R. Kelly is finally getting the #MeToo spotlight. After decades of stories and allegations, #MeToo leader Tarana Burke and others have made it a priority to bring about Kelly’s reckoning. Using the hashtag #MuteRKelly, they’re calling on companies like RCA Records, Spotify and Ticketmaster to stop doing business with him. It doesn’t seem like a hard ask. How do you find inspiration in “I Believe I Can Fly” when you know the man behind it is currently fighting allegations that he began a sexual relationship with a 19-year-old and knowingly and intentionally gave her an STD?
Of course, none of this is new. And while #MuteRKelly was started in 2017, almost all of R. Kelly’s career has been marked by his attraction to teenage girls. His first hit was in November 1993. In 1994, people began asking if he and his protege Aaliyah were romantically involved – he was 27, she was 15. They repeatedly denied it, but it turned out they were married. I was a writer at MTV News then, and I called the Cook County Clerk’s office and got a copy of their marriage certificate – which said that she was 18, even though she was not – so Kurt Loder could break the story. The marriage was reportedly annulled in 1995.
At times, it seems like Kelly was teasing us about his predilection. In one 1994 BET interview he did alongside Aaliyah, the two were asked if they were dating. Kelly says something barely intelligible that sounds like”Better get me a white Jeep,” which in 1994 would’ve been immediately understood as a reference to O.J. Simpson. So instead of answering the question, he makes a joke about needing to escape the law. Aaliyah, too, doesn’t answer the question clearly – she won’t even confirm how old she is. Their evasiveness about all this suggests that they knew it was wrong.
And it wasn’t just ambiguous interviews. Kelly wrote and produced almost all of Aaliyah’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothin But A Number. The title song tells the story of a girl who wants to go “all the way” with an older man. Kelly called himself the Pied Piper of R&B. It was supposedly a reference to his love of the flute and not a reference to having a strange, hypnotic power over children. Uh-huh.
In 2002, a 26-minute video was leaked to the Chicago Sun Times. It appeared to show Kelly having sex with several women, including a scene where he urinated on a girl who was allegedly 14. It led to a criminal investigation and, eventually, a child pornography trial in 2008. Kelly was acquitted.
A few weeks later, I interviewed him for BET. He arrived to a Chicago hotel room with a crisis manager in tow – a tall, older white gentleman in a tailored suit. Early on in the interview, Kelly had defined underage girls as below 13, and dismissed the idea that he was interested in anyone that young. I realized that I had to take a different approach, but I wasn’t yet sure what to do. I asked him “Do you like underage girls?” It was an easy, direct question. Surely he’d say no.
His crisis manager jumped up, trying to shoot down the question, but Kelly stopped him and said he wanted to answer it. The crisis manager sat back down, and we started again. But this time, remembering how he’d defined underage as pre-teen, I changed the question. “Do you like teenage girls?” I asked. “When you say teenage, how old are we talkin’?” he responded. Not “no,” but asking for a definition of a word as self-explanatory as “cheeseburger.” He finally conceded that he had 19-year-old friends, which in the context of our discussion was strange. If they were just “friends,” then there was no reason to mention that. I didn’t take the word friends as vanilla. I remember thinking, “What would a 40-something person discuss with a teenager such that they could become friends?”
The interview devolved from there. I tried to engage him on the Pied Piper nickname, but he claimed to be unaware of its origin story. Late in the interview I asked him, “Can you tell your fans that this will never happen again?,” referring to the allegations and the trial. He snapped, “I can tell my fans that this interview will never happen again.” We finished a moment later. Usually after a long interview there’s a handshake, a pleasantry, but this had grown so tense and combative that we both got up from our chairs and walked off without a word.
When the interview ran on BET, everyone was talking about it. And even though that interview had made many people even more certain that Kelly was into young girls, the channel remained an enthusiastic promoter of Kelly’s videos, putting the alleged predator in front of millions of teenage girls every day thus helping him influence them.
You probably won’t see many of Kelly’s videos on BET now, because he’s no longer really an active artist. But for some reason RCA Records continues to keep him on the label. Is there a big dilemma for them? Is there any doubt who he really is? Is there any guilt over being in business with someone who appears to be a monster? Is his catalog of hit love songs still valuable, even though it’s problematic? Does a song like “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” sound different when you think that he’s being secretive because she’s a child? If you think he was in a physical relationship with teenage Aaliyah, then doesn’t Age Ain’t Nothin But a Number make your stomach turn?
And along with the companies that continue to support him, there’s also a fan base that’s still standing by him. He preys on young black girls, yet many people who care about them find themselves dissociating when “Step in the Name Of Love” comes on. I understand. For a long time “Ignition (Remix)” hit me in a way that made it hard to not dance. That was the one song that I couldn’t deny. But I can no longer forget who Kelly is because of a hot beat. I owe it to black girls to be better than that. We all do. That’s part of what #MuteRKelly is saying.
Kelly has denied all the allegations against him, and recently released a statement through his management regarding #MuteRKelly: “Since America was born, black men and women have been lynched for having sex or for being accused of it,” he wrote. That is absolutely true. It also has absolutely nothing to do with any of this. The statement continues, “We will vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.” The notion that Kelly is in the midst of a “public lynching” is absurd – this is him playing the race card. I abhor that phrase, but this is truly an example of someone crying racism where no such thing has occurred.
This isn’t about white privilege holding Kelly back. He’s nothing like the thousands of Black men who were tragically murdered by lynch mobs. He’s like Clarence Thomas, who also claimed that he was being symbolically lynched in an attempt to use racism to save him. What Thomas was going through was not a lynching, but a reckoning. His happened at the beginning of this modern era of women’s movement that has grown into #MeToo and #TimesUp. At this point, the question for companies that work with him is not can you afford to lose revenue – though I can’t imagine it’s that much – but how can you afford to still be in business with him? And the question for fans is: How can you listen to him sing and not have that be overshadowed by the fact that this guy might be a predator?