The music industry coddled R. Kelly. Television helped take him down
Before his conviction in New York on Monday by a federal jury on charges that he used his celebrity status to procure, then mentally and sexually abuse, girls and young women over a 25-year period, singer R. Kelly often seemed invincible.
Much like the record business that profited off the superstar’s talent, Kelly, 54, appeared up until this week to be immune to the reckoning that toppled Hollywood titans like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. Now he’s the highest-profile musician unseated by the #MeToo movement and one of only a few artists held accountable in an industry rife with abusers and enablers. From famous performers to high-profile power brokers, the music business is still sheltering its abusers like it’s 1999.
Despite Kelly’s marriage to a 15-year-old when he was 27, the videotape circulated of him urinating on a 14-year-old girl during a sex act, and year after year of underage survivors alleging rape, imprisonment and worse against the artist, he continued to sell millions of albums, fill arenas, garner Grammy nominations and work with contemporaries like Lady Gaga, Chance the Rapper and Celine Dion.
It takes a village to protect an alleged high-profile predator.
So it makes sense that television, not the music biz, finally took Kelly down.
The 2019 Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” and its follow-up, 2020’s “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning” marked the end to years of Kelly operating with impunity. Together they made a case against the artist largely off the power of firsthand accounts from his accusers, many of whom hadn’t told their stories publicly before appearing on the production.
The fallout from the documentary was swift. RCA Records finally dropped Kelly, and within weeks a grand jury in Cook County, Ill., indicted him on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Nine of those counts identified the victims as 13 to 16 years old.
Gayle King’s explosive interview with Kelly was the next blow. Airing over several days in early March 2019, the “CBS This Morning” segments showed the anchor sitting calmly while the singer erupted over questions about the accusations and his legal troubles: “Y’all trying to kill me,” he screamed, jumping up out of his chair and pounding his chest. The manipulative and then threatening personality so many of his accusers had described was in full play on-screen. His actions only furthered interest in the allegations raised by the Lifetime documentary, and before 2019 ended he would also face sex-related charges in the New York case and in Minnesota, pleading not guilty to all. (Legal proceedings in Illinois and Minnesota are ongoing.)
Lifetime’s powerful documentary series “Surviving R.
“Surviving R. Kelly” chronicled decades of serial abuse — mental and physical — by stringing together the accounts of women who said they were Kelly’s targets. Though many of them did not know one another, collectively their accounts established a pattern: Kelly groomed girls and young women, some as young as 13, using his celebrity to lure them into his inner circle, then sexually abused them. He and his handlers used various forms of intimidation to silence them if they made accusations.
Individually, their harrowing stories are devastating and hard to watch. Lizzette Martinez recalled that she met Kelly at the Florida mall where he’d often seek out girls. . She was a teen when he flew her to Chicago and put her up in a hotel room, where he kept her confined for days. He demanded she call him Daddy, required she ask permission to use the bathroom and made her perform sex acts on him in front of his friends.
Dominique Gardner was one of the alleged survivors of Kelly’s abuse who spoke in the 2020 installment of the Lifetime series. She lived with Kelly up until 2019 in a cult-like compound with multiple women. Her account illustrated he was still preying on young women of color despite the scrutiny brought about by years of accusations.
As one of his victims said: “People will say, ‘Well, why didn’t anyone notice?’ The answer is we all noticed. No one cared because we were Black girls.”
A double standard of empathy and accountability weighted by racial disparity made it easy for Kelly to target women of color. No one was looking out for them, and he had power and influence on his side. Enablers throughout his inner circle were critical players in his scheme to net vulnerable victims: The racketeering conviction handed down Monday is based upon the involvement of the singer’s entourage, which helped him procure women and girls and played an active role in silencing his victims.
The music industry offered the perfect playground in which to operate. Kelly was insulated by the adoration of zealous fans, critical accolades and public apathy. Debauchery is part and parcel of pop stardom, right?
It’s a culture that music reporter Jim DeRogatis found frustrating when he broke story after story about Kelly’s crimes, starting as far back as 2000. His earlier reports should have ended Kelly’s career, but the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer continued to soar — until a series of pieces DeRogatis published in Buzzfeed beginning in 2017, followed swiftly by the #MuteRKelly campaign, #MeToo movement and “Surviving R. Kelly,” forced the music industry to reckon with the monster it had nurtured and fed. Given this track record, perhaps it should be no surprise that it took stars like Mandy Moore and Evan Rachel Wood speaking out to bring attention to allegations of sexual misconduct against Ryan Adams and Marilyn Manson, respectively.
Jerhonda Pace was one of the brave women who appeared in the “Surviving R. Kelly” series. She also testified at his trial. “Today my voice was heard,” she wrote Monday on Instagram. “For years, I was trolled for speaking out about the abuse that I suffered at the hands of that predator. People called me a liar and said I had no proof. Some even said I was speaking out for money. Speaking out about abuse is not easy, especially when your abuser is high-profile.”
Television doesn’t make speaking out any easier, of course. But in Kelly’s case, as Monday’s conviction shows, it was instrumental in making voices like Pace’s come through loud and clear.
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