As R. Kelly faces the most intense criticism of his career following a statement released on Monday by the anti–sexual harassment initiative Time’s Up, two women are speaking out for the first time, one about a mentally and physically abusive relationship she says she had with the R&B superstar for four years in the late ’90s, and another who says her daughter is “brainwashed” and still a part of the alleged “cult” that BuzzFeed News first reported on last July.
Lizzette Martinez says her relationship with Robert "R." Kelly began in the winter of 1995 when she was a 17-year-old high school senior who met the star at a Miami shopping mall. She says Kelly, then 28, knew she was underage when he took her virginity — the age of consent in Florida is 18 — and the relationship continued despite Kelly hitting her on five occasions and pressuring her to engage in sexual acts against her will. Martinez says their relationship ended in early 1999.
The other woman, Michelle, is a Chicago mother of three whose last name is being withheld to protect her daughter’s privacy as an alleged abuse victim. Michelle says her now-27-year-old daughter — who BuzzFeed News is calling “N.” — began a relationship with Kelly when she was 17, which is the age of consent in Illinois. “Being silent is not the answer, so I said, ‘It’s time,’” Michelle says of her decision to speak out now about her daughter. “I want my child home.”
Since the mid-’90s, Kelly has consistently used his wealth and fame to lure women, some of them underage, into abusive sexual relationships, according to court documents and interviews dating back to 2000. The musician often has promised to make these women stars — as he did with Aaliyah, the 15-year-old protégé he illegally married in August 1994 — but none of the other aspiring artists in his circle have ever released any music.
Sources say Kelly’s predatory behavior is ongoing. Although two of the six women in the alleged “cult” have reportedly left in recent months — one a model from North Carolina, the other a longtime personal assistant — two sets of parents, the Savages in Georgia and the Clarys in Florida, have publicly pleaded for help for months. They say that for the last three years, Kelly has largely prevented their daughters — who were 19 and 17 when they met the star — from contacting family and friends while living with him in his rented properties in Chicago and Atlanta. (He was evicted from the latter in February.)
The parents and other sources who’ve left Kelly’s circle say the musician tells the young women when to eat, when to sleep, how to dress, and how to pleasure him in sexual encounters that he records, and he punishes them mentally and physically when they break his “rules.” One of the women, Joycelyn Savage, now 22, has said she is happy and where she wants to be. None of the others have spoken publicly. Kelly has repeatedly denied the families' claims.
Michelle, who has been in contact with the Savages and the Clarys, says her daughter N. is “brainwashed” and part of the Kelly “cult,” the words used by the other families and reported to Georgia’s Johns Creek Police Department in December 2016. N.’s presence in Kelly’s circle has been confirmed by seven independent sources, but N. could not be reached for comment.
Michelle says she has not spoken to her daughter in three months and believes N. is in trouble. “I don’t know what hold he has on her, but her last words to me was, ‘Don’t ever give up on me.’”
After the publication of this story Friday, representatives for Kelly provided a statement to BuzzFeed News denying the "many dark descriptions put forth by instigators and liars who have their own agenda for seeking profit and fame." The statement emphasized that the women living with Kelly are adults who can make their own choices, and that law enforcement wellness checks determined that the women were safe. It also accused the parents of failing to return their daughters' calls because they are "angling for a financial windfall."
After years of avoiding public consequences for his alleged misdeeds — Kelly was acquitted on 14 counts of making child pornography in 2008 — the outrage over his behavior has intensified since Time’s Up demanded “appropriate investigations and inquiries into the allegations of R. Kelly’s abuse made by women of color and their families for over two decades now.” To date, despite numerous interviews with the parents and other sources since July, local law enforcement agencies in Georgia, Florida, and Illinois have taken no action. The FBI will neither confirm nor deny an ongoing investigation.
RCA Records/Sony Music, the label for which Kelly has sold nearly 60 million albums, and Ticketmaster/Live Nation, the global concert giant and ticket broker that promotes many of his shows, declined to comment on the allegations against the star, as the corporations repeatedly have over the last 11 months.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News earlier this week, a representative for Kelly called the Time’s Up statement an “attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”
Written by and addressed to women of color, the Time’s Up statement noted, “The scars of history make certain that we are not interested in persecuting anyone without just cause.” It has garnered the support of black public figures such as Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, John Legend, Questlove, and Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement.
