Americans love a good comeback story, and until recently, R&B superstar R. Kelly was in the midst of one of the most unlikely yet successful second acts in recent memory.
Accused of filming himself having sex with an underage girl, the hitmaker was acquitted on charges relating to child pornography in 2008. Kelly largely emerged unscathed. The self-proclaimed “King of R&B” subsequently reclaimed his throne, working with A-list singers, touring and receiving multiple Grammy nominations. Although a 2017 investigation published in Buzzfeed accusing the singer, songwriter and producer of holding underage girls captive in a sex cult resulted in some backlash, including streaming services refusing to promote his songs, Kelly kept his record deal, and more important, his freedom. Kelly may not have been able to fly, like he believed in his famous song, but it sure seemed as if he could do almost anything else, including dodge bullets.
But then the documentary Surviving R. Kelly premiered on Lifetime in January 2019. The six-part miniseries investigated the sex cult allegations while revisiting some older accusations against the singer, including those that led to the 2008 trial and his 1994 marriage to protegee Aaliyah, who was then 15 years old. Containing interviews with several former girlfriends, his ex-wife, family members and associates, the documentary succeeded in clipping Kelly’s wings. Days after the premiere, Georgia and Illinois opened criminal investigations and encouraged more victims to come forward. By the next month, Kelly had lost his record deal and been charged by the Cook County state’s attorney in Chicago with sex abuse. In July 2019, he got hit with federal sex abuse charges as well.
“I was so shocked that law enforcement got involved,” Surviving R. Kelly executive producer Tamra Simmons says. “We thought, ‘Maybe the families [of his accusers] could pursue legal action if and when they were reunited with their daughters.’ We knew there were certain laws that he had broken. What we didn’t know was if anyone would do anything about it.”Victor Li, “Reel Power: Documentaries are shaping public opinion and influencing cases,” ABA Journal, August-September 2020
Turns out, this time there were quite a few members of law enforcement who were willing to do something about it. As such, the only performances R. Kelly has to worry about for the next 20-30 years will be at his federal prison’s talent show — provided they have them.
If you watch Surviving R. Kelly, one thing that really strikes you is how many people turned a blind eye towards Kelly and the various rumors, innuendo and accusations that have followed him around since the start of his career.
One reason was because he was a cash-cow. Simply put, as long as Kelly was a hit-making singer, songwriter and producer, then plenty of fans, artists, critics and music industry members had the incentive to give him the benefit of the doubt.
And for a long time, Kelly certainly had the Midas Touch — only in his case, he not only produced gold but platinum, too. His first 11 studio albums went platinum in the U.S. and three of them, 12 Play (1993), R. Kelly (1995) and R. (1998), went 6x, 5x and 8x platinum, respectively. He has 19 Top 20 singles in the U.S., including two #1s and two #2s. He was also a prolific and successful producer, working with the likes of Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton, The Isley Brothers, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, B2K and Celine Dion, among many others. Even his experimental stuff was popular, as he took a bunch of bizarre, minimally-produced spoken-word interludes and turned it into a 33-part hip-hop soap opera that became a cultural phenomenon (albeit one that was widely parodied and even ridiculed).
Kelly was also a masterful artist who could change his colors and style whenever he saw fit. He was smart enough to realize that if he made too many songs about sex or adult themes, he would alienate fans (especially given the rumors about him). As such, he would throw out a tender ballad like “I’m Your Angel” or a gospel-tinged uplifting song like “I Believe I Can Fly” to avoid becoming a caricature. I actually think that “I Believe I Can Fly,” which was memorably used in a kid’s movie starring one of the most beloved icons in American history and Michael Jordan, helped him weather the storm from all of the Aaliyah rumors (which turned out to be true) and allowed him to become an even bigger star.
When he faced child porn charges after a tape surfaced in 2002 of him allegedly engaging in sexual activity with an underage girl and urinating on her, Kelly simply played the Shaggy defense and denied it was him. He was acquitted in 2008 and emerged largely unscathed. Sure, there were lots of jokes about him (Chappelle’s Show had a field day with some of the more salacious accusations), but Kelly remained an in-demand producer, collaborator and performer. His first album released after his acquittal hit #4 on the Billboard 200, and his next three albums after that all made the Top Ten.
