clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The latest allegations against R. Kelly show how we forgive and forget famous abusers

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.

One of the recurring themes in BuzzFeed’s disturbing report about R. Kelly’s alleged abusive sex “cult” is that the parents of Kelly’s alleged victims trusted Kelly with their daughters.

They trusted Kelly even though it’s widely believed among people in the music industry that Kelly is a serial predator who targets young women. They trusted him even though he’s been sued several times for statutory rape and was tried on child pornography charges in 2008. (Kelly has never faced criminal rape charges.)

And why wouldn’t they trust him? Kelly is an icon who continues to perform and release music without controversy. He has never been found guilty in a court of law.

“My thing was I trusted. I have never been in the music industry before, ever,” one mother told BuzzFeed. “He is a lyrical genius — he is R. Kelly! And the fact is he went to court, he was never found guilty — he was acquitted — and we were led to believe there was no truth in it. Now I got all of these people asking about why my daughter is [associating with him], telling me, ‘All of that, the charges against Kelly, was true.’ Well, how come you didn’t tell me that before?”

“Even with the Aaliyah situation, now that I think about it, ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number’...” said another mother — referring to the song that a 27-year-old Kelly produced with 15-year-old Aaliyah shortly before he married her in 1994, using a falsified marriage certificate that claimed Aaliyah was 18 — “you don’t think about that. You grew up with the song, and you like the song.”

That sentiment, and the story of R. Kelly’s career to date, sums up the cultural response to all of the allegations that have been brought against Kelly over the years. There’s a hazy sense that it all happened a long time ago, and that none of it was true, and anyway it can’t possibly have mattered too much. After all, Kelly’s career has been largely unaffected. He still charts on Billboard. He still wins awards. Critics still like his music.

What the R. Kelly story shows is that the way we treat predators matters. It’s important that we as a culture punish them, not just for the sake of punishing a predator, but in order to protect future victims. When we celebrate predators and hold them up for general admiration — as we did with Kelly, and as we continue to do with Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and Johnny Depp and Casey Affleck and dozens of other famous men — we teach the predators that they can continue to act with impunity and even escalate their behavior.

We also fail to give victims adequate warning signs. We make the predators seem trustworthy. We become complicit in their abuse.

There’s been reason to believe R. Kelly preys on young girls for more than 20 years, but you wouldn’t know it from the way we talk about him

R. Kelly’s pattern of preying on young girls has been public knowledge since 1994, when he illegally married 15-year-old Aaliyah (though Kelly has never publicly confirmed the marriage, GQ explains, it “has never been credibly challenged,” and the marriage certificate has been published).

As chronicled by music journalist and former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis, who’s been covering Kelly for nearly two decades and broke the cult story for BuzzFeed, Kelly wasn’t only 12 years older than Aaliyah: He was also in a significant additional position of power over her.

Aaliyah was the niece of Kelly’s manager, and Kelly wrote and produced her debut album. Aaliyah was considered Kelly’s protégé. He controlled her career. He wrote a song for her to sing about how completely normal and not-creepy their relationship was.

The marriage was rapidly annulled, and Aaliyah’s family insists that Aaliyah and Kelly never spoke again, but her mother allegedly told DeRogatis that Kelly ruined Aaliyah’s life.

In 2000, DeRogatis began reporting on Kelly’s pattern of initiating abusive sexual relationships with teenage girls. In 2002, a videotape in which he engages in sex acts with and urinates on a young girl who was allegedly 14 years old circulated widely across the internet.

The reports had little effect on Kelly’s career. He denied everything, and wrote and released a series of songs about how God will forgive him, like the single “Heaven, I Need a Hug,” in which he instructs the media to “do your job / But please just don’t make my job so hard” and plaintively asks, “Heaven, I need a hug / Is there anybody out there willin’ to embrace a thug?”

He continued performing to wide acclaim, often with fellow artists like Jay-Z. He won award after award and was nominated for multiple Grammys; his songs kept charting on Billboard.

