We need to talk about R Kelly.
R Kelly, the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter whose sexually charged slow jams have made him the most successful R&B artist of his time.
R Kelly, the man who produced Aaliyah’s debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, then married her a year later when she was just 15. (Aaliyah claimed to be 18 on the wedding certificate; the marriage was annulled a year later.)
R Kelly, who was acquitted in 2008 of filming himself handing fistfuls of cash to a naked schoolgirl then instructing her to call him ‘Daddy’ before engaging in various sex acts, including peeing in her mouth.
He has always said he wasn’t the man in the videotape. The 13-year-old girl involved also denied it was her, although several members of her family testified otherwise.
A jury found him not guilty of 14 counts of child pornography and his life returned to normal.
But ‘normal’ for R Kelly is making huge amounts of money as a successful recording artist – money that helped him quietly pay off multiple lawsuits.
‘Normal’ for R Kelly is having his wife request a restraining order against him. In her 2005 petition, Andrea Kelly wrote: “Last summer I was slapped. We made up but I asked for a divorce and he pinned me down and continued to hit me yelling, ‘Don’t you leave me. Why are you leaving me?’ He says, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not a wife beater, my hand was open. It’s not like I did it for no reason. You made me do it.'” (R Kelly said at the time the couple had had a “heated argument” and requested the media give the couple privacy.)
His wife withdrew the petition days later.
Last month, R Kelly performed alongside Lady Gaga at the American Music Awards. This month, he graced the cover of the Guardian’s G2 supplement promoting his new album Black Panties, which entered the Billboard charts at Number 4. It is his 15th Top Ten album.
But his latest success also brought back old ghosts: like Jim DeRogatis, the music journalist who, during his tenure at the Chicago Sun-Times, reported extensively the “stomach-churning” allegations against R Kelly.
It was DeRogatis who received a copy of the urination tape from an anonymous source in 2002 and handed it over to the police.
Much of what he uncovered has gone largely unreported. So earlier this year he launched a blog series, The Kelly Conversations, to keep the matter in the wider public eye.
In a candid interview with the Village Voice, DeRogatis asked why R Kelly has been able to fly so low under the radar that many – including me – are now hearing these allegations for the first time.
His answer made me nauseous: “The saddest fact I’ve learned is: nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”
He added: “Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him, or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, makes this point: one white girl in Winnetka [an affluent area of Illinois] 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.”
I feel a strong sense of responsibility to share this information; to highlight how misogyny, racism and social class have intersected so disastrously.
DeRogatis said the women who came forward were treated like “bitches, hos, and gold-diggers” out to get R Kelly for his money. It fit the hip-hop narrative.
And that is why representation matters – because women and girls are being robbed of their voices, and then their humanity.
One woman interviewed by the Sun Times met R Kelly when he visited his old school choir – as he often did – while she was a star-struck student who dreamed of having a music career.
She politely called his penchant for teenagers ‘a sickness’. “We were ugly little girls compared to what he could have had, and so I just didn’t understand why he did what he did.”
All the lurid details of the initial lawsuits filed against R Kelly are public record and are now uploaded online for anyone who cares to read them.
Ahead of R Kelly’s recent interview with the Guardian, the journalist involved was warned not to ask questions about ‘low points’ in his career.
But some questions really do need to be asked.
Like this one – when R Kelly writes an album called Black Panties, how old do you think the person he fantasises is wearing them is?
If you don’t care about the answer then, sadly, DeRogatis was right.