R. Kelly has been sentenced to 30 years in prison on sex trafficking charges. Kelly, one of the most celebrated R&B singers of the ’90s, was convicted in September 2021 on nine counts of racketeering, including acts of bribery and sexual exploitation of a child. His sentencing, which came on Wednesday in Brooklyn, is the culmination of a long, slow build of accusations that go back decades.
Kelly has been accused of sexual relationships with minors going back to 1994, when he married 15-year-old pop star Aaliyah. (The marriage was annulled.) In the 25 years since then, he has been sued multiple times for inappropriate sexual contact with a minor (he settled out of court every time), and he was eventually charged with creating child pornography. (A jury found him not guilty on the grounds that they could not conclusively identify the other figure in his infamous sex tape as a child.)
In 2017, he was accused of creating an abusive “sex cult” of very young women, whom he allegedly isolates, brainwashes, and abuses physically and emotionally. Since the story broke, multiple women have added their own testimonies of abuse at R. Kelly’s hands, including his ex-wife. (Through a lawyer, Kelly has denied all accusations, saying he would “work diligently and forcibly to pursue his accusers and clear his name.”)
Yet despite decades of lawsuits and allegations, Kelly’s career marched steadily on. In 2017, he finished an arena tour with a few cancellations. In 2018, he toured with singer Charlie Wilson (there were some protests). His music appeared in Pitch Perfect 3.
At Coachella in 2018, rapper Vince Staples repeatedly referred to Kelly as a “child molester” in an interview with Complex. And in our post-#MeToo, post-Time’s Up, post-Harvey Weinstein world, and given the sheer volume of allegations against Kelly, it seems reasonable to raise the question of why he’s been able to continue working so much. But Staples’s interviewer only giggled nervously and protested, “We can’t ever talk about this guy. ... You’re about to get me fired from Coachella. It’s my first time here.” Later, Staples tweeted that “R. Kelly people is looking for me.”
That stasis began to change in 2018. Most of the claims against Kelly were reiterated in a 2018 BBC Three documentary, R Kelly: Sex, Girls & Videotapes, and then again in Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly. From 2017 to 2019, at least five members of Kelly’s inner circle left him. His assistant, his accountant, his lawyer, and his publicist have all said that they no longer work for him, although none of them have gone into detail about their departures and all have been supportive and complimentary toward Kelly in their statements. His longtime musical accompanist, DJ Phantom, was less circumspect about his decision to leave Kelly in 2017: “I didn’t know then what I know now,” he said. “He’s a shitbag.”
In 2018, the Women of Color committee within Time’s Up threw its weight behind the #MuteRKelly campaign, calling for anyone currently profiting from Kelly and his music to drop him, including Spotify, Ticketmaster, and Kelly’s record label, RCA. In 2019, RCA quietly dropped Kelly.
In January 2019, Lifetime premiered the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, an overview of Kelly’s life and career — and of the decades’ worth of accounts that accuse him of having sexually abused young women and children. (Kelly’s lawyer said the series is full of lies and threatened to sue.)
One month later, the charges began to come. Throughout 2019, Kelly was officially charged with dozens of counts of sexual abuse and assault by courts in several different states.
Still, as Kelly’s legal jeopardy deepened, his music career continued. According to the Blast, Kelly’s music saw a 16 percent surge in Spotify streams after Surviving R. Kelly premiered.
There is a persistent vagueness to the way we talk about R. Kelly that made it possible to forget exactly what he was accused of, how often he was accused, and how much evidence there is against him. And most likely, that’s because his accusers are overwhelmingly young Black women and hence apparently easy for America to ignore.
“The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women,” says Jim DeRogatis, the reporter who broke the R. Kelly story. “Nobody.”
To try to combat that vagueness and the erasure that it makes possible, here is a timeline of all the accusations of sexual misconduct against R. Kelly.
Much of the chronology below is drawn from DeRogatis’s invaluable reporting on the R. Kelly accusations, including his own immensely thorough timeline. DeRogatis’s timeline covers the entire span of Kelly’s life, including his major career milestones and unrelated legal issues, but we’ve narrowed the focus of this timeline to specifically cover the sexual misconduct accusations against Kelly.
Over a 25-year span, a consistent pattern emerges. Over and over again, Kelly is accused of the same behavior: of targeting girls and very young women, isolating them, and controlling and abusing them. And after the dust from the accusation settles, Kelly has gone on living his life with very few changes. Until now.
Here, from Aaliyah to the alleged sex cult to the charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, are all the R. Kelly accusations.