After years of delays, Kelly was tried on child pornography charges in 2008, the result of the 2002 videotape, and found not guilty. He kept performing. When people wrote about his history, they typically alluded vaguely to a “controversial past” and “rumors and allegations.” Sometimes they made jokes about the idea that he likes to pee on people (funny and mildly embarrassing if performed between consenting adults), but rarely about the idea that he likes to pee on underaged people (illegal and monstrous). He was doing fine.

Again: People have known about R. Kelly’s predatory patterns since 1994. But after every shocking new allegation, the news stories tend to fade away a bit. People stop talking about them. They lose interest — and in the meantime, Kelly keeps creating music and keeps being applauded for it.

So you would have to dig a bit to know what the allegations against Kelly really look like. You would have to go looking to know that there’s good reason to suspect he committed the crimes of which he has been accused. You would have to be the kind of person who reads feminist pop culture criticism, and then criticism of that criticism, because by 2013 even sites like Jezebel were enjoying some R. Kelly slow jams.

If you didn’t dig and if you weren’t that kind of obsessive reader — if you just relied on pop culture osmosis — you’d have a general idea that there was something unsavory in his past, but that was all a long time ago. He’s a good guy now. He’d have to be, or why else would he be so widely admired and have such a successful career?

That’s what the mothers of Kelly’s current alleged victims thought. And that’s why he was allegedly able to target their daughters.

Ignoring the predatory behavior of powerful men isn’t only unjust. It’s dangerous.

As a society, we have established a predatory pattern of our own. When powerful men are accused of hurting women, we tend to want to make the accusation go away as quickly as possible. So we ignore them. We accuse the women of lying, or we say that something happened too long ago for anyone to know or remember the details, or we say that the man appears to be genuinely remorseful so why bring up old unpleasantness?

We give the men awards. We buy the art they make. We give them plenty of opportunities to make new art. We do not send them to jail. We hold them up as powerful and important men worth admiring and respecting.

It’s what we did with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, and Johnny Depp and Mel Gibson and Casey Affleck. It’s what we did with Bill Cosby just this June, when a jury was unable to convict him of rape, despite the fact that he said he gave women drugs and then had sex with them: Cosby’s pervasive image as America’s favorite dad seems to have outweighed all of the evidence arrayed against him, including his own testimony.

And it’s what we’ve done year after year with R. Kelly, since 1994.

I’ve written before about how damaging and toxic this pattern is, but I’ve tended to focus on how unjust it is that men can get away with hurting women with such impunity and still be revered and adored.

And certainly, that seems true of Kelly.

“Kelly seems to live in some kind of strange celebrity half-shadow where his dazzling musical legacy is tainted and his company is not always welcome,” Chris Heath wrote for GQ in 2016, after spending several hours with the musician to conduct a frank, wide-ranging interview. During their conversation, Kelly addressed many of the allegations that have been brought against him over the years, in sometimes strange, sometimes evasive ways.

“But he is also correct in observing that, within his bubble, a different reality exists,” Heath continued. “One in which he still gets plenty of invitations and approval, his records still sell, and the crowds still turn up. I can think of no plausible reason for some of the answers he has given me over the past three days, other than that he's shielding himself from some unpalatable guilty truths. But he seems oblivious to this, perhaps because his life gives him no particular reason to confront them. I wonder whether he's been around so many people for so long who either pretend to believe him, or who simply don't care, that he's learned to take that as evidence of his own innocence.”

But what the newest allegations against Kelly show is that this pattern isn’t just unjust — it’s actively dangerous.

If Kelly is guilty of so many terrible things, many people might rationally think, how is it possible that he hasn’t been punished? How is it possible that he is still making music and winning awards and being held up as a legend? If so many people in the music industry are convinced that he’s guilty, why is he still such a major figure?

It seems that in ignoring the charges against Kelly, we have not only signaled to Kelly himself that his behavior is acceptable or at the very least forgivable, but also created an atmosphere in which young women feel safe with him, and in which mothers have felt safe leaving their daughters with him. It suggests that if Kelly wanted to continue in his alleged patterns and escalate his behavior, it would be easy for him to do so.

If the BuzzFeed report is true, he has been eager and able to do so. And that is in part because we made it easy for him.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.