For more than two decades R. Kelly, the multiplatinum R&B idol repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, has outrun his reputation. In the age of #MeToo, it may finally be catching up to him.
Since the first major newspaper investigation by The Chicago Sun-Times into allegations of abuse by the singer in 2000, Mr. Kelly has consistently denied that he has been violent and sexually coercive with women and young teenagers even as he has settled lawsuits, dating to the mid-1990s, with accusers. In 2008 he was acquitted of child pornography charges despite videotape evidence that, prosecutors contended, showed him urinating on and having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
Before, during and after, he sold out concerts, gave defiant interviews and, with the support of a major label, put out smash albums featuring hit singles like “Bump N’ Grind,” “I Believe I Can Fly” and “I’m a Flirt.” Seemingly Teflon to scandal, R. Kelly has skirted most consequences — legal, financial, social — relying on a sturdy back catalog, a steady team of employees and a legendarily loyal fan base.
But in recent months, following a women-led movement against abusers that has halted the careers of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons and many other powerful men, cracks in the R. Kelly veneer are beginning to show.
Since the start of the grass-roots social media and on-the-ground protest campaign called #MuteRKelly last summer, 10 of his concerts have been canceled, including one scheduled for Saturday in his native Chicago. A lawyer, a publicist and an assistant all parted ways with the singer recently. And on Monday the Time’s Up organization, which aims to combat sexual misconduct and support its victims, threw its considerable celebrity weight behind the #MuteRKelly hashtag, releasing an open letter calling on corporations tied to Mr. Kelly to cut him off.
In a statement from and addressed to women of color, Time’s Up wrote: “The scars of history make certain that we are not interested in persecuting anyone without just cause. With that said, we demand 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.”
Among those who have expressed public support for the campaign are the director Ava DuVernay, the Chicago-born writer and actor Lena Waithe, the singer John Legend and Tarana Burke, the woman who created #MeToo.
“This is starting to feel like a success,” Oronike Odeleye, a founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign, said in an interview on Monday. “Having Time’s Up amplify it, support it — this community, this village is stepping in and demanding that these things change.”
The Time’s Up letter cited RCA Records, a division of Sony Music that has released R. Kelly’s last four albums; Ticketmaster, a division of the mega-promoter Live Nation, which sells tickets to his concerts; Spotify and Apple Music, the popular streaming services; and the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, a venue scheduled to host the singer this month in North Carolina. (RCA and Apple declined to comment. Spotify, Ticketmaster and the Greensboro Coliseum did not respond to requests for comment.)
Representatives for Mr. Kelly replied in a statement on Monday. “R. Kelly supports the pro-women goals of the Time’s Up movement,” they wrote. “We understand criticizing a famous artist is a good way to draw attention to those goals — and in this case, it is unjust and off-target.”
Calling the campaign “a greedy, conscious and malicious conspiracy to demean him, his family and the women with whom he spends his time,” the statement continued: “R. Kelly’s music is a part of American and African-American culture that should never — and will never — be silenced. Since America was born, 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 who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”
After years of touring and new music from R. Kelly that passed without much incident, interest in the allegations against the singer picked up again last summer after a series of articles by the longtime Chicago music journalist Jim DeRogatis.
One article, for BuzzFeed, reported the existence of homes in Chicago and Atlanta that three of the singer’s former associates described as housing a cult in which Mr. Kelly “controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.” A second article detailed a cash settlement paid to a woman, Jerhonda Pace, who said she was 16, a year below the age of legal consent in Illinois, when she began a physically and mentally abusive sexual relationship with the singer.
The articles last year also resurfaced claims about R. Kelly — such as the brief marriage to his musical protégé, Aaliyah, in 1994, when she was 15 and he was 27 — which, when combined with the new information, galvanized Ms. Odeleye, an Atlanta resident, to start what would become #MuteRKelly.
“After reading the history and realizing he was doing it in my backyard, I remember sitting at my computer and feeling furious and overwhelmed,” she said. “I decided to start a petition to get him off the radio. If the police can’t seem to arrest this man, we as a community can at least say we’re not going to give him our money.” (The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in Georgia said it was not currently investigating Mr. Kelly over any allegations.)
Ms. Odeleye soon joined forces with a local activist, Kenyette Barnes, who helped to organize local petitions and protests wherever R. Kelly had concerts scheduled. “He is a man of power — the king of R&B,” Ms. Barnes said. “You don’t become the king without a very strong fan base and support system. We wanted to dismantle that.”
Ten concerts were called off, and while promoters cited various reasons including low ticket sales, Ms. Odeleye and Ms. Barnes said they had no doubt that their protests had worked. And within months the women’s mission began to dovetail with the growing chorus of those saying #MeToo, and momentum for #MuteRKelly picked up. A BBC documentary that aired in March, “R Kelly: Sex, Girls and Videotapes,” added to the growing discontent.
“Within the African-American community, unfortunately, the issue of child sexual abuse is very, very taboo,” Ms. Odeleye said. “We have a tendency to try to separate the child from the abuser, but we will not kick the dangerous person out of homes, out of our communities. That’s just not good enough.”
The activists scored a win over the weekend when Ticketmaster announced that R. Kelly would no longer be performing at the “Pre-Mother’s Day Love Jam,” a concert scheduled to take place May 5 at the UIC Pavilion, a venue overseen by the University of Illinois at Chicago. With the support of #MuteRKelly, students and staff at the school gathered more than 1,300 names for a petition against the singer. (A representative for the university, Sherri McGinnis Gonzalez, said that the school had rented the venue to an outside promoter and had not booked the concert.)
Trevian Kutti, a former spokeswoman for the singer, confirmed on Monday that she and a personal assistant, Diana Copeland, were no longer affiliated with him, citing only “unfortunate circumstances.” Still, Ms. Kutti spoke admiringly about the singer.
“I am no longer successfully able to represent Mr. Robert Kelly,” she wrote in an email. “Mr. Kelly is ‘The World’s Greatest.’ I am grateful to have had the experience of representing him.”
Linda Mensch, a lawyer who recently represented the singer, said she resigned in February but declined to comment further.
Despite the rash of accusations, Mr. Kelly is not known to be facing any investigations for sexual abuse. Susan E. Loggans, a lawyer who has negotiated at least three settlements with women who said they were victimized by the singer, said that criminal prosecution continued to seem unlikely.
“I feel that since he was already tried, already acquitted,” she said, referring to the 2008 case, “that state’s attorneys are reluctant to do it. It costs millions of dollars, would drag on for a long period of time and there is a general skepticism about whether it would be successful.”
Jurors in Mr. Kelly’s previous child pornography case, which took more than six years to go to trial, said they could not ultimately determine that the 27-minute sex video featured the singer and an underage girl (who did not testify) as the prosectors argued.
“If he got acquitted next time, nobody would ever have a chance,” Ms. Loggans said. “Prosecution is very hesitant to do that over again.”
For now, Mr. Kelly appears most concerned with the state of his live concert business — a reliable revenue stream for any artist of his hit-making caliber. In a video posted to Twitter on Sunday, he insisted that he would be performing on May 11 in North Carolina, and he questioned why his Chicago appearance was scrapped.
“I’ve never heard of a show being canceled because of rumors,” he said, “but I guess there’s a first time for everything.”
“It ain’t on me,” he added.
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