R Kelly goes on trial for child sexual exploitation, kidnapping and forced labour

The I Believe I Can Fly singer has faced allegations since 1994. Here’s a timeline

R Kelly: the singer leaving court in Chicago in 2019. His trial in Brooklyn begins on Monday. Photograph: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty

R Kelly: the singer leaving court in Chicago in 2019. His trial in Brooklyn begins on Monday. Photograph: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty

 

For 2½ decades the singer who performs as R Kelly has faced allegations of sexually abusing minors, often luring them in through music – and the promise to help launch their own music careers.

In 2017 and then again in 2019, public scrutiny grew following the #MuteRKelly campaign, a series of protests and boycotts of his music, and the release of Surviving R Kelly, a documentary including testimony from several women accusing the singer of abuse.

But the 54-year-old American performer has settled the civil complaints against him and was acquitted in a high-profile criminal case brought against him on child-pornography charges in 2008. That case marked the first criminal prosecution of Kelly.

‘The musician turned predator allegedly used his stardom to coax some victims into nefarious sex acts,’ the special agent in charge claimed. ‘R Kelly believed he could fly, but it will be justice to see his oppressive wings clipped’

A second criminal trial starts today, in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, where Robert Kelly is charged with racketeering based on sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping, forced labour and violations of the US Mann Act. Those violations involve the coercion and transportation of women and girls in interstate commerce to engage in illegal sexual activity.

Kelly, who has been in custody since 2019, has pleaded not guilty in both cases. Angel Melendez, special agent in charge from the US department of homeland security’s investigations division, was among those to announce the charges in July 2019. “As alleged, for two decades the enterprise at the direction of R Kelly preyed upon young women and teenagers whose dreams of meeting a superstar soon turned into a nightmare of rape, child pornography and forced labour,” he said in a statement at the time.

“The musician turned predator allegedly used his stardom to coax some victims into nefarious sex acts while certain members of his enterprise calculatingly facilitated the aberrant conduct.

“R Kelly believed he could fly, but it will be justice to see his oppressive wings clipped.”

The day those charges were announced, a separate federal indictment against the singer was unsealed in Chicago. There, he faces charges of pornography and obstruction. The Chicago trial, originally planned for September, now appears to be in “an indefinite holding pattern”, Jeannice Appenteng, an assistant US attorney, told the judge in July.

One of Kelly’s lawyers, Steven Greenberg, spoke to reporters in February 2019. “Mr Kelly is strong, he’s got a lot of support, and he’s going to be vindicated on all of these charges,” Greenberg said at the time. “One by one, if it has to be.”

Here’s a timeline of the accusations against a singer whose popularity has been waning since the early 2000s. His last album, 12 Nights of Christmas, came out in October 2016.

“Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number

The singer Aaliyah was 15 when she married R Kelly, in 1994. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty
The singer Aaliyah was 15 when she married R Kelly, in 1994. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty

In the early 1990s R Kelly met his manager’s teenage niece, “Princess of R&B” Aaliyah, who became his protege. He produced her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number – named for its title track, which he wrote. It was released in May 1994.

Three months later in Chicago, Kelly, then 27, married Aaliyah Dana Haughton, who was 15 – but listed as 18 on a wedding certificate. (In Surviving R Kelly, Demetrius Smith, a former personal assistant to Kelly, said, “I had papers forged for them. But Aaliyah was underage.”)

(In December 2019, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn accused Kelly of bribing an Illinois government employee the day before the wedding in order to obtain a fake ID for Aaliyah. During the last pretrial hearing before Kelly’s trial on Monday, US district judge Ann Donnelly ruled that the jury will be allowed to hear about how Kelly allegedly had sexual contact with Aaliyah when she was underage.)

The lawsuits begin

Between 1996 and 2002 at least four women filed lawsuits against Kelly. In December 1996 Tiffany “Tia” Hawkins, then a high-school student, sued Kelly for $10 million, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in December 2000. Hawkins said that the two began having sex in 1991, when she was 15 and he was 24. Two years after the suit Kelly settled with Hawkins for $250,000. That year the singer won three Grammys for his song I Believe I Can Fly.

In 2001 Tracy Sampson filed a lawsuit against the singer, accusing him of coercing her into having sex with him when she was 17. That case was also settled outside of court. In 2002 two more lawsuits: one woman said she was underage when Kelly impregnated her and forced her to have an abortion; another said she was videotaped during sex without her knowledge. Both cases were reported on by Chicago media, and both were settled outside of court.

