R. Kelly Faces a Boycott as Sexual Allegations Swirl
Most music fans know R. Kelly for his uplifting Grammy-winning hit “I Believe I Can Fly” and singing “The World’s Greatest” at the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympic Games.
But recently, after a series of negative media stories swirling around his personal life, groups are boycotting his music, his record sales have fallen, a tour was canceled and he has been publicly shunned by star rapper Jay-Z and other members of the hip-hop community.
The reason for this is the recent emergence of one, or perhaps more, videos that purportedly show a man who looks like Kelly (according to those who have seen one of the tapes) having sex with young females who appear to be underage. Kelly has attacked the footage as fake, but in the wake of negative publicity surrounding it, sales of his new album with Jay-Z, “The Best of Both Worlds,” slipped 60% between the weeks ending March 31 and April 14.
For another artist, having a gold album (500,000 sold) would be worth bragging about. But for Kelly, it’s a major disappointment, given the triple-platinum success of his last album, “TP-2.com,” in 2000 and the pairing with the hugely popular Jay-Z. And although some in the music business say the new material simply isn’t up to snuff, recent controversies swirling around Kelly aren’t helping the cause either. The media coverage of the tapes has left Kelly “devastated,” according to his lawyer.
R&B; singer Stephanie Edwards (who goes by the stage name Sparkle) has claimed in a radio interview that her 14-year-old niece appears in the video. Edwards, a former Kelly protege who has released at least two CDs, spoke earlier this month on Los Angeles station KKBT-FM (100.3), program director Robert Scorpio said.
“We are still playing Kelly’s music, but we have debated,” Scorpio said. “If he is guilty, we will probably come out and take a different stand.”
Meanwhile, groups here and nationwide are boycotting the singer’s music.
“It’s high time for adults to talk about issues such as these in our community,” said Ken Dunkin, a Democratic candidate for state representative in Illinois who is co-leading the local boycott. “The black community is very silent about adults dating young girls. We don’t say anything. We have to start speaking up.”
Chicago station WBBM-FM (96.3) has stopped playing tunes from the new album, though not because of the Kelly sex scandal. Program director Todd Cavanah said that “Take You Home With Me,” from the new album, failed to stir up excitement among listeners.
The Chicago Police Department and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office refused comment on the allegations other than to say the matter is under investigation. No charges have been filed against Kelly, who grew up on the South Side and maintains residences and studios in the area.
“The fact is there is no tape of R. Kelly having sex,” said John Touhy, Kelly’s lawyer. “There have been reports in the media of different tapes, and none of them agrees with the other. If someone does say there is a tape out there, those claims are false--absolutely false.”
Kelly Calls It a ‘Smear Campaign’
Kelly has just issued a statement that he is the victim of a “smear campaign.”
“It seems that there are people who want to bring me down,” Kelly said. “Nothing short of stoning would satisfy these people. Unfortunately, the recent attacks in the media have refused to discuss the motivations of the individuals engaged in the smear campaign.”
Asked if Kelly planned to sue any media outlets for libel, Touhy replied, “We are considering all of our legal options.”
There is reportedly a tape of a man urinating and ejaculating on a girl who looks like a minor. Another tape allegedly shows a man having sex with at least three girls. The tapes are circulating around the country and on the Internet.
Allegations that Kelly engaged in sexual relationships with underage girls became news after one of the videos was sent anonymously to the Chicago Sun-Times in February. Since then, Kelly has hired Jack Palladino, a private investigator who worked on the FBI’s Abscam probe in 1980. Palladino is investigating who might be bootlegging the tape and/or who might be behind a campaign to defame Kelly, Touhy said.
Several publications, including Time, Spin and Vibe magazines, as well as local TV stations have since reported the allegation that the man in the tape is Kelly.
Even if police conclude that it is Kelly on the tape (or tapes), it may be months--perhaps years--before charges are filed, if at all. One reason is that such cases face many legal and investigative obstacles, experts say.
“They have to be able to establish it’s really him,” said Kimberly Hart, executive director of the National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center in Holland, Ohio. “Then they have to prove she’s underage. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to tell. Then you’ve got the issue of whether the girl is cooperating with authorities. Any time the government does not have the [victim] on their side, they’ve got a headache.”
“You’re looking at something that’s difficult for law enforcement, in terms of charging a crime,” said Jay Howell, a Florida attorney representing sex abuse victims and a former prosecutor in that state.
“We very much believe there is a person or persons whose motivation is to destroy his career,” Touhy said. “He’s devastated by this whole series of events.... In addition, there’s the pain of knowing that people you formerly trusted are attempting to hurt you.”
Requests for an interview with Kelly were declined.
Earlier this month, Kelly reached an out-of-court settlement with former Epic Records intern Tracy Sampson, according to her attorney, Susan Loggans. Sampson alleged that between May 2000 and March 2001, Kelly induced Sampson “into an indecent sexual relationship,” the suit stated. Sampson was 17 at the time, the suit said. Because of a confidentiality agreement, Loggans could not discuss the settlement between Kelly and Sampson.
Kelly Married Aaliyah When She Was 15
In 1998, Kelly settled another sex-based lawsuit with Tiffany Hawkins, who was also represented by Loggans. That suit, also settled out of court, accused Kelly of engaging in a sexual relationship with Hawkins while she was a minor.
And in 1994, Kelly was briefly married to a minor, Aaliyah Haughton, who reported her age as 18 on the couple’s marriage certificate. The singer, who died last year in a plane crash, was just 15 at the time of the marriage, which was annulled a short time later, according to news reports.
“A lot of people have asked why the state’s attorney’s office didn’t look into this earlier,” Loggans said. “He married Aaliyah and she was 15 years old. If this was the common man, he’d be in jail now.”
Cook County state’s attorney’s office spokesman John Gorman said that Kelly’s activities with Aaliyah happened “under a previous administration” and that the current office would have no idea why charges were not filed at that time.
Even as Kelly denies any wrongdoing, forces are coalescing that could threaten the singer’s career. A boycott against Kelly that began two weeks ago spread last week into a boycott against Chicago’s WGCI-FM (107.5). Protest leaders also asked two of the station’s biggest advertisers, Burger King and SBC Ameritech, to stop advertising. (Burger King representatives did not return phone calls; an SBC Ameritech spokesman said he was “unaware” of any boycott and that the company did not plan to pull ads.)
“We’ve given [WGCI] a week and they’ve refused” to stop playing Kelly’s music, said the Rev. Bamani Obadele, a community organizer and co-leader of the boycott. “This issue has gotten out of hand. For a radio station like GCI to continue to play [his music], it angers me. That’s the bottom line, and I’m going to send a message as a black father and minister that I won’t stand for it.”
Marv Dyson, WGCI’s president and general manager, said he would continue to play Kelly’s music.
“I understand the charges are very severe,” he said. “But I’m not pulling R. Kelly at this point because he’s innocent until proven guilty. I have deep concern for the African American community, but I’m not going to take R. Kelly records off the radio until he’s had his day in court.... I am just really hell-bent on giving this man his constitutional rights.”
The R. Kelly/Jay-Z single “Get This Money” was WGCI’s second most requested single as of last week and 80% of people e-mailing the station support Kelly. But if he is found guilty, “I am absolutely certain it would end [his] career,” Dyson said.
Tribune staff reporters Emily Biuso and Raoul V. Mowatt contributed to this article.