“This is something that our community doesn’t want to deal with,” Burke told BuzzFeed News in March. Georgia activist Kenyette Tisha Barnes, a driving force behind the #MuteRKelly campaign, added, “Essentially, he is the greatest example of a predator in that he went after the most vulnerable that no one cares about.”
“Something’s got to be done; enough is enough”
When Jerhonda Pace made sexual abuse allegations against R. Kelly last August, violating a nondisclosure agreement she signed with the musician, she said that concern for her former friend N. motivated her to come forward. According to Pace, they had both been R. Kelly “superfans” who connected over Myspace in 2006 and first met in person when they attended the singer’s Double Up tour stop at Chicago’s United Center in December 2007.
Now a 24-year-old mother of three, Pace says she began a sexual relationship with Kelly in June 2009, when she was 16, a few months after she cut high school classes and met the star outside his child pornography trial. She says she began to spend weekends at the mansion he owned at the time in the Chicago suburb of Olympia Fields, and she passed Kelly’s cellphone number to her friend. Soon, Pace says, 17-year-old N. also began a sexual relationship with the singer.
At first, N. kept the relationship a secret from her mother. “She was working at McDonald’s like any teenage girl would,” Michelle says. “I remember coming home from work one day, and this random girl was there at my house. I’m like, ‘Who is this?’ And she said, ‘Oh, this is Jerhonda. I know her from school.’ So they had their little lie planned out.” Michelle learned about the relationship soon enough, however, after she was tipped off by another of N.’s friends.
In July 2009, Michelle called Olympia Fields police to see if her daughter was at Kelly’s mansion, but Pace says the star told her and N. to hide and did not allow officers to enter his home. At the time, then–police chief Jeff Chudwin told the Southtown Star: “[We] were informed of a possible criminal matter. We investigated the issues, found there to be no crime, and the matters have been closed.”
“If they’d done their jobs, none of this would have happened,” Michelle now says.
When N. told her mother a few months later that Kelly had offered her a job as his personal assistant, Michelle was wary. “I’m like, you know about all this stuff that he did and all that? And she was like, ‘That’s in his past, that stuff. You always tell me to give people a chance.’ So I said okay, and she became his assistant. All through that time, her being his assistant, she still lived at home.”
In mid-2014, N. announced that she was moving with Kelly to Atlanta, and she left home for good. “I’m like, ‘Really?’ I mean, she [was] grown at that time — about 22, 23 — I can’t tell her no, but she just wanted my permission, my blessing to say it is okay. Well, throughout that whole time when she left, she came home for Thanksgiving, she came home for Christmas, she came home for my birthday, she came home for Mother’s Day… She always came home and was always on my phone [plan], and any time I wanted to call her and talk to her, I could.”
Things changed after the move, Michelle says. “The last time I saw her was the summer of 2016… I didn’t know she was in town, and one day she had an earache or something, and she called me and told me to meet her at Northwestern Hospital. That was actually the last time I seen her — I want to say, like, Aug. 13, 2016.”
In Atlanta, Michelle says, her daughter started using a new phone that Kelly had given her, “But it wasn’t a number that I could reach her.” Anytime she tried to call her daughter, Kelly answered; sometimes N. would call back later.
“I don’t have no number for her,” Michelle says. “Anytime I need to talk to her, I have to go through [Kelly], and then he’ll say, ‘Oh, she’s at the mall. She’s busy.’ And one time I asked him — he FaceTimed me, and I said, ‘Why you ain’t letting my daughter come home?’ And he was like, ‘She don’t want to come home.’ Nigger, you’re a liar! Anybody knows me and my daughter, we are best friends, like literally, you know?” Michelle says she and her daughter even have matching tattoos.
Once, when she was "real angry,” Michelle says she texted a playlist to her daughter’s Kelly-issued cellphone, trying to deliver a message with the titles of the singer’s own songs: “When a Woman’s Fed Up,” “The Storm Is Over Now,” “When a Man Lies,” “Prayer Changes.” N. called her mother back and told her to stop threatening Kelly. “I said, ‘I’m not threatening him. He made his own songs! What’s the problem? I just thought he should listen to his own music!’”
Michelle describes the few calls she got from N. in recent years as being “like prison calls,” saying they would often end abruptly.