August 30, 1994: 27-year-old R. Kelly marries 15-year-old Aaliyah
The ’90s music sensation Aaliyah was Kelly’s protégé. They met when she was 12 years old, and Kelly wrote and produced her first album in 1993. It was titled Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. In 1995, Vibe magazine published a copy of their marriage license, with 15-year-old Aaliyah falsely listing her age as 18.
“Family members say Aaliyah thought it was all an elaborate ‘game,’ and she just went along with it,” the Chicago Sun-Times later reported, adding that the marriage license was reportedly obtained by Kelly’s assistant, using a fake ID. “Within hours, she realized what had happened, and she went to her family and sought their help.”
The marriage was annulled in 1994, just months after the ceremony. In the settlement, according to documents obtained by the Sun-Times, Aaliyah promises not to pursue further legal action because of “emotional distress caused by any aspect of her business or personal relationship with Robert” or for “physical injury or emotional pain and suffering arising from any assault or battery perpetrated by Robert against her person.”
1995: Kelly reportedly begins a relationship with underage Lizzette Martinez
In an interview with BuzzFeed published in May 2018, Martinez says she met Kelly at the mall when she was 17, and that he initiated a sexual relationship with her while aware of her age. She also says that he was physically abusive to her and that he pressured her to perform some sexual acts against her will. “It was very controlled: what I wore, how I spoke, who my friends were, who I could bring around,” she says. Kelly has not yet commented on Martinez’s story.
December 24, 1996: the first of the known lawsuits accusing Kelly of sex with underage girls is filed
Tiffany Hawkins filed suit against Kelly and his record, publishing, and management companies on Christmas Eve 1996. The suit alleged that he initiated a sexual relationship with her when he was 24 and she was 15, and that he pushed her to participate in group sex with him and other underage girls. Kelly allegedly met Hawkins at his old Chicago high school, Kenwood Academy, when he visited the school to reminisce about having gotten his start there and to inspire current students to follow their dreams.
Hawkins sought $10 million in damages, but Kelly countersued, claiming that Hawkins was attempting to blackmail him with a false paternity claim. (There is no paternity claim in Hawkins’s lawsuit.) Hawkins settled for $250,000, and her suit went largely unnoticed until 2000, when DeRogatis began to investigate the R. Kelly case for the Chicago Sun-Times.
December 21, 2000: the Chicago Sun-Times publishes the first newspaper article investigating Kelly’s alleged sex crimes
In a lengthy and thoroughly reported story, the Chicago Sun-Times outlined the facts of the Tiffany Hawkins lawsuit and Kelly’s marriage to Aaliyah. “Chicago police twice have investigated allegations that Kelly was having sex with an underage female but dropped the investigations because the girl would not cooperate,” the story noted. No one from Kelly’s camp provided comment for the article.
January 2001: the first R. Kelly sex tape emerges
An anonymous source sent a videotape of what appeared to be Kelly having sex with a very young woman to Jim DeRogatis at the Sun-Times. DeRogatis handed the tape over to the Chicago police, but the police, unable to identify the woman in the tape, did not charge Kelly. Bootleg copies of the tape circulated throughout Chicago. As far as we can tell, Kelly has not publicly commented on this tape.
August 2001: the second R. Kelly lawsuit is filed
Tracy Sampson, a former intern at Epic Records, filed a lawsuit against Kelly claiming that he initiated a sexual relationship with her when she was 17. DeRogatis quotes at length from her lawsuit:
I was lied to by him. … I was coerced into receiving oral sex from a girl I did not want to have sex with. I was often treated as his personal sex object and cast aside. He would tell me to come to his studio and have sex with him, then tell me to go. He often tried to control every aspect of my life including who I would see and where I would go.
The suit was settled out of court. The size of the settlement is unknown. Kelly denied all wrongdoing.
February 8, 2002: the second R. Kelly tape emerges
An anonymous source sent another videotape to the Chicago Police Department, this one showing Kelly engaging in sex acts with and urinating on what appears to be a young girl while instructing her to call him “Daddy.” A witness identified the girl and said she would have been 14 at the time the videotape was made.
Kelly, who was scheduled to perform at the Winter Olympics the same month that the tape emerged, denied in a radio interview that the tape showed him having sex with a minor. “It’s crap, and that’s how we’re going to treat it,” he said. “The reason these things are happening I really do believe is because of the fact that I didn’t fall back as far as blackmail was concerned. I didn’t give them any money.”
Bootleg copies of the tape circulated across the country, and police eventually indicted Kelly on 21 counts of child pornography.
