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28 September 2021

Why did it take so long for R Kelly’s victims to get justice?

If Kelly acted as though he was untouchable, it is because celebrities so often are.

By Emily Tamkin

When I was in sixth grade, we had a graduation ceremony. We spent much of the year preparing for it, and it was meant to conclude with a song, which we started rehearsing early on. That song was originally going to be “I Believe I Can Fly” by R Kelly. We scrapped it, though, because news surfaced of a video in which R Kelly appeared to have sex with a minor, which is to say, a video in which Kelly appeared to rape someone who could not consent under the law. The same day that the report broke, Kelly performed at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

That was in 2002. By this time, Kelly had already: secretly married the singer Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time (the marriage was annulled because she was underage); been sued by a high school student who alleged that they started having sex when he was 24 and she was 15 (which, again, is rape); and had an intern allege that their sexual contact was illegal as he was in a position of authority. Both Kelly and Aaliyah denied the marriage ever took place, though stories of his mistreatment of the singer circulated after her death in 2001. But the other allegations had been reported by the time my teachers selected “I Believe I Can Fly” as a graduation song and Kelly took the stage at the Winter Olympics. I knew that Kelly had been accused of something bad, and that that’s why, as a kid, we changed the song. But I can still distinctly remember dancing to “Ignition (Remix)” at university a little over a decade later.

The allegations against Kelly weren’t only from decades ago. Four years ago, BuzzFeed News published a story of Kelly’s cult. Parents told the publication that he had brainwashed their daughters and abused them. Three years ago, Faith Rodgers, then 20, filed a lawsuit against Kelly accusing the singer of, among other things, sexual battery and knowingly giving her herpes. It was only a year after that, in 2019, that Kelly was charged on multiple sexual abuse counts in Chicago and New York.

On 27 September, Kelly was found guilty of one count of racketeering and eight counts of violating a federal law that criminalises the transportation of women or girls for prostitution or “debauchery”. Eleven of his victims testified against him.

Why did it take so long? For one thing, Kelly was famous and powerful; enmeshed in popular culture. If he acted as though he was untouchable, it is because celebrities so often are. In the autumn of 2017, when allegations against celebrities were pouring out during the #MeToo movement, I was surprised not by the accusations but because any attempt at accountability was being made at all. On the US Supreme Court, there are only nine justices. One has been accused of sexual harassment and one of sexual misconduct. They were still confirmed to positions in the highest court in the country, which they are now entitled to occupy for the rest of their lives.

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But the other unmistakable, immovable part of this is that Kelly’s victims were young black people. There is a reason that, in 2017, the stories that finally came out were predominantly about men who preyed on rich, beautiful white women. To the extent that American society cares about women and girls, those are the women and girls about whom it cares. It was unsurprising to hear Kelly’s lawyer telling the media his client did not expect the verdict that came.

The singer Sparkle introduced her niece to Kelly in 1997 and then, in 2002, watched a video that Sparkle said showed Kelly having sex with and urinating on the 14-year-old girl. The singer went to the police. The next year, the allegations became public, causing my school to cancel “I Believe I Can Fly” as a graduation song. She testified against Kelly in his 2008 child pornography trial. He was found not guilty. This Monday, she told the Cut: “even when #MeToo came around, I didn’t think it was for black women. We are so marginalised. We don’t get that same support white women do – we’re treated as the bottom of the bottom. Had Robert [R Kelly] targeted white girls, trust and believe, there would have been an army behind them.”

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I would like to think that, in the case of the next R Kelly – and there will be a next R Kelly, someone who is powerful and rich and famous who makes songs we like to dance to and who is also comfortable abusing his power and those around him – we will do better. That we’ll listen to the people who are telling us that he is hurting them. That it won’t take two decades for them to get justice.

I’d like to believe that. But I don’t. The society that allowed Kelly to get away with what he did is still, in many ways, the society that convicted him. Kelly’s crimes finally caught up to him. That doesn’t mean society has caught up to where it should be.