The FBI interviewed Michelle in September, she says, but she has heard nothing since. She believes her daughter is in trouble and needs therapy. Pace agrees. Both women also worry about the Savages’ and Clarys’ daughters.
“Something’s got to be done,” Michelle says. On her decision to speak out after months of hesitation, she adds, “I don’t know if God just spoke to me, but I woke up that day and I said, ‘Enough is enough.’
Asked if she has a message for Kelly, Michelle responds with anger, then breaks into tears. “Ain’t nothing in your life going to go right until you let these girls go home and face your judge, your maker.”
“I see him as childlike, but he’s a predator”
Now a 41-year-old mother of two and a development coordinator for the Benihana restaurant chain, Lizzette Martinez was a 17-year-old in her last year at North Miami Beach Senior High School, a cheerleader, a devout Catholic, and a member of a female R&B vocal trio called Sweet Sensations when she says she had a chance meeting with Kelly at Aventura Mall in the winter of 1995.
“I was at the mall with my girlfriend, and I was an aspiring singer in an R&B group, so I knew of him,” Martinez says. “I followed music, and I saw him with a really tall guy, maybe 7 feet tall, and I said to my friend, ‘Oh, that’s R. Kelly.’ I guess he overheard me, and he came over and gave me a hug, and I was kind of stunned. Then he walked away, and his bodyguard came and gave me his phone number.”
The number was written on a little balled-up piece of paper that the bodyguard pressed into her palm — other women, including Pace, have told of being approached the same way — “and I had it for years,” Martinez says. The tale of her meeting and other details of her relationship with Kelly were confirmed by her mother, Rosa Villanueva, and Michella Powery, her best friend since age 12 and a fellow cheerleader in high school. Powery recalls having dinner at an Outback Steakhouse after the meeting at the mall with Martinez, Kelly, his bodyguard, and the star’s then-manager, Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah’s uncle.
Kelly had wed Aaliyah under a falsified Cook County marriage certificate on Aug. 31, 1994, after sources say they began a sexual relationship while recording her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. A furious Hankerson learned of the wedding while the couple were flying to Florida for their honeymoon. His representatives separated them soon after they landed, and the marriage was annulled in Aaliyah’s native Detroit two months later. Kelly paid Aaliyah $100 in exchange for her agreeing not to pursue legal action for “emotional distress” or “physical injury or emotional pain and suffering arising from any assault or battery perpetrated by Robert against her person.” (The settlement and annulment were sealed by the court, but Jim DeRogatis, one of the authors of this story, obtained the records in 2000.)
“Barry kept looking at me — it’s like he felt bad, you know, like he wanted to help me,” Martinez recalls. During dinner at Outback, Powery asked Kelly about Aaliyah. “I almost died, but she asked him, ‘Didn’t you marry her?’” Martinez says. “And Barry was sitting there, and it was just, like, dead silence.” Neither girl knew Hankerson was Aaliyah’s uncle at the time.
“No one said anything,” Martinez says, until Kelly finally replied, “You can’t believe everything you read.” (Kelly has often declined to comment on Aaliyah; this interview was a rare exception. In 1994, Aaliyah told the Chicago Sun-Times, “When people ask me, I tell them, ‘Hey, don’t believe all that mess. We’re close and people took it the wrong way.’”)
Hankerson stayed on as Kelly’s manager for five years after the Aaliyah affair. He finally split from the star in early 2000, after writing a letter to Kelly’s attorney saying he believed the singer needed psychiatric help for his compulsion to pursue underage girls. Hankerson’s attorney at the time confirmed the contents of the letter to DeRogatis, who has been unable to reach Hankerson for comment since shortly after Kelly’s acquittal in 2008. He has never spoken publicly about Kelly or Aaliyah in the years since.
The next day, Martinez says she met Kelly at Hit Factory Criteria recording studio in Miami, where he was working on the R. Kelly album. “I sang for him, and he played the piano, and he said he wanted to help me and develop me and write songs, and I was really excited about it, you know. I was like, ‘Wow, finally, my chance.’
“He was recording his second album, and I was there for most of the recording. You know, he would never write anything down — it was just off the top of his head. I was really impressed by him.” By his own admission, Kelly has trouble reading and writing. In the years to come, Martinez says she sometimes helped transcribe Kelly’s lyrics — “There was times where I would have to correct a line or two because it wasn't, you know, proper English, and he would get a little angry” — but she never recorded any music with him.
