the local and federal level. He was arrested in July 2019 after being charged with child pornography, enticing a minor to engage in criminal sexual activity and obstruction of justice.

There are two federal indictments involved here - one filed in Illinois that July, and another unsealed the same day in New York.

The ongoing trial stems from the latter charges, which accuse Kelly of leading a racketeering enterprise for two decades, beginning in 1999.

Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Northwestern University law professor specializing in the legal response to sexual misconduct, noted that the racketeering charge allowed prosecutors to present more evidence to the jury than they would have been able to had the charges been limited to specific incidents of alleged assault or abuse.

"This is a particular subset of crime where our systems have largely failed survivors, and continue to do that," Tuerkheimer said.

“The racketeering charge helped "tell a story that spanned the course of many, many years.

“That's very helpful to prosecutors, and frankly I think is validating to the accusers."

Trial proceedings began Aug. 18, and prosecutors called on 45 witnesses over the span of more than a month.

The first witness to take the stand, Jerhonda Pace, accused Kelly of sexually abusing her when she was 16 years old, according to the Associated Press.

She also said he beat her and knowingly gave her herpes, a claim echoed by other witnesses and later backed by a physician who spoke on Kelly's medical history.

Another witness, solely identified as Jane, said she met Kelly when she was 17.

She recalled being forced to have sexual encounters with other women, per NPR, and claimed she wasn't allowed to leave rooms without Kelly's permission. Jane also said she was forced to have an abortion.

An accuser named Angela said she witnessed Kelly sexually abuse Aaliyah on a tour bus when Aaliyah would have been around 13 or 14 years old, according to Vulture.

His relationship with the up-and-coming singer is one of the most high-profile allegations of his abusing underage girls.

Prosecutors previously charged Kelly with bribing Chicago officials to obtain a fake ID for Aaliyah so she could appear to be an adult on a marriage certificate.

During the trial, according to HuffPost, an anonymous witness testified that Kelly told her he married Aaliyah so she could have an abortion.

The defense presented its case over three days and called on five witnesses, most of whom were Kelly's former employees.

Their testimonies often contained contradictions - such as in the case of Larry Hood, Kelly's childhood friend and former bodyguard who, per BuzzFeed News, testified that he hadn't seen Kelly with underage girls before admitting to having seen Aaliyah and her "little friends" around when she was approximately 13 years old. (Kelly himself did not take the stand.)

For nearly three decades, Kelly's music has been embedded in the American cultural conscious. Five weeks of heart-wrenching, disturbing testimonies have called into question whether they will remain there.

"We all know that a lot of brilliant art is made by wretched human beings, and a lot of wonderful people make really mediocre art.

“And I think that 99.9 percent of times, we should separate the art and the artist," DeRogatis told The Post.

But "the dividing line for me is when the art is about the misdeed. And we now see, laid out blatantly, that so much of Kelly's hypersexual music is about a vision of hedonism unfettered by any concern for who was damaged as he pleasures himself."

DeRogatis pointed to "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number," an album Kelly wrote and produced for then-14-year-old Aaliyah, whom he married a year later.

"How do you continue to listen to that or 'Sex in the Kitchen' or 'Trapped in the Closet' or (lyrics like) 'I'm your sexasaurus' or 'stick your key in my ignition / beep beep' and not take into account the countless ... women whose lives were ruined by him?" DeRogatis added. "How do you listen and take pleasure in his music and dismiss those ruined lives?"

Compounding the issue is the sheer ubiquity of Kelly's musical footprint - and how his songs took on cultural meaning far behind the artist himself. Since 1992, he's had 54 songs reach the Billboard Hot 100, 13 of which broke into the top 10.

As DeRogatis noted, "Ignition (Remix)" was a mainstay at backyard barbecues, "Step in the Name of Love" was a wedding classic, "I Believe I Can Fly" became a staple of kindergarten graduation ceremonies.

Some clue to how the world might react to Kelly's music in the future can be found in the online debate that has raged between the pop singer's supporters and critics throughout his trial.

The hashtag #FreeRKelly - which is populated with tweets boldly and baselessly insisting on the singer's innocence, along with conspiracy theories falsely claiming the government kidnapped the singer and fixed the trial - frequently trended during the past few weeks.

Meanwhile, the #MuteRKelly movement, which was founded in 2017, has also been trending.

"I started #MuteRKelly in July 2017 out of a feeling of outrage. After decades of blatantly abusing Black women and girls, R. Kelly was going on with his life with our community-sanctioned support," co-founder Oronike Odeleye told HuffPost this year.

"While I didn't have the power to sway the courts or investigate evidence, I knew that with social media, I could get R. Kelly off the radio, hurt his pockets and amplify the voices of survivors."

Tuerkheimer, the Northwestern law professor, previously worked as a local prosecutor in New York and primarily handled cases dealing with gender violence and child abuse.

She noted that the prosecution's tactics might not have much of an impact on individual abuse cases, given that they hinged upon the involvement of Kelly's associates. But she underscored how important it is that this trial is the first high-profile case in the #MeToo era involving mostly Black women.

"For this case, if it does result in a conviction, for it to result in a conviction so long after these allegations first surfaced - I think that says something about the lack of care that Black women and girls tend to receive in our society," Tuerkheimer said.

"This case is significant for that fact alone, for the fact that we're watching Black women, and mostly Black women, take the stand and have their stories heard by a jury."

Even after that jury finishes deliberating, there is more to Kelly's legal saga. He faces federal charges in Illinois of child pornography, enticing a minor to engage in criminal sexual activity and obstruction of justice, as well as 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Cook County, Ill.