June 14, 2008, Robert Kelly shudders a sigh of relief and walks out of a Cook County courthouse a free man, cleared of multiple child pornography charges in a trial that lasted six years. Look at him, armored in an expensive suit carefully chosen for the way its deep blue threads convey a calm and assertive innocence, look at him waving to supporters, one of whom tells a reporter, "I just wish they leave the Kells alone." His face is the face of a man who had his invincibility challenged and then reaffirmed, a man who would emerge from his trial by fire not only unscathed but strengthened.
Now stop looking at Robert Kelly because Robert Kelly is a rich and powerful man and rich and powerful men can command our attention any time they choose. Instead, let your mind's eye wander over that linoleum drenched courthouse and into the city of Chicago, into the home of the girl who was on the tape that brought Robert Kelly to trial, the girl who at 14-years-old was raped and then had the videotape of her rape played and replayed and analyzed and dissected, brutal frame by brutal frame, for a jury of disbelieving strangers. Don't look away because she is not a rich and powerful man, and those who are not rich and powerful men rarely receive our attention. If only for a moment, give her your attention.
It's been some thirteen years now since R. Kelly was first charged with child pornography possession, and since his acquittal we've settled into a drudgingly predictable pattern in which every few years the spotlight fades and then brightens again on the "stomach-churning" sexual assault allegations R. Kelly has faced, after which we see a wave of intellectualized articles about separating great art from the sometimes terrible people who make great art, after which absolutely nothing happens, largely because of the media's insistence on reframing R. Kelly's alleged systematic, repeated rape of children as a question about art.
"Is It Okay to Listen to R. Kelly?" asked Vulture in a recent article, making sure to credit him as a "musical genius" first and foremost before writing that he's been accused of "awful things." And when we do that, when we insist on including R. Kelly's genius and music into our thinking about the things R. Kelly has been accused of, it gives us a welcome escape hatch, it allows our attention to shift away from the path of human devastation R. Kelly has left in his wake, away from the very real damage done to very real human beings, and into the land of ideas and intellectual debate and cultural analysis, a land where it's far easier to continue to support R. Kelly because is it okay to listen to R. Kelly? If it's even a question it must be.
Ignorance is an excuse, although the weakest one, and one I know well. For years I gleefully bought and memorized R. Kelly albums, turned up the "Ignition (Remix)" when it came on the radio, wrote multiple articles about "Trapped in the Closet" alone. I knew Kelly had been charged with a sex crime, but in my mind, that trial had largely been reduced to a Chappelle Show skit, a reduction which conveniently allowed me to freely laugh at "Sex Kitchen." I'm now ashamed to admit that it never once crossed my mind that there was a child, an actual child with a name and a family and a favorite TV show, at the center of those charges. And then, about two years ago, I actually took the time to read the "stomach-churning" sexual assault allegations against Kelly and suddenly I saw the very real children involved and I saw their parents putting on a brave face for their children but crying behind closed doors and I saw Kelly, unrepentant and untouched, and I was nauseated. So since that day I haven't listened to a single R. Kelly song or watched a single R. Kelly video or written a single word about R. Kelly, until now, because knowing what I now knew, how could it possibly be okay to listen to R. Kelly?
The litany of allegations against Kelly, a litany that extends far beyond his one well-publicized trial, aren't classified, aren't hidden, many of them are matters of public record and easily accessed by anyone willing to look for them. So I have looked for them, because the stories of young black women rarely demand our attention, particularly when placed against the stories of rich and powerful men. Here are those stories...
- Kelly met Aaliyah when she was 12-years-old and then married her when she was 15, he was 28 at the time. He falsified marriage documents stating that she was 18, the marriage was later annulled and Aaliyah signed an NDA [nondisclosure agreement] preventing her from speaking about Kelly and their relationship. Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah's uncle and Kelly's then manager, writes a letter to Kelly's attorney in an attempt to get Kelly psychiatric help for his "compulsion to pursue underage girls."