According to Martinez, the relationship became sexual within the first month, though she had told Kelly her age at Outback. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m 17, and I’m in high school.’ It just came up at dinner, and he was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ You know, he makes it seem like he’s the coolest guy in the world and he’s out to help you.”
Martinez says she lost her virginity to the star. “The first time I had sex with him there was a party going,” she says. “Some of his crew gave me alcohol and I was drunk basically when we had sex.” Her mother and her friend confirmed that she told them the story not long after.
“It’s really difficult for me… I had stars in my eyes,” Martinez says. “I came from a home where — it was a broken home, I didn’t have a lot of support from my family, and for me, I wanted to make it, you know? I mean, 17 — I have a daughter now that’s 18. You know, she’s a kid. I was, like, really naive, really innocent.”
When she and Kelly were together, “It was very controlled: what I wore, how I spoke, who my friends were, who I could bring around,” Martinez says, adding that Kelly pressured her to perform some sexual acts against her will. “I did these things, and I felt like it was always — he was directing stuff. You know, it felt really weird. He was really overbearing… I’m like, ‘I don't want to do that.’ But he has a way with people, with women. He’s just so controlling, so abusive.”
Martinez says she often traveled with Kelly to Chicago, though she “hotel-hopped” while Kelly stayed in the converted church he owned at the time on George Street in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood. (This is the home where prosecutors alleged that he filmed the notorious 26-minute, 39-second video with a girl they said was about 14; he was acquitted of all charges after less than a day’s deliberation.) “I couldn’t be with him all the time, because there were a million other women with him all the time,” she says.
Martinez says Kelly hit her five times during their relationship. “Then he’s a nice guy afterward: ‘I love you. I’m sorry. You know, I’m going to help you. I’m going to do everything for you, but you have to listen to me.’ It was always I wasn’t listening to him. You know, a typical domestic abusive relationship, and this was, like, my first relationship in my life.”
Kelly married for the second time in 1996, wedding former dancer Andrea Lee. “I never knew anything about her, nothing, and I spent a lot of time with him,” Martinez says. Kelly had three children with Andrea before they divorced in 2009. They first separated in 2005, and Andrea was granted an emergency order of protection, explaining to the court that when she told her husband she wanted a divorce, he became angry and hit her. She asked for the order to be dismissed weeks later.
Martinez says her relationship with Kelly began to unravel when she grew tired of waiting alone in hotel rooms for his summons. Then she says she became pregnant with his child. “He wanted me to have an abortion,” she says. “I came from a very Catholic background. I didn’t believe in abortion.”
One night, while waiting in her room at the Marriott Hotel Downtown on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, she miscarried. She tried to call Kelly, but she couldn’t reach him. She went through the experience alone. “I guess it was for the best. I didn’t want to go through that abortion.”
Finally, Martinez says she caught mononucleosis from Kelly and suffered serious complications that resulted in her hospitalization. Kelly sent her mother a check for $1,000, Martinez says and her mother confirms. “I cannot stand this man,” Villanueva says. “It’s not just my daughter; he does this to younger girls. I was devastated. When she came back, she was not the same. Mentally, physically, and emotionally, she was not the same.”
Martinez decided to split with the star not long after she recovered, in early 1999. “I was really hurt,” she says. “I was damaged. I didn’t want to do music anymore. I kind of gave up on my dreams. I wanted to live a normal life. I was too young to go through those things.” She tried not to think about Kelly for a long time, she says, and she married and had twins in 2000.
At one point, Martinez says she contacted Susan E. Loggans, the attorney who says she has negotiated “numerous” settlements between Kelly and underage girls she’s represented, including Pace. (Loggans did not respond to a request for comment. A 2011 ad for her firm touts her work with “two underage girls who claimed the R&B superstar R. Kelly had sex with them.”)
Martinez ultimately decided against legal action. “I wasn’t in it ever for money, and I didn’t want to go through that. I mean, I knew he was wrong. I was hurt by him. But I couldn’t rehash it again. It was just too new. It was just too much pain. I had a new life.”
