How R. Kelly used fame and power to abuse victims for decades

Singer jailed for 30 years for sexually abusing multiple fans

R Kelly
(Image credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

After three decades of accusations against him, R. Kelly has been sentenced to 30 years behind bars for using his status as an R&B star to sexually abuse women and children.

A jury in New York convicted the I Believe I Can Fly singer – real name Robert Sylvester Kelly – of eight counts of sex trafficking and one of racketeering last September.

The sentencing completed his “staggering downfall, from a chart-topping hitmaker known as the king of R&B to a pariah whose musical legacy has become inextricable from his abuses”, said Troy Closson at The New York Times.

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The case is “not about sex”, US District Judge Ann M. Donnelly told Brooklyn’s Federal District Court on Wednesday. “It’s about violence and cruelty and control.”

The 55-year-old, who plans to appeal, was told by the judge that he had taught women and girls that “love is enslavement and violence”.

The sentence comes after “years of inaction”, said Closson, “despite whispers about his abuse throughout the music industry”.

The trial

During Kelly’s six-week trial last year, prosecutors presented more than 40 witnesses, including 11 people who described sexual humiliation and violence that they suffered at the star’s hands.

Accuser Jerhonda Pace told the jurors that Kelly had “invited her to his mansion and ordered her to take off her clothes when she was a 16-year-old virgin, and a member of his fan club, in 2010”, reported Sky News.

The court also heard from former members of Kelly’s staff including tour manager Demetrius Smith, who “was forced to testify against his will after being given immunity from future charges”, said the broadcaster. Smith told how Kelly had bribed a government official to get a fake ID card in order to marry fellow singer Aaliyah in 1994.

Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash in 2001, was just 15 when she married Kelly, then 27, in a secret ceremony following the release of her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, which he produced.

The wait to be heard

“For decades, these black women kept asking when they would be heard, when their voices would matter,” wrote the BBC’s New York correspondent Nada Tawfik at the time. “This conviction is their Me Too victory.”

The race of Kelly’s accusers “may have been consequential”, agreed Closson in The New York Times this week.

“Black women have historically been more likely than white women to have abuse accusations distrusted or dismissed.”

Kelly came close to facing justice in 2008 in a child pornography case but was acquitted after his defence team said the identity of the girl in the video could not be confirmed.

Many credit the release of a documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, for ensuring that the allegations were finally addressed. The six-part series aired on US channel Lifetime in 2019, drawing an average of 1.9 million viewers, and featured testimonies from women who recounted stories of his violence and abuse.

The singer is due to stand trial again in August in Chicago, where is accused of producing child pornography and luring minors into sex acts.

The cover-up

Yesterday, US Attorney Breon Peace described how Kelly had used “his fame, his money, and most importantly his inner circle” to prey on children and young women.

During a series of victim impact statements read before the sentencing, one woman described Kelly as the “pied piper of R&B”.

“With every addition of a new victim you grew in wickedness, cockiness, diminishing any form of humanity or self-awareness, which soon became the breeding ground for your God-like complex,” she said.

“For years the recording industry ignored allegations against him, and Kelly seemed untouchable,” said The Washington Post. But now he is “among the highest-profile cases to spring from the #MeToo movement” and his punishment was “one of the harshest since the movement began”.

Despite the long road to justice, Peace said he hoped the “sentencing serves as its own testimony that it does not matter how powerful, rich or famous your abuser may be, or how small they may make you feel – justice only hears the truth”.

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