- Tiffany Hawkins sues Kelly, alleging that beginning when she was 15-years-old he repeatedly had group sex with her and other underage girls.
- Patrice Jones sues Kelly, alleging that beginning when she was 16-years-old Kelly had sex with her repeatedly, impregnated her at 17 and then forced her to have an abortion. According to Jones' lawyer, "That abortion haunts her to this day. She’s under psychological care now. It’s changed her life.”
- Tracy Sampson sues Kelly, alleging that Kelly began having sex with her when she was a 17-year-old intern at Epic Records and that Kelly impregnated her.
- Chicago prosecutors charge Kelly with 21 counts of child pornography centered around a tape that purportedly shows Kelly having sex with, and urinating on, his goddaughter, who was 14-years-old at the time. According to Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago-Sun Times reporter who covered the trial and wrote several stories investigating Kelly's alleged abuses, "You watch the video for which he was indicted and there is the disembodied look of the rape victim. He orders her to call him Daddy. He urinates in her mouth and instructs her at great length on how to position herself to receive his 'gift.' It's a rape that you're watching." Kelly is acquitted after his attorneys successfully argue that the tape could have been manipulated to make the man in it look like Kelly.
- During the trial, Lisa Van Allen testifies that she began having sex with Kelly when she was 17-years-old and had participated in group sex along with the 14-year-old girl in the tape. In her testimony, Allen also says that she once broke down crying during a taped sexual encounter and Kelly became angry because the footage was now useless. “He couldn’t watch that, he couldn’t do anything with that,” she said.
- Kelly is arrested in Miami on 16 additional charges of child pornography, authorities claim they found multiple photos of nude, underage girls and photos of Kelly "involved in sexual conduct with the female minor" while searching his residence. The charges are dismissed because the search warrant was deemed to be invalid.
- An unnamed young woman alleges in a more than one-hundred page lawsuit that when she was 14-years-old Kelly discovered her at a Chicago school, Kenwood Academy, and began to have sex with her along with other underage girls he recruited from the school, giving them sneakers and other gifts. She says she's "scarred" by the experience and later attempts to kill herself by slitting her wrists.
- In 2004 another sex tape leaks and the woman in that tape, Deleon Richards, says that she began having sex with Kelly a decade earlier when she was a teenager.
- According to DeRogatis, there have been "Dozens of girls - not one, not two, dozens - with harrowing lawsuits," all of which have been settled by Kelly. DeRogatis also recounts that he also routinely fields calls from other women who say they can't sleep because they're haunted by Kelly's sexual abuse of them as a teenager. It's important to note that all of the examples above, dozens of examples, only include women who went as far as filing lawsuits against Kelly. There are also reportedly several other examples in which Kelly settled with women before a lawsuit was filed, and droves of other women allegedly abused by Kelly who never pursued any action against him. For example, a woman told the Chicago Sun-Times that Kelly began having sex with her when she was 17 after they met at a video shoot, another said she was involved in group sex along Hawkins, another said she was one of the other girls from Kenwood Academy whom Kelly routinely had sex with, and Chicago area police twice investigated Kelly for completely separate incidents than the incident he was eventually charged for, but dropped those charges when the women declined to press charges.
- Kelly's longtime publicist, Regina Daniels, abruptly quit saying that Kelly has "crossed a line" by having sex with their then college-age daughter, who Kelly had known since she was seven.
- Kelly’s brother, Carey Kelly, alleges that Kelly attempted to get him to say he was the one in the sex tape, which he refused to do. He also alleges that he was routinely asked to find girls who "looked underage" at Kelly's shows and get their phone numbers.
- Demetrius Smith, Kelly’s longtime friend and personal assistant, publishes a memoir, The Man Behind the Man, in which he writes that: “Underage girls had proven to be [Kelly’s] weakness. He was obsessed. Sickly addicted."