When Kelly was indicted on the child porn charges in 2002, Martinez says she thought, They got him! She was angry when he was acquitted after finally going to trial in 2008 following a record six-year delay. “I was disappointed in the system. I was disappointed in the parents of that girl” on the videotape; neither the girl nor her parents testified at the trial. “Your daughter was a baby. That’s rape!” But she only decided to finally speak out after reading the new allegations against Kelly last summer.
“My purpose of telling this story is this has gone on for years. This is not new, this ‘cult’ thing,” she says, echoing the allegation made in the Savages’ 2016 police report. She would like to work with victims of abuse in the future, offering a path toward recovery through music and art. “I feel like things happen for a reason. Unfortunately, this happened to me. Maybe I can be an example that you don’t have to go down the tubes. I’ve been through hell and back in my life, but I’ve always picked myself up.”
As for Kelly, Martinez says, “I see Robert as a child still. He’s a grown man, obviously. He’s 51. But I don’t think he ever grew up. I don’t know if that makes sense to you. I see him as childlike, but he’s a predator.”
“A brilliant artist with unlimited talent. But…”
Sources close to the Kelly camp say the star’s world is crumbling: His recording and performing careers are in jeopardy, and his finances are dwindling.
A week and a half before the Time’s Up statement, an attorney for a 20-year-old Dallas woman who wishes to remain anonymous announced that he was pursuing civil and criminal complaints against the singer, who he says infected his client with herpes and served her alcohol while underage. “It reflects a pattern of behavior that Mr. Kelly has engaged in for many years,” lawyer S. Lee Merritt said at a press conference.
Merritt did not say when he planned to file the civil complaint. When asked for comment, the Dallas Police Department provided BuzzFeed News with a statement noting that detectives were reviewing an alleged incident involving an adult man knowingly giving a 20-year-old woman a sexually transmitted infection, but it “is not being investigated as a sexual assault since both parties were consenting adults.”
Syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, a longtime Kelly supporter, has said he will no longer play the star’s music, but talk show host Wendy Williams has defended the singer. John Legend, Vince Staples, and Questlove have spoken out against Kelly in recent weeks, but many artists who’ve recorded with the singer, songwriter, and producer have remained silent. Reached for comment again this week, for example, Lady Gaga’s managers did not respond; the sexual assault survivor advocate and “Til It Happens to You” singer dueted with Kelly on “Do What U Want,” the second single from her 2013 album Artpop.
Kelly has only one major concert on his current schedule, at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex in North Carolina on May 11. He was scheduled to perform as part of the multi-act Love Jam at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion on Saturday, but hours after the Chicago Tribune reported that students had written a letter to the chancellor in protest, the singer was removed from the bill. (Kelly still will appear at Ocean Gentlemen’s Club in suburban Bedford Park, Illinois, on May 5.)
The star has suffered five defections from his core team in recent months. The first to leave was longtime musical accompanist DJ Phantom, who split in December. Asked why he left Kelly after years at his side, Phantom says, “I didn’t know then what I know now. He’s a shitbag.”
Other defectors include four women: his accountant Joan Sullivan, publicist Trevian Kutti, longtime personal assistant Diana Copeland, and his attorney in recent years, Linda Mensch.
“My resignation in February was unrelated to his social life,” Mensch wrote via email. Reminded that BuzzFeed News obtained documents naming Mensch in regards to Pace's settlement agreement — including a check for $5,000 issued by Mensch to Pace — she insisted, “I repeat: I was not involved in his personal life.”
Earlier, Mensch had written, “[Kelly is] a brilliant artist, with unlimited talent. But...” Pressed on what she meant by “but…,” she would not elaborate.
“Maybe he is a brilliant artist, and maybe his world is crumbling,” Tim Savage, the father of Joycelyn Savage, says. “But no brilliance excuses what he’s doing, and his world ain’t crumbling quick enough. We just want our daughters back home. This shit has got to end; too many girls been hurt for too long by this monster.” ●
Representatives for R. Kelly did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication. This story was updated on Friday after Kelly's management team released a statement.
Martinez is currently 41 years old. A previous version of this story misstated her age.
Jim DeRogatis is a Chicago-based music journalist and critic. He is an assistant professor in the English Department at Columbia College Chicago; the co-host of "Sound Opinions," the weekly rock-n-roll talk show originating at WBEZ Chicago and heard on some 125 Public Radio stations nationwide as well as on podcast at soundopinions.org, and the the author of nine books about music.
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