April 29, 2002: Kelly is sued by a third woman …
Patrice Jones said in her lawsuit that Kelly had sex with her when she was 16 years old, and that when she became pregnant, he coerced her into having an abortion. Kelly settled the lawsuit out of court for an unknown sum. His lawyer described the suit as “a collection of half-truths, distortions and outright lies.”
May 4, 2002: … and a fourth
Thirty-three-year-old Montina Woods said that Kelly taped their sexual encounter without her knowledge and then distributed the tapes. Kelly, once again, settled out of court for an unknown sum. A spokesperson from his camp described the suit as “ridiculous” and “nonsensical.”
2005: Kelly’s second wife, Andrea Lee, files a restraining order against him alleging abuse
Kelly married dancer Drea Kelly, née Andrea Lee, in 1996. In 2005, she petitioned for and received an emergency restraining order against him, citing physical abuse, harassment, stalking, and interfering with her personal liberty.
In her petition, Drea wrote that when she asked for a divorce, Kelly pinned her down and hit her repeatedly, yelling, “Don’t you leave me! Why are you leaving me?” She added that he repeatedly “snapped” at her when she was near a man, including the time a man showed up in the background of a picture she took with her kids.
“My wife and I had a heated argument, and we are now in the process of working it out,” Kelly said in a public statement. “We hope that the press and public will give us the time and privacy we need to resolve this very personal situation.”
Once the emergency order expired, Drea asked for it to be dismissed, and she refused to comment on the incident in the press, referring to it only as “old news.”
October 4, 2006: Kelly is sued by his mentor and associate
Longtime Kelly associate Henry “Love” Vaughn said in a lawsuit that Kelly attacked him at a party at his house, and backed out of paying Vaughn for his work on a song as well. In an interview with the Sun-Times, Vaughn claimed Kelly attacked him after he remarked that Kelly’s 7-year-old daughter was dancing “grown-up style,” saying, “She was all dressed up with tight jeans and makeup on, a seven-year-old girl, dancing on top of the pool table. It was ridiculous. She told my lady, ‘I’m having a show next week; when you come, bring $100.’”
Kelly’s lawyer once again described the lawsuit as “a pathetic collection of half-truths, distortions and outright lies.”
May 2008: the trial of R. Kelly
More than five years after the news of the alleged child sex tape broke, Kelly faced trial on 14 counts of child pornography. (In the years since he was indicted, Kelly’s lawyers had successfully knocked down seven of the original charges.) The trial lasted for just over a month, and neither Kelly nor the girl on the tape testified. Although 15 witnesses for the prosecution took the stand to identify the girl in question, the jury concluded that they could not be positive of the girl’s identity and thus could not be sure that she was underage. After one day of deliberations, the jury found Kelly not guilty. Kelly broke down in tears in the courtroom.
After the trial, Kelly spent nearly 10 years tending to his career, headlining musical festivals and staying away from scandal. And then …
July 2017: news of the alleged sex cult breaks
In July 2017, BuzzFeed News reported that R. Kelly was allegedly holding multiple young women in compounds on his properties across the country, controlling their every move. According to BuzzFeed’s sources, the women were required to call Kelly “Daddy”; ask his permission before going anywhere, including the bathroom; wear jogging suits so that other men could not see their bodies; and turn and face the wall when other men entered the room. BuzzFeed further reported that Kelly allegedly coerced the women into group sex, videotaped them, and beat them when they disobeyed him.
But the women currently living with Kelly have repeatedly said that they are happy and that they are with him of their own free will. And because they are all 18 or older, police have not intervened.
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.”
August 2017: one of R. Kelly’s accusers breaks her nondisclosure agreement to speak out
Jerhonda Pace says she began a relationship with Kelly in 2009, when she was 16, and that the details of their relationship match the details reported about Kelly’s alleged “sex cult”: At first Kelly courted her, she said, and then he isolated her, and then he began to abuse her. After their relationship ended, she sued Kelly for damages, and says he settled with her out of court in exchange for her signing an NDA. Pace said she decided to break the terms of her settlement last summer in order to help the women still with Kelly. “If I can speak out and I can help them get out of that situation, that’s what I will do,” she said.
A representative for Kelly denied the accusations, saying, “The allegations against Mr. Kelly are false, and are being made by individuals known to be dishonest. It is clear these continuing stories are the result of the effort of those with personal agendas who are working in concert to interfere with and damage his career. Mr. Kelly again denies any and all wrongdoing and is taking appropriate legal action to protect himself from ongoing defamation.”
