This story contains discussion of sexual violence. Please proceed with care.
On August 18, singer and producer R. Kelly will finally face trial for a litany of disturbing charges against him amassed over three decades. Despite multiple young women alleging they were sexually and physically abused in Kelly’s “sex cult,” among many other harrowing claims, the R&B singer has managed to successfully evade any serious repercussions throughout his career. But after renewed media attention, thanks in majority to an explosive 2017 Buzzfeed investigation and 2019 documentary Surviving R. Kelly, the singer is going to trial again, 25 years after the very first allegation.
After two years of delays due to the pandemic, testimony will begin in the first of two federal trials in Brooklyn on Wednesday. Kelly has consistently denied all allegations of abuse and misconduct, and maintained that he is not guilty of any of the charges. Now, he’s being prosecuted across two sets of indictments in New York and Illinois (on hold until the conclusion of the first trial). So before the trial begins, here’s what you need to know.
What are the charges and allegations against R.Kelly?
In total, Kelly faces nearly three dozen federal charges that span across the country. Some claims go as far back as the 1990s, and the most recent is from 2018. He is mostly facing abuse allegations in addition to one count of racketeering and eight counts of violations against the Mann Act, which makes it illegal to transport women or girls across state lines for sex. The charges are composed of abuses against 22 victims.
In New York, Kelly is also being charged with kidnapping, child pornography, forced labor, and bribery. Prosecutors will focus mainly on the racketeering charge because it largely encompasses the singer’s alleged “criminal enterprise,” which began in 1994, and was supported by bodyguards and other employees who allegedly helped him “prey upon young women and teenagers.” Five women and girls who allege that Kelly abused them are included in these particular charges, including a then-minor who alleges that she contracted herpes after Kelly knowingly exposed her.
Prosecutors said in 2019 that Kelly essentially recruited girls at his concerts to be his sexual partners, and issued “rules” that they were allegedly to forced to follow “including that the women and girls were to call him ‘Daddy’; they were not permitted to leave their rooms to eat or visit the bathroom without receiving his permission; they were required to wear baggy clothing when not accompanying Kelly to an event; and they were directed to keep their heads down and not look at other men.” They also claimed that Kelly isolated them from their friends and family, and made it so that they were dependent on him for everything.
In July 2021, new evidence of Kelly’s alleged criminal behavior brought even more attention and higher stakes to the trial. A motion was filed that included testimony from a woman who claimed that Kelly contacted her to request pornographic images of young boys, threatened his sexual partners, and sexually abused a young boy that he met at a McDonalds in 2009. Kelly also allegedly attempted to bribe multiple state and county employees to let him off the hook for his various illegal activities, and bribed an Illinois government official in 1994 to make a fake ID for the late singer Aaliyah (Jane Doe 1), who was 15-years-old at the time, so he could marry her. Prosecutors reportedly have evidence that she was 13 when Kelly first sexually abused her.
Has R. Kelly been on trial before?
Kelly has been sued a handful of times and settled all the cases. However, in 2002, a Chicago grand jury indicted Kelly on 21 counts of child pornography after a videotape surfaced that seemingly showed Kelly performing lewd acts and sexually abusing an underage girl. The case didn’t go to trial until 2008, but a jury cleared him of all charges against him. The now 30-something woman will likely testify during the upcoming trial.
Kelly was arrested in Chicago in February 2019 on 10 counts of sexual abuse in Illinois (including three underage girls) — to which he once pled not guilty — but was released on bail. Then in July, when the racketeering and other charges were announced, Kelly was once again arrested and has remained in federal custody.
How long will the proceedings last?
The trail will likely last around a month, but Kelly will face subsequent trials later this year in Chicago, Illinois and Minnesota.
If R. Kelly’s alleged behavior was an open secret for years, why has it taken so long for him to be seriously tried and found guilty?
The short answer is a shift in our culture. Now, the public is eager and willing to hold famous men accountable for their abuses of power and attacks against women. For so long, the focus had been on Kelly’s disturbing alleged actions, instead of the experiences and voices of his survivors. Another upsetting factor is the media and the public’s lack of urgency to find justice and closure in crimes, especially violent sex crimes, against Black women and girls. This entire R. Kelly saga just proves that people tend to overlook cases where white victims are not centered.
"We don't give a damn about Black girls,” Kenyette Barnes, co-founder of the #MuteRKelly movement, told BuzzFeed News in 2018. “If R. Kelly was white, every civil rights leader would be marching in every street in this country. If the girls were white, every feminist group would be coming out enraged in droves of pussy hats to march against him. The bottom line is that R. Kelly and his victims are the perfect storm of people we don't care about. We protect problematic Black men in the Black community, and we discard Black girls in all communities. Essentially, he is the greatest example of a predator in that he went after the most vulnerable that no one cares about." Hopefully this trial will be a small but important step in bringing about a much-needed change in who deserves the public’s attention and support.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).