R. Kelly has led a charmed career. Through a trial on child pornography charges, repeated allegations of sexual manipulation, and multiple lawsuits from teenage girls claiming he raped and abused them, the singer has remained a bankable superstar. He collaborated with Lady Gaga in 2014 and toured on a new album to roaring arenas as recently as last summer.
A new report from music critic Jim DeRogatis, who first broke the story of Kelly’s alleged pattern of abuse in the late ‘90s, may at last chip away at the singer’s enduring reputation among his fans. At BuzzFeed, DeRogatis relays the strikingly similar stories of two sets of parents who say they saw their teenage girls courted, subjugated, and essentially brainwashed into sexual arrangements with Kelly. Three of Kelly’s former lovers and employees confirm that Kelly puts up several women in two of his properties in the Chicago and Atlanta areas, where they are forced to cut off all connection with family, friends, and the outside world. Two sources call the setup, in which Kelly financially supports the young women in exchange for total control of their movements and appearance, a “cult.”
The parents who spoke to DeRogatis say Kelly wooed their respective daughters, who were 19 and 17 at the time, with promises of a leg up in the music industry. He invited them backstage at his shows, listened to their demos, and convinced their parents that he could help realize their dreams. Soon, the parents say, their daughters moved into Kelly’s (multiple) homes and stopped returning parental phone calls. According to named sources who used to live or work with Kelly, the women who occupy Kelly’s properties must obey his orders on their diets, bathing habits, and daily schedules. They are not allowed to laugh at other men’s jokes or look at other men in the room, the sources say, and they cannot contact family members or leave the house without permission. All their sex acts with Kelly, for which they’ve been coached by older girlfriends of his, are allegedly recorded. When the women disobey, sources told DeRogatis, Kelly doles out physical punishment. They must ask him before doing so much as using the toilet. But when two parents filed a missing-person report for their daughter and asked police to check up on her after they hadn’t heard from her in a while, they were told that their daughter was fine and simply asked to be left alone. Though her parents say she’s being held against her will in a “cult,” the young woman is above the legal age of consent and has every right to enter a nonmonogamous relationship in which her every move is prescribed by a man 30 years her senior.
Many readers will absorb DeRogatis’ report with shock and disgust, but many of the conditions he describes, like Kelly requiring that the women call him “Daddy” and inform him of their daily underwear color, would not be out of place in an account of a consenting dominant-submissive relationship. Others, like Kelly’s isolation of the women from their families and friends, are clear tactics of emotional abuse. And his pattern of luring teenage girls into his orbit with promises of stardom, only to groom them into devoted concubines, is obviously immoral.
Even if the women living together at Kelly’s behest decided to leave, though, they would have a hard time making a case against him. By all accounts from DeRogatis’ sources, including police reports, Kelly’s lovers have not been kidnapped or falsely imprisoned. And unlike previous survivors of his manipulation and sexual intimidation, none are underage. The seeming legality of Kelly’s coercive arrangement may give committed fans and money-hungry entertainment corporations yet another reason to blow off the incessant accusations of his misconduct. Some may hear about this new report and think, “Who am I to judge another man’s sex life?” or, worse, “Sounds like he’s living the dream!” There will always be an acceptable justification available to someone dead set on buying Kelly’s records or hiring him to help make an R&B hit.
But DeRogatis’ piece could still be the death knell to the 50-year-old singer’s reputation. In the fall of 2014, amid resurgent public interest in longstanding sexual-assault allegations against Bill Cosby, Josh Levin wondered in Slate what it would take to bring Kelly down, too. A named victim coming forward with her story could do the trick, he suggested, since the general public has given far more credence to sexual-assault survivors in the past few years. A dozen or more of Kelly’s previous alleged victims have settled out of court for cash and nondisclosure agreements, preventing them from talking about their lawsuits. In his article, DeRogatis names two former lovers of Kelly’s who offer details of his obsessive control over several women’s lives. Their decision to use their real names could give them some credibility among Kelly stans who still believe members of a highly sophisticated conspiracy manufactured a tape depicting child rape to try to bring him down.
The BuzzFeed piece also offers a narrative proxy for Kelly fans who are skeptical of his alleged victims. The devastated mothers of two of Kelly’s current girlfriends say they were R. Kelly fans—“a lyrical genius,” one says—and trusted him to guide their starstruck teens through the music industry. One mother says she was “led to believe there was no truth” to the sexual-abuse allegations against Kelly, since he was acquitted of the child pornography charge in 2008. “Now I got all of these people asking about why my daughter is there, telling me, ‘All of that, the charges against Kelly, was true,’” she tells DeRogatis. “Well, how come you didn’t tell me that before?” The other mother says she wasn’t concerned about Kelly’s 1994 marriage to then-15-year-old Aaliyah because she grew up listening to one of the more creepily-titled songs the two artists created together, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” and liked it.
All the tools the public needs to snuff out Kelly’s career are here: a demonstrated pattern of preying on teen girls, an easily available online chronicle of the allegations against Kelly, on-the-record sources with firsthand knowledge of his abuse and sexual manipulation. But a fire with a healthy supply of oxygen will continue to burn. As long as celebrities and music-industry executives keep working with Kelly—in other words, choosing moneymaking over the safety, dignity, and wellbeing of young women—fans will have plausible deniability of Kelly’s alleged deeds. If you can’t trust a man who sang holiday tunes against a backdrop of twinkle lights on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show just seven months ago, that means you can’t trust Jimmy Fallon. For people invested in the art and image of Kelly, it may be easier to call dozens of unfamous women liars than to face one man’s unfortunate truth.