October 2017: another Kelly accuser backs up the sex cult story
Kitti Jones says her relationship with Kelly also mirrors the accounts of the sex cult story. Kelly got her to quit her job and move in with him, Jones said last October, and then he began to control her, and then he began to abuse her. Kelly denied all the accusations.
April 9, 2018: an unnamed woman files a criminal complaint against Kelly
An unnamed woman says she spent eight months in a relationship with Kelly when she was 19, and that he was grooming her to join his sex cult, the Huffington Post reports. According to the woman’s lawyer, at one point Kelly told her that “she would have to sign a contract and offer collateral information about herself and her family for Kelly’s protection.”
The woman says Kelly intentionally infected her with an STD over the course of their relationship. She’s filed a criminal complaint against him, citing charges of “unlawful restraint, furnishing alcohol and illegal drugs to a minor, and aggravated assault (via the referenced intentional STD infection).” Her lawyer says she is preparing a federal civil lawsuit against Kelly. Kelly has denied the accusations.
November 20, 2018: Kelly’s ex-wife Drea Kelly accuses R. Kelly of domestic violence
Kelly and his second wife Drea Kelly (née Andrea Lee) divorced in 2009, but rumors have long flourished that dark secrets lurked in their marriage.
In 2003, Drea’s mother Gerri Cruz told journalists that she feared that R. Kelly was brainwashing her daughter. “The last time I talked to her was over two years ago on the phone,” Cruz said. “She was crying hysterically and violently.”
Cruz said she asked the police to check out Kelly’s house to make sure that Drea was all right, but nothing came of it.
“I don’t know if my child is under the influence. I don’t know if she is being controlled. I don’t know if people are watching her. I don’t know if she is being brainwashed,” Cruz said.
Drea denied that she was being kept away from her family. “We live right here in Chicago. How could you not know where I am? It’s not as if I am overseas,” she said in an interview with Essence in 2009.
Earlier reports in the Chicago Sun-Times said that Kelly’s associates referred to Drea as “Puppydog,” and that she was “required” to knock before entering a room in the couple’s shared house.
In November 2018, Drea spoke out publicly for the first time about the abuse she says she has experienced at Kelly’s hands. She told ABC News that Kelly emotionally, physically, and sexually abused her, and that when they were married, she thought he might kill her. She says she decided to come forward after stories of Kelly’s alleged sex cult began to emerge.
“All these allegations start comin’ out again and I’m like, ‘God, OK. I don’t think I can take this one,’” she said.
January 3, 2019: Surviving R. Kelly premieres on Lifetime
Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly consisted of three two-hour installments: The first focused on Kelly’s childhood and early music career — and the sexual abuse he suffered. The second focused on his 2008 criminal trial. The third, on the 2017 “sex cult” story. While the series mostly reiterated information that was already on the record, it did include accounts from multiple members of Kelly’s inner circle who were speaking out in public for the first time, and its arrival was marked by outrage.
In December 2018, a private screening of the docuseries was evacuated and then canceled following a gun threat. “The first thing that came to my mind — and I can’t speak for anyone else — was that [R. Kelly] had this shut down,” Drea Kelly told Rolling Stone after the evacuation. “I believe it was somebody connected to him.” And on the day of the premiere, TMZ published a letter from Kelly’s lawyer threatening to sue Lifetime over the series.
February 14, 2019: a third sex tape emerges
February 22, 2019: Kelly is charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse
Prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois, filed 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse against Kelly. He was arraigned in March 2019.
May 30, 2019: Kelly is charged with 11 more counts, including aggravated criminal sexual assault
Three months after filing 10 charges against Kelly, Cook County filed an additional 11 charges against him. The new charges included aggravated criminal sexual assault, which is considered more serious than the sexual abuse with which Kelly was previously charged, and which can be punished by up to 30 years in prison.
July 11–12, 2019: Kelly faces 18 new counts, including kidnapping and child pornography
Cook County prosecutors filed an additional 13 charges against Kelly on July 11, including charges of child pornography. The following day, he received five additional federal sex crime charges, including charges of kidnapping and forced labor in New York.
The sheer volume of accusations Kelly has fielded since 1994 is astonishing, and perhaps it offers its own answer as to why he’s been able to live his life with few consequences. In a sense, his fans have been inoculated. They’ve been listening to accusations against Kelly for 25 years, and they’ve been listening to Kelly maintain his innocence for just as long. In the 21st century, ignoring the persistent allegations against him is just part of being an R. Kelly fan.
This article was originally published in April 2018. Vox has continued to update it as more information comes to light.