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24 Oct 2021 13:20
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  •   Home > News > International

    Who is R Kelly? How the R&B superstar, convicted of human trafficking, was finally brought to justice

    The trial is the culmination of decades of allegations, denials, court cases and settlements that have led many to wonder how Kelly got away with his behaviour for so long.

    R Kelly, one of the most popular artists of his generation, is facing a lengthy prison term after being found guilty in his sex trafficking trial.

    The singer was convicted overnight in New York.

    The trial is the culmination of decades of allegations, denials, court cases and settlements that have led many to wonder when Kelly might finally be brought to justice.

    Who is R Kelly?

    Robert Sylvester Kelly is best known for the track I Believe I Can Fly, which was on the soundtrack to the 1996 film Space Jam.

    The song won three Grammy Awards and was a hit across the world.

    But before that, he had developed a reputation for his sultry, sleezy take on R&B (his early hits were 1993's Bump & Grind and Sex Me).

    He is considered one of the most influential R&B artists of his generation and has sold more than 70 million records worldwide.

    He's also written and produced for many artists, including Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Aaliyah.

    What was he accused of?

    Kelly was facing one count of racketeering – essentially, running a criminal enterprise – and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which makes it illegal to take people across state lines for the purposes of prostitution.

    During the trial, several victims testified that Kelly used his status and fame – and the promise of help with their own recording careers – to trick them into sexual relationships when they were underage.

    Former employees of Kelly's said it was sometimes their job to hand out slips of paper to women bearing the singer's phone number.

    Kelly was also accused of physically abusing and humiliating his victims and holding them against their will.

    After the verdict was handed down, Acting US attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said:

    "Today's guilty verdict forever brands R Kelly as a predator, who used his fame and fortune to prey on the young, the vulnerable and the voiceless for his own sexual gratification."

    These were not the first allegations against him, right?


    Allegations of sexual abuse against Kelly go back 25 years, according to the journalist Jim DeRogatis, who first covered the singer's alleged crimes in 2000.

    Back then, court records showed the same pattern: Kelly was using his fame to coerce underage girls into sex.

    One of those was Tiffany Hawkins, who sued Kelly in 1998 claiming he abused her and several other underage girls.

    The reporter also broke the story about the infamous Kelly video tape, which showed the singer allegedly abusing and urinating on a 14-year-old girl.

    That video led to child pornography charges against Kelly. 

    After a lengthy trial, at which the alleged victim and her parents refused to testify, he was acquitted.

    Over the years, many other women came forward with allegations.

    Did the allegations affect his career?

    For many years, no.

    He continued performing internationally, including with artists like Jay-Z, and recording albums throughout the 2000s.

    He played the 2010 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony, the 2011 pre-Grammys show, and at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival, among others.

    Even as these allegations surfaced, he continued to tour and rack up millions of streams.

    The crowds outside the court overnight suggest many fans have stuck by him.

    Why did he get away with this for so long?

    The singer used a familiar tactic in the pre-#MeToo era: settlements and non-disclosure agreements.

    Hawkins settled her case against Kelly for $US250,000, while another woman, a former record label employee who accused Kelly of abusing her as a 17-year-old, also settled.

    DeRogatis says there existed what amounted to a "settlement factory", where any accusers would be paid for their silence – sometimes before a case was even publicly filed.

    This method was partly what allowed Harvey Weinstein to continue abusing women for as long as he did.

    Race may also have been a factor.

    Other victims did not talk about their experiences due to fear or because they believed it would impact their own music careers.

    Aaliyah, who was one of R&B's biggest stars before her death in 2001, was illegally married to Kelly in 1994 when she was 15 and he was 27.

    She later broke off contact with Kelly and refused to discuss her work with him in interviews. (The marriage was later annulled.)

    This year, Kelly's lawyers finally admitted he had "underage sexual contact" with her.

    What eventually brought him down?

    In 2018, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, things changed.

    The Time's Up group started the Mute R Kelly campaign. The aim was to get the music industry, which had long excused or ignored Kelly's behaviour, to drop its support for him.

    In May of that year, Spotify stopped putting his music in playlists or recommending it (though you can still find it on the platform, where it has 4.5 million monthly listeners).

    Other music streaming services did the same.

    In 2019, the Surviving R Kelly documentary brought more allegations to light. Another victim told the BBC: "He controlled every aspect of my life."

    After the documentary aired, Kelly was dropped by his long-time label, RCA Records. He was charged the following month.

    What happens next?

    Kelly will be sentenced next year.

    But even if he receives the maximum 20 years in prison, this long, shameful chapter in music history is not closed.

    The singer faces charges in two states and another federal case in Illinois, where prosecutors allege he bribed the family of the victim in the earlier child pornography case.

    His co-defendants in that Illinois case are two of his former employees.

    Though they deny the charges, prosecutors in the trial that just wrapped up said Kelly "used [his] inner circle as his means to a criminal end".

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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