For over two decades, R. Kelly has been dogged by unsettling allegations and criticism. There was his marriage to 15-year-old Aaliyah. The video widely believed to show him having sex with and urinating on a minor. The child pornography charges that were dropped. The numerous other allegations of sexual misconduct that were quietly settled.
But Kelly’s luck may finally be running out, as the disgraced R&B singer heads back into the courtroom on Wednesday on the most sweeping and serious charges he has yet faced.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have accused Kelly of being the ringleader behind a criminal “enterprise” that exploited his fame in order to sexually abuse numerous victims, many of whom were underage. He’s been indicted on charges of sex trafficking and racketeering.
According to the indictment, Kelly, with the aid of his staff and entourage, recruited victims for the express purpose of sexually abusing them, isolating them from their loved ones, and dictating their every move. Often, they were young fans, found at Kelly’s own concerts.
“To say that this entire 30-year, 100-million-album–selling career was a criminal enterprise is just really interesting,” said music journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has covered Kelly for decades.
Kelly has been incarcerated in Chicago since July 2019 over another federal sex crimes case he is still facing and was transferred to a Brooklyn jail ahead of his trial there.
How We Got Here
The trial comes four years after BuzzFeed News first published a DeRogatis investigation that revealed that parents had told police that the singer was allegedly holding their daughters against their will in a “sex cult” — accusations that were further explored in the 2019 docuseries Surviving R. Kelly.
“It was as if she was brainwashed. [She] looked like a prisoner — it was horrible,” one mother told BuzzFeed News in 2017. “I hugged her and hugged her. But she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her.”
This is far from Kelly’s first brush with the law over sex crime charges. Since the late 1990s, he has been indicted numerous times, most famously in 2008 for child pornography charges after he was seen in a 2002 video that allegedly showed him having sex with and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. The victim and her family did not testify during the trial, and Kelly was found not guilty due to a lack of sufficient evidence.
DeRogatis told BuzzFeed News last week that he believes the successful prosecution of the NXIVM cult leaders — who were convicted of charges similar to the ones Kelly now faces — helped lay the groundwork for this case, as did the investigation into Jeffrey Epstein and his alleged associates. “The feds kind of figured out how to do it,” he said.
DeRogatis has been reporting on R. Kelly’s pattern of alleged sexual abuse since November 2000, when the then-music journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times got an anonymous fax: “Robert’s problem is young girls,” it read.
Just over a year later, in February 2002, DeRogatis broke the story about the urination tape.
Nearly two decades have passed since then. As the unprecedented trial approaches, DeRogatis said that some of Kelly’s accusers with whom he has stayed in touch have expressed to him the complicated feelings it has stirred up. “It’s too little, too late — they can’t get back those years they lost and the damages they suffered,” DeRogatis said.
The allegations put forth by federal prosecutors closely match DeRogatis’s 2017 reporting for BuzzFeed News. After meeting them at his concerts, Kelly would allegedly exchange contact info with his victims so that travel arrangements could be made for them to visit him.
During these visits, the women and girls were allegedly forced to follow a number of “rules”: They couldn’t leave their room without Kelly’s permission, even for food or the bathroom. They had to hide their bodies under baggy clothing when not accompanying Kelly to an event. They were to refer to Kelly as “Daddy.” They were forbidden from “look[ing] at other men and instead were told to keep their heads down.” They were also isolated from their families and friends and made financially dependent on Kelly.
As part of the charges of sex trafficking and racketeering, Kelly is also accused of kidnapping, forced labor, producing child pornography, and knowingly infecting some victims with an STD.
Prosecutors are alleging abuse against 22 anonymous victims — 20 “Janes Does” and two “John Does.” The New York Times previously reported Jane Doe #1 is Aaliyah, the late singer whom Kelly was long rumored to have married when she was just 15 and he was 27.
Kelly “engage[d] in sexually explicit conduct” with the teenager “for the purpose of producing one or more visual depictions of such conduct,” the indictment states.
According to a letter from federal prosecutors, a witness is expected to testify that Kelly first had sexual contact with Aaliyah when she was just 13, and that the marriage took place because he had gotten her pregnant. (She subsequently died in a 2001 plane crash, aged 22.)
Not all of these alleged victims have charges expressly associated with them. Several were added to the case after the indictment was first released in July 2019, and prosecutors are utilizing their allegations as further evidence of a pattern of behavior by Kelly.
Kelly’s lawyers fought back against these additions, particularly those of two underage boys, arguing it would be unfair because the questionnaire given to potential jurors was “void of a single question about their opinions or feelings on same-sex relationships.”
As a result, the jury pool was asked during the selection process whether they had any feelings about same-sex sexual relations that could compromise their impartiality.
Kelly appeared in court during the jury selection process last week, from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11.
During this process, potential jurors were questioned by Judge Ann M. Donnelly about their experiences and views that could potentially affect their ability to be impartial — including their thoughts on the #MeToo movement and whether they or a loved one have ever been sexually abused or been accused of sexual abuse. Prosecutors and Kelly’s defense attorneys could then ask the court to dismiss potential jurors based on their answers.
One woman was dismissed from the jury pool after saying that as a child she experienced something similar to what Kelly is accused of; another who said she believes false rape accusations are exceptionally rare — a statistically proven fact — was also dismissed.
Twelve people — seven men and five women — wound up being selected to serve on the jury. One of the men chosen said he had a friend in Bill Cosby’s family, but denied it would affect his impartiality.
How the Trial Will Proceed
Kelly’s trial will begin on Wednesday and is expected to go on for about four weeks.
What will happen during this trial remains, for now, largely unknown. Prosecutors have not yet said who will be called as witnesses, though a lawyer for the girl from the infamous tape, now in her 30s, could potentially be among them, according to the New York Times.
DeRogatis said he’s expecting to be surprised by who takes the stand — he said he only knows who 10 of the Jane Does are and does not know if any of them will testify.
But DeRogatis said he thinks Kelly will be convicted of some, if not all, of the charges — and that’s even before he’ll face another federal trial in Chicago.
“I think he’s done,” DeRogatis said. “I don’t think he ever breathes fresh air again.”