People even seemed reluctant to bring up those and other accusations to his face. Other than a PR disaster in 2013 in which Kelly tried to use social media to promote his album, Black Panties, and got bombarded with questions about statutory rape during the ensuing Twitter Q&A, it wouldn’t be until 2015 when a reporter finally confronted him during a live interview and asked him questions about past sexual abuse allegations.
Kelly didn’t take this well, repeatedly talking over Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani of the Huffington Post and trying to bully her several times before ultimately walking out of the interview (he even said he was leaving to go to McDonald’s — an eerie quote considering how, according to Surviving R. Kelly, the singer would allegedly cruise the restaurant to find girls to hit on).
Well since you’re the one [who] brought it up, I’ll just say it to you because I don’t hear it from anyone else. You know you hear a few rumors here and there but as far as from me to you, I would say again, f*** that … Now when I start to hear what I just heard you sit here and say to me when I step on that stage, which is my office, which is my interview room, if I hear what you just said from twenty to fifty thousand fans, I will never show up to that venue and any other venue again. But until then, I’m gonna continue to do R. Kelly… I’m gonna always do my job until I get fired and the only ones who can fire me is my fans.R. Kelly, Huffington Post Live, 12/21/2015
That quote was illuminating for a couple of reasons. For one, the assertion that “I don’t hear it from anyone else” shows that either a) people really had moved on and let things go or b) they knew not to bring it up in front of him.
Secondly, it showed his mentality that, as long as his fans loved him and bought his records, then he could do whatever he wanted. Things would continue as they always did — namely, Kelly would generate tons of money for his record label, and this would protect him from being held accountable for his past, present and (most likely) future transgressions.
Only this time, Kelly’s wings got clipped. First came the 2017 Buzzfeed exposé, then #MuteRKelly, which saw several major music streaming services agree not to promote his music. In the meantime, Kelly didn’t do himself any favors, releasing a song called “I Admit,” a 19-minute troll job that some critics even compared to O.J. Simpson’s canceled 2007 quasi-confessional book (If) I Did It.
Then came the start of his reckoning in the form of Surviving R. Kelly.
For his part, Kelly has denied all of the allegations against him. In one of his only public appearances before being imprisoned, Kelly condemned Surviving R. Kelly and told CBS News’ Gayle King that he was being railroaded. “They are lying on me,” he said, breaking down in tears while categorically denying he’s ever had sex with underage girls and maintaining that he would have to be pretty stupid to start a sex cult considering his past. His attorney, Steven Greenberg, did not respond to a request for comment.Victor Li, “Reel Power,” ABA Journal, August-September 2020
In 2021 and 2022, Kelly was convicted of a laundry list of federal and state charges, including racketeering, sex trafficking, sex abuse, forced labor and the Mann Act. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his Eastern District of New York case and 20 years in his federal case in Chicago. Illinois state attorney Kim Foxx dropped state charges against Kelly because of his long federal sentence, while the singer still faces an indictment in Minnesota for soliciting a minor.
For Surviving R. Kelly executive producer Simmons, the documentary already has helped some of his accusers start the healing process while hopefully providing a beacon of hope for future generations. “There were so many who were scared to speak out against this man because they weren’t sure they’d be heard,” says Simmons, who, along with her team, released Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning, which dealt with the fallout from the first part—both for Kelly and his accusers—in January 2020. “As an African American woman, I wanted to make sure my daughter and all our daughters knew our voices did matter.”Victor Li, “Reel Power,” ABA Journal, August-September 2020
Indeed, as the documentary makes clear, Kelly’s accusers and victims were largely ignored for many years specifically because they were Black women.
“The fact his victims have been dismissed has everything to do with the fact they are Black girls,” Surviving R. Kelly executive producer and showrunner dream hampton told Elle. “We have a history in this country of not believing black girls and women, that we have no agency over our bodies.”
In coming forward, they finally had their voices heard and obtained some measure of justice. And in doing so, they finally managed to silence R. Kelly.