A Chicago native who soared to global celebrity on a burst of megahits in the 1990s, for years R. Kelly endured as one of R&B’s top stars, even as he faced a slew of sex abuse allegations.
But now, three decades after he was first documented to have abused a minor, the 55-year-old artist will spend 30 years in prison after a New York jury convicted him of running a criminal ring that trapped teenagers and women in a web of sexual, emotional and physical abuse.
The three-time Grammy winner born Robert Sylvester Kelly has sold over 75 million records globally, making him one of the most commercially successful R&B musicians ever, with hits like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Ignition (Remix).”
But Kelly’s success always included an asterisk: rumors of criminal sexual activity swirled for decades and the artist periodically settled sex crime allegations out of court.
In a pre-#MeToo world that saw victims far less empowered, Kelly acted with impunity, multiple indictments said.
Prosecutors for the trial in Brooklyn federal court detailed a “Robert Kelly-centric universe” that saw his associates support the singer’s predatory behavior.
The musician’s defense dubbed Kelly a “playboy” and a “sex symbol” who was merely living the hedonistic, jet-set life international superstars are accustomed to.
But the jury of five women and seven men found him guilty on all charges in September 2021, convicting him of using his fame to systematically recruit victims for sex, buttressed by his entourage.
Child porn acquittal
Born January 8, 1967, in Chicago, Kelly was the third of four children raised by his mother.
In his 2012 memoir, he describes sexual experiences as early as eight years old, saying he sometimes watched older couples have sex, and was instructed to photograph them.
He said an older woman raped him, also when he was eight, and that an older man in the neighborhood sexually abused him when he was a pre-teen.
Kelly has long been rumored to be illiterate, which was repeatedly raised during the Brooklyn trial, despite 14 solo albums to his name.
His former attorney said Kelly writes in phonetic notes rather than standard English.
Jive Records signed him in 1991, after a label executive reportedly heard him singing at a barbeque in Chicago.
Kelly released his first solo album “12 Play” in 1993, featuring sexed up jams such as “Bump N’ Grind,” a record that topped the R&B charts for nine weeks.
Despite his tumultuous personal life — including his ultimately annulled marriage to 15-year-old protege Aaliyah — Kelly’s fame skyrocketed.
But in the early 2000s, Chicago reporter Jim DeRogatis anonymously received two tapes that appeared to show Kelly having sex with young girls, the second of which led to the artist’s indictment for child pornography.
After years of trial delays, during which he continued to tour and record, Kelly was acquitted on all counts in that controversial trial.
‘Mute R. Kelly’
For years, the accusations had little impact on Kelly’s fame.
From 2005 to 2012, he wrote, produced, directed and performed in the notorious “hip hopera” entitled “Trapped in the Closet,” an absurdist tale of sex and lies that bewildered and impressed critics.
In July 2017, BuzzFeed published a lengthy investigation by DeRogatis, which alleged Kelly was operating a “sex cult” and holding six women hostage between Chicago and Atlanta.
At the same time, two women in Atlanta, Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, founded the “Mute R. Kelly” movement, which encouraged boycotting his music.
“Someone had to stand up for Black women,” Odeleye said at the time.
More trials ahead
In January 2019, a Lifetime docu-series again said the quiet part loud, interviewing women who cast Kelly as manipulative, violent and hyper-focused on young girls, who he allegedly demanded call him “daddy.”
This time, the renewed scrutiny appeared to prompt a sea change.
His label dropped him and as outrage boiled over, fresh legal action brewed.
Not long after Chicago prosecutors levelled 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse against him, federal prosecutors in both Illinois and New York indicted Kelly in 2019.
Disgraced and reportedly facing financial ruin, Kelly has been imprisoned without bail since the federal charges came out.
But he still has yet to be tried for crimes in the three other jurisdictions, including Chicago federal court, where a trial is due to begin August 15.