When we read about R. Kelly's career and the allegations surrounding him we often see words like "complicated" thrown around, except there's nothing complicated about our relationship to R. Kelly's continuing career at all. It's exceedingly straightforward, at least once you've seen the full scope and horrific weight of the sum allegations brought against him. You can choose to believe that those dozens of women, Tiffany Hawkins and Patrice Jones and Tracy Sampson and Lisa Van Allen and Deleon Richards and the girl who slit her wrists in a failed attempt to kill herself and all the broken, anonymous women who never sued and have called Jim DeRogatis simply because they need someone who will believe them, are all liars, all of them, in which case you can listen to Kelly's music without burden. Or you have to believe that R. Kelly is a serial rapist who routinely preys on children. It really is that uncomplicated, there is no gray area, no middle ground, no haze. And if you believe that R. Kelly has done nauseatingly terrible things to children and you still choose to buy his albums and attend his concerts and listen to his music, then you're choosing to support a serial rapist. It's exceedingly straightforward.
The complication comes not with R. Kelly himself but with our own lives. None of us have any actual relationship with Robert Sylvester Kelly, and so it would be strikingly easy to cut him from our lives, except through his music he's permanently embedded into our most valued possession, our memories. We hear "I Believe I Can Fly" and think about Space Jam and remember our childhoods, we hear "I'm A Flirt" and remember how impossibly good our freshmen year crush looked that night at that house party, we hear "Happy People" and remember dancing with our aunt at our cousin's wedding and what his music means to us because it was playing while we were with the people who mean something to us and in the places that mean something to us. I remember driving down Harvard Ave. one November night, parking and then literally running into my friend's apartment to tell her about this incredibly strange and amazing....song?...they'd just played on the radio, "Trapped in the Closet." Of all the thousands of hours of my life I've forgotten, I still remember that hour. Our memories are sacred spaces, and so, of course, we fight to protect them, wrap them in layer after layer of denial and intentional ignorance if necessary to keep them pure and untarnished by the often crushing truths we learn later.
And so we tell ourselves that R. Kelly has never been convicted in court as if we truly believe that the justice system is a perfect reflection of actual guilt and innocence. And so with each allegation, we concoct an explanation, most likely one provided by Kelly for us until the sheer volume of allegations and explanations defy any logic. And so we tell ourselves that R. Kelly is a genius, detour into intellectual debates about the lines between the art and an artist's personal life as if any amount of genius can be equivalent to the pain of a raped child. As if you would ever look one of those abused women in the eyes, women who could be your daughter or sister or mother or friend, and say, "But he makes great music." We all perform these mental contortions to avoid confronting hard truths so we can continue to live our lives in comfort, especially out of fear of being guilty by association, myself included in more ways than I can count, but here, in this specific case, with all these dozens of women who have said Kelly abused them, it really shouldn't be that difficult to place their pain in front of our own entertainment.
Shattering the sanctity of our musical memories, our heroes, is a painful, difficult business, but I've found one force stronger than even our resistance to change - compassion. It's easy to ignore the allegations against Kelly when they're presented as ideas, a thing to be debated and thought about and questioned, it's nearly impossible to ignore them when you see those women as real, actual humans. As I write this my two daughters are sleeping and it's not hard to imagine them in the place of Tiffany Hawkins and Patrice Jones, those fears come quick and devastatingly sharp to parents. I imagine them telling me they were raped, I imagine finding them with their wrists slit. I imagine them telling me who raped them, and then I imagine that man walking free out of a courtroom, shuddering a sigh of relief armored in an expensive suit carefully chosen for the way its deep blue threads convey a calm and assertive innocence. I imagine that man going on to gather fame and adoration and money and it's not hard to imagine because I know it's some father's reality and now I'm on the verge of tears and deciding that I'll sleep in my daughter's room tonight so I can know she's protected and safe.
If I could make you see their face when you look at Kelly, if I could make you hear their voice instead of Kelly's when you listen to his music, I would, because they're all I see and hear now, and if their names are one day more well known than his, then there might be something like justice.
It is not okay to listen to R. Kelly.