What does R. Kelly’s alleged culture of abuse suggest about how society views black women?


A new Lifetime documentary describes in graphic detail abuse allegations against singer R. Kelly from dozens of women, many of whom were minors when they met the R&B star. Chicago-based music journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has covered this story for 17 years, talks to Yamiche Alcindor about R.Kelly's "pattern of predatory behavior" and whether society devalues the experiences of young black women.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    A documentary is shedding new light on the life of R&B singer R. Kelly, whose real name is Robert Kelly.

    And as Yamiche Alcindor is back to tell us now, it documents in graphic detail allegations of a predatary — predatory, rather, pursuit of teenaged girls over two decades and accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse.

  • A warning:

    This story contains sensitive and explicit subject matter.

  • Woman:

    Rob would get upset and say, you're not supposed to speak to them. You don't speak to anybody.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The six-part documentary aired on Lifetime. In it, women detailed life with R. Kelly, one of music's most successful R&B artists. Some say they felt trapped by him.

  • Woman:

    He would turn around and say: "I'm the only one that loves you. I'm the only one who cares about you."

    I was mentally drained.

  • Woman:

    Robert feels as if he's invincible. I can't be touched. And, in hindsight, in society, we kind of made him feel that way.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    One of the allegations chronicled in the documentary is what first brought the possible abuse to public attention, his marriage to Aaliyah, a music sensation in her own right in the mid-'90s.

    In 1994, Kelly, then 27, married Aaliyah, who at the time was only 15. But, according to the documentary, on the wedding certificate, she was listed as 18.

    In 1995, their marriage was annulled. Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001. But accusations about Kelly have never gone away. In a pair of lawsuits in 1996 and in 2001, the R&B singer was accused of having sex with two underage girls, one 15, the other 17. Both settled out of court.

    Then, in 2002, a video surfaced that appeared to show R. Kelly having sex with a different teenage girl and committing degrading acts. Kelly was indicted by a Chicago grand jury on 21 counts of child pornography. The trial was delayed. And, in 2008, Kelly was found not guilty on all counts after the victim in the video refused to testify.

    Last year, there were more accusations that Kelly was trapping women in a sex cult, taking away their phones and limiting contact with their families. R. Kelly has denied all of the allegations in the documentary and in other investigations.

    Last year, his representatives issued a statement that said, in part: "Black men and women have been lynched for having sex or for being accused of it. We will vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man."

  • Woman:

    Black women don't get the same recognition.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A protest campaign using the hashtag #MuteRKelly has grown. Its is calling for a boycott of his music and for streaming services to remove his songs from their platforms.

    But Spotify and others platforms stream his music. In fact, his streaming numbers grew after the documentary aired. R. Kelly, who has sold more than 40 million albums, is still listed as an artist on his record label RCA's Web site.

    We now turn to Jim DeRogatis. He's a Chicago-based music journalist and a critic who first started reporting on this story 18 years ago, after receiving an anonymous fax claiming that R. Kelly was sexually exploiting underage girls. His work provided some of the foundation for the Lifetime documentary.

    Thanks so much, Jim, for joining me.

    You have been reporting on R. Kelly for close to two decades. Why has R. Kelly have been able to not only survive, but thrive, as these allegations of sexual abuse have followed him?

  • Jim DeRogatis:

    Yamiche, I wish I could answer that question.

    I think it's unprecedented in the history of popular music that a man who sold 100 million albums continues to be so in demand by the music industry, while leaving this trail, really literally unprecedented, of dozens and dozens of young women whose lives have been ruined.

    It has not been a secret for 30 years now, and yet he continues unhindered.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, as we noted, the mute R. Kelly movement has grown. How much traction, though, has that movement gained? And do we feel like now we're at a tipping point because of this documentary?

  • Jim DeRogatis:

    Yamiche, I wish I could say we were.

    I thought, when the videotape that got him indicted on 21 counts of child pornography showed up in my mailbox at home one day — go to your mailbox. It was a phone call, and there was this tape.

    I thought, when he was tried, that was the tipping point. It wasn't. It took six years to go to trial. He was acquitted. But the trial was limited by a judge here in Chicago to one girl and one videotape, and not what we reported in our first story in The Sun Times December of 2000, a pattern of predatory behavior, of using his wealth and fame to pursue underage girls.

    And even as we're speaking, about five miles from here now, there are these two young women who their parents say have been separated from their families for three years now. That's happening now.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's happening now. It's disturbing, the way that you just described that.

    Now that we're thinking about this, some argue that R. Kelly has been so successful because some of the women that he's abused have, frankly, been African-American women. What do you make of that and the fact that some say that African-American women aren't valued the same as other races?

  • Jim DeRogatis:

    I am echoing only dozens of young black women that I have spoken to when I say, yes, nobody seems to matter less in our society than young black women.

    Mark Anthony Neal, the chair of African-American studies at Duke University, we did a panel now, I don't know, 15 years ago, and he said, one white girl from Winnetka, and this would have been a different story.

    Winnetka is a very exclusive suburb here in Chicago.

    But the predator preys on the most vulnerable in society. And that's what dozens of psychiatrists and people close to Kelly have told me.

    You know, Yamiche, in 18 years of reporting, the sentence that people have said to me more than any other again and again, literally hundreds of sources, brother needs help. He needs to stop.

    No one has said, I want to destroy this man. They have said, he's got a problem and he needs help.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    You also mentioned the trial in the 1990s where R. Kelly was found not guilty of the child pornography charges.

    Some say, because he was found not guilty and because he hasn't been actually convicted of anything in a court of law, that this is much ado about nothing.

    What do you make of people who make that argument?

  • Jim DeRogatis:

    Well, I have spoken to more than a dozen brave women who have put their names and faces to the accusations they have made in BuzzFeed in July 2017, the big story that has revitalized interest in this sad tale. It got 8.5 million hits online.

    It is at a tipping point, in the sense that we are like Cosby. It took those two dozen women who put their names and faces on the cover of "New York" magazine before people said, Bill Cosby has been hurting people for a very long time.

    I don't know why — I have enormous respect for Dream Hampton. What she has done with this six-part series is given the viewer the experience I have had for 18 years, of sitting with a woman who is doing the hardest thing imaginable, telling you about her sexual abuse, going on the record, crying on my shoulder, Yamiche.

    I mean, I have seen the scars on women's wrists where they attempted to kill themselves after relationships with R. Kelly, a man who is selling 100 million records, a man who is recording with Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.

    And where is the music industry, his peers, the record company? As of today, he's still signed to RCA Records and his concerts are still promoted. Mute R. Kelly has been trying to raise the level of awareness. Those are black women activists.

    And there have been black women activists protesting since his trial in 2008, since his indictment in 2002, since my first story in December of 2000.

    I really can't think — I'm a student of rock history. I'm a music journalist. I'm a rock critic. We can talk about Jerry Lee Lewis, and we can talk about Led Zeppelin, and we can talk about Marvin Gaye.

    I don't think — when the dust finally settles, if there's an end to this story someday, I don't think anybody in the history, not only of popular music, but popular entertainment, has abused his position of fame for so long to hurt so many people.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks, Jim.

    As I said, you have been reporting on R. Kelly for close to two decades. We really appreciate you joining.

  • Jim DeRogatis:

    Well, it's my pleasure to talk to you, Yamiche.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thank you.

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What does R. Kelly’s alleged culture of abuse suggest about how society views black women? first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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