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A bombshell story alleges R. Kelly is holding women against their will in an abusive cult

R. Kelly 'The Buffet' Tour - Chicago, Illinois Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On Monday morning, BuzzFeed published an explosive article reporting that R&B legend R. Kelly is holding multiple young women against their will in what their parents are calling an abusive sex cult. But the young women in question keep telling the police that they’re there of their own free will. And since all of them are at least 18 years old, the police can’t do anything.

BuzzFeed’s report is detailed, thorough, and immensely disturbing. It alleges that Kelly targets young women who come to him for help with their fledgling music careers: He seems to offer them professional guidance, and then instead he initiates sexual relationships with them behind their parents’ backs.

Most of the women are 19 or in their early 20s, and were still living with their parents or in college when Kelly allegedly targeted them. According to BuzzFeed, Kelly’s MO is to talk with his targets secretly via cellphone for several months, then fly them out to one of his concerts to sleep with them.

He begins to control the girls’ appearance and behavior. One of his alleged victims lost weight and cut, dyed, and permed her hair, apparently on Kelly’s orders. He allegedly beat the same girl when she laughed at a joke made by a male cab driver. He confiscates the girls’ cellphones and replaces them with new ones, instructing them to ask his permission if they want to use the new phones to contact anyone besides him.

Eventually, BuzzFeed reports, Kelly brings his victims to live in one of the properties he rents around the country. BuzzFeed was able to confirm that five women were living in his Chicago recording studio last summer; according to its sources, the women are required to call Kelly “Daddy” and to ask his permission before leaving their rooms. They dress in jogging suits so that no one else can see their bodies, and when other men are in the room, they are required to turn around and face the wall. BuzzFeed’s sources also say that Kelly routinely films his sexual activities and shares the videos with other men, and that when any of the women “break the rules,” Kelly punishes them verbally and physically.

“It was as if she was brainwashed. [She] looked like a prisoner — it was horrible,” the mother of one of the women at Kelly’s compound told BuzzFeed of the last time she saw her daughter. “I hugged her and hugged her. But she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her. I don’t know what to do. I hope that if I get her back, I can get her treatment for victims of cults. They can reprogram her. But I wish I could have stopped it from happening.”

Through a lawyer, Kelly issued a statement denying the Buzzfeed report. “Mr. Robert Kelly is both alarmed and disturbed at the recent revelations attributed to him,” the statement reads. “Mr. Kelly unequivocally denies such allegations and will work diligently and forcibly to pursue his accusers and clear his name.”

Buzzfeed’s piece was written and reported by music journalist and former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis, who has been covering Kelly for almost 20 years. He’s extremely familiar with the long list of sex crime allegations that have been brought against Kelly, and given his latest reporting, it’s worth going back to look at some of his past work.

The story of R. Kelly’s “cult” is just the latest development in a long-running and disturbing string of alleged sex crimes

DeRogatis has developed a detailed timeline of Kelly’s history of alleged sexual abuse, including rumors that Kelly himself was abused as a child. It provides valuable context to the latest, immensely disturbing development in this long-running and too-long-ignored story and is worth reading in full, but here’s an overview.

“R. Kelly was a huge story for me,” DeRogatis told the Village Voice in 2013, “this guy who rose from not graduating from Kenwood Academy, singing at backyard barbecues and on the El, to suddenly selling millions of records.”

Following an anonymous tip that was faxed to the Sun-Times offices in 2000, DeRogatis broke the story that Kelly was facing lawsuits from multiple women who alleged that he initiated sexual relationships with them as minors.

“There is a split in Kelly's music between the anthemic ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ and the down and dirty ‘Bump N' Grind,’ and between the spiritual ‘I Wish’ and the self-explanatory ‘I Like the Crotch on You,’” DeRogatis wrote at the time. “That split apparently has been mirrored by the contrast between his public stance as a hero for young children and his private behavior with young girls.”

According to the suits DeRogatis uncovered, when Kelly was in his 20s, he began to make a practice of visiting his old school, Kenwood Academy, sitting in on the choir class as a conquering hero, and picking up sophomore girls.

He allegedly dumped one girl when she turned 18. Shortly afterward, she slit her wrists.

“He told [us both], ‘If you want to be serious about the music, you have to be at the studio and not at school, because school isn't going to make you a millionaire,’” one girl told DeRogatis of the sexual relationship she alleged Kelly initiated with her and her friend. “At 16, that's like a dream to us to work with R. Kelly, so we listened to him.”

Even before DeRogatis broke the news of the lawsuits against Kelly, the musician did not have a squeaky-clean past. In 1991, a then-24-year-old Kelly met 12-year-old Aaliyah Haughton. Three years later, Kelly produced the Aaliyah album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number and married the singer, using a false birth certificate that claimed the 15-year-old Aaliyah was 18.

The marriage was quickly annulled, and Aaliyah returned to her family; the controversy then died down, leaving behind only a few mild rumors. “There were rumors that Kelly likes them young,” DeRogatis recalled in 2013. So when he received his first anonymous tip in 2000, “I think, ‘Oh, this is somebody playing with this.’”

But when he checked the tip against court records, he found piles of long-ignored lawsuits. “These suits had been filed at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve,” he says. “Ain’t no reporter working at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and they flew under the radar” — at least, they did until the Sun-Times picked up the story.

In 2002, an anonymous source dropped a videotape into DeRogatis’s home mailbox. It was the infamous “child pee” tape, 26 minutes and 39 seconds of footage showing Kelly engaging in sex acts with and urinating on a young girl, who clearly appeared to be a minor and was reportedly 14 years old. The Sun-Times handed the tape over to the police, and later that year Kelly was indicted on 21 counts of making child pornography, but not rape.

The case would not go to trial until 2008, in a strategy that some experts call “victory by delay.” The jury would eventually conclude that they could not conclusively prove that the girl on the tape was a minor, and Kelly was found not guilty on all counts. “He was not tried for rape,” DeRogatis points out. “He’s never been tried in court for rape.”

Since he began following the Kelly story, DeRogatis has been vocal about how troubling he finds Kelly’s continued public success. “I’ve never expected other journalists and critics to feel as strongly about this story as I do,” he wrote in 2014. “But neither did I expect the cultural amnesia that for years allowed many to ignore any reference to Kelly’s crimes, despite the mountains of evidence in the public record, or to dismiss them with a fleeting nod to past ‘controversy’ or ‘rumors.’”

“The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women,” he told the Village Voice, adding, “Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of.” DeRogatis cites Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, in making this point: “One white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different. No, it was young black girls and all of them settled. They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn’t have a chance.”

In his new piece for BuzzFeed, DeRogatis does not identify the race of any of the women whom Kelly is currently allegedly holding, but Kelly’s past alleged victims have all been young and black. If Kelly is following his previously established patterns, these women most likely are as well.

Which suggests that any success in freeing these women will depend, in part, on whether our society has made up its mind to care about young black women. It will depend on whether we are willing to fight for them.

Update: This story has been updated to include R. Kelly’s statement on the allegations.

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