Video, indictment, acquittal

The music critic and reporter Jim DeRogatis reported on the events in Chicago at the time and continued to investigate the accusations against Kelly. In February 2002 a videotape was left anonymously in the mailbox at DeRogatis’s home. The tape appeared to show Kelly having sex with a teenage girl and urinating on her. The Chicago Sun-Times, where DeRogatis worked at the time, began investigating.

Also in February 2002, the Chicago police revealed their own investigation of Kelly, on the same day that he performed at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Four months later the musician was indicted by a grand jury on 21 child-pornography counts in Chicago.

The case took more than five years to go to trial. Kelly pleaded not guilty, and in June 2008, after less than a full day of deliberations, a jury acquitted him of all charges.

A renewed reckoning

#MuteRKelly: a demonstrator at a protest near the singer’s studio in Chicago in 2019. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty
#MuteRKelly: a demonstrator at a protest near the singer’s studio in Chicago in 2019. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty

In July 2017 two things happened in quick succession: DeRogatis published an explosive article headlined “Inside the Pied Piper of R&B’s ‘Cult’” with BuzzFeed, and the #MuteRKelly campaign began to draw attention. The article reported disturbing allegations that the singer was living with several young women and controlling every aspect of their lives.

Four months after that article came out, DeRogatis wrote about his experience in the New Yorker. “Even 17 years of reporting hasn’t been enough to turn as bright a spotlight on Kelly as the one exposing many others,” he wrote, “because no one, it seems, matters less in our society than young Black women.”

Oronike Odeleye, cofounder of #MuteRKelly, felt that sentiment firsthand. She began a petition to get Kelly’s music off Atlanta airwaves, and the momentum spread throughout the United States, backed by the force of #MeToo. For example, in April 2018, Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement, asked Tom Joyner, a US radio personality, to stop supporting Kelly. Joyner vowed to stop playing the singer’s music on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

Surviving R Kelly until now

Surviving R Kelly (top row from left): Michelle Kramer, Lisa Van Allen, Lizzette Martinez, Andrea Kelly and Kitti Jones; (bottom row from left) Asante McGee, Faith Rodgers, Stephanie Edwards, aka Sparkle, Jerhonda Pace and Jovante Cunningham, from the 2019 documentary series. Photograph: Lifetime
Surviving R Kelly (top row from left): Michelle Kramer, Lisa Van Allen, Lizzette Martinez, Andrea Kelly and Kitti Jones; (bottom row from left) Asante McGee, Faith Rodgers, Stephanie Edwards, aka Sparkle, Jerhonda Pace and Jovante Cunningham, from the 2019 documentary series. Photograph: Lifetime

After the broadcast of the Surviving R Kelly documentary, in 2019, Cook County state’s attorney’s office began to receive “numerous” calls alleging abuse, and authorities started to investigate these claims. Joyner, the radio personality, was interviewed in the documentary. “The more we talk about this, the more we see what R Kelly has been doing historically over and over and over again,” he said. “And then all of these cases that he’s settled, we have to keep pushing. And keep pushing till we get some indictments. For some reason, he’s Teflon. And I don’t get that. I don’t get why the justice system can’t bring him to justice.”

Later that year Kelly was charged with 10 new counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Chicago by prosecutors in Cook County. Three of the four people identified as victims in the case were young women who were between the ages of 13 and 16 when the events were said to have occurred.

No trial date has been set for these counts. And it will remain that way until the completion of Kelly’s federal criminal cases.

The federal charges

R Kelly: the singer, who has been in custody since 2019, has pleaded not guilty in the case that begins on Monday. Photograph: Antonio Perez/Pool/Getty
R Kelly: the singer, who has been in custody since 2019, has pleaded not guilty in the case that begins on Monday. Photograph: Antonio Perez/Pool/Getty

In July 2019, five months after Chicago authorities charged Kelly, the singer was arrested again in Chicago, this time by US federal prosecutors who announced a 13-count indictment that included enticement of a minor, obstruction of justice and child pornography.

That day federal prosecutors in Brooklyn unsealed a separate indictment, which is the case that begins today with jury selection. The charges, which include one count of racketeering and four counts of violating the Mann Act, involve five unnamed women, three of whom were underage at the time.

Kelly’s federal case in Chicago is on hold while the racketeering case unfolds in Brooklyn; the judge set a status hearing for August 17th. If convicted, Kelly could face up to 20 years in prison. – New York Times

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