He has been accused of having sex with minors. At 27, he married a 15-year-old girl. Some women say he runs an emotionally abusive sex cult.
But in more than two decades of persistent allegations, the R&B star at the center of them, R. Kelly, has never been convicted of a crime, and in no meaningful way has his career suffered.
The #MuteRKelly campaign to punish him legally and commercially hopes to change that, receiving new life in recent days after a widely watched Lifetime documentary, “Surviving R. Kelly,” devoted six episodes to his history with women. Prosecutors in Chicago and Atlanta have started looking into Kelly’s conduct.
“He uses his talent to prey on women, to abuse us,” Asante McGee, who appeared in the documentary, said in an interview. McGee said Kelly prohibited her from looking other men in the eye and required that she ask permission to leave her bedroom or go to the bathroom. “A regular person on the street couldn’t have gotten away with what he’s gotten away with.”
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The documentary has had some early effect. Some radio stations have stopped playing his music, and a concert appearance in Illinois was canceled.
But there are significant challenges to bringing a criminal case against Kelly, and various reasons his record label might decide to keep him on, even as calls for a reckoning grow louder.
He’s been tried before
Among the longstanding allegations against Robert Kelly is that he has had sexual relationships with minors. Kelly, 52, has settled lawsuits dating back to the 1990s alleging he had sex with underage girls. More than 20 years ago, Vibe magazine questioned the validity of a marriage certificate showing that Kelly had married the singer Aaliyah when she was 18. She was actually 15, and the marriage was annulled. (Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001.)
On ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday, Kelly’s lawyer, Steven Greenberg, threatened to sue Lifetime for defamation and said Kelly denied ever having a sexual relationship with someone under the age of consent. He said Kelly did not know that Aaliyah was 15 when they married.
On Tuesday, Kimberly M. Foxx, the state’s attorney for Cook County, Ill., publicly asked any potential victims and witnesses to come forward, and prosecutors in Fulton County, Ga., where Kelly also has lived, have begun gathering information.
Even so, any case could be difficult to try. It routinely takes people many years to come forward, by which time memories have faded and records have vanished.
“These cases are hard because, typically, the crime occurs behind closed doors,” said Marci Hamilton, the founder of Child U.S.A., which proposes policies to address the sexual abuse of children.
Kelly’s courtroom history might also, in a sense, raise the bar to put him on trial. In 2008, he was acquitted of child pornography charges despite a 27-minute video that prosecutors said showed him having sex with and urinating on a 13-year-old girl. But the girl in the video never testified, and Kelly’s lawyers successfully argued that her identity could not be proven.
That experience could make prosecutors wary. “Sometimes there is a reluctance to go back,” said Paul Mones, a lawyer who represents victims who were abused as children.
The question of free will looms large
The more recent allegations against Kelly, many previously outlined by the music journalist Jim DeRogatis on BuzzFeed News, revolve around what has been described as a sex cult. Kelly is said to have exhibited almost total control over women who lived or traveled with him, dictating their movements, when they could eat and when they could go to the bathroom.
Kelly’s lawyer told CBS that the women who lived with him were attracted to a “rock ’n’ roll life” and did so voluntarily.
“They were perfectly consensual relationships,” Greenberg said. “Whatever occurred, I’m not someone who should be judging, nor should any of us be judging, someone’s personal relationships, what goes on in their bedrooms.”
He called those who appeared on the documentary “a bunch of disgruntled people who are looking for their 15 minutes of TMZ fame.”
Kelly’s accusers say he brainwashes the women into submission, but cases that involve psychological control can be exceptionally difficult to prove, lawyers say. Alan W. Scheflin, a professor emeritus at Santa Clara University School of Law, recalled a case in which someone was found to have been falsely imprisoned because their clothing was taken away and they would have had to flee naked. But he said that duress is usually considered to be something physical, like being locked in a basement.
“It’s so horrible and so frustrating because there aren’t remedies focused specifically on this issue,” he said.
Prosecutors can try to argue that a person is being illegally restrained when they have been threatened with harm if they leave. Federal prosecutors in New York have brought charges against the leaders of a group called Nxivm, alleging that they forced women into sexual slavery by demanding they turn over compromising material, such as sexually explicit photographs of themselves, as “collateral” that would be used against them if they left or spoke out publicly. (The leaders have also been charged with other crimes, including financial ones.)
In an email, a lawyer for the group’s founder, Keith Raniere, said the government’s charges of sex trafficking and forced labor were “baseless and unprecedented.”
In “Surviving R. Kelly,” a person identified as a former employee of Kelly’s said he would make women write false statements to incriminate themselves or their parents, saying they stole from him, for example. The former employee described those statements, and sex tapes Kelly recorded of the women, as a form of insurance to stop them from speaking out.
Even if that were considered criminal, bringing a case is difficult without cooperating victims.
The parents of one woman believed to be living with Kelly, Joycelyn Savage, say she is being held against her will, according to their lawyer, Gerald A. Griggs. But in a video interview published by TMZ in July, Savage said she was not Kelly’s captive and was “in a happy place with my life.”
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has said it has received calls about Kelly since Foxx made her public plea. Police officers went to Kelly’s home at Trump Tower in Chicago on Friday after receiving a tip that two women were being held there against their will. A spokeswoman for the department said two women were found who said they were there voluntarily. It is unclear what other reports the authorities have received.
R. Kelly music is still in demand
As public reaction to the documentary has grown, some radio stations have pledged to stop playing his music. According to Mediabase, which tracks terrestrial radio stations, plays of Kelly’s music have dropped, from more than 220 “spins” per day in recent months to less than 100 a few days after the documentary aired.
And a concert Kelly was supposed to host in Springfield, Ill., in April had its application denied by the state because of security concerns spurred by anti-Kelly protests, The Chicago Tribune reported.
Much attention has focused on Kelly’s record company, RCA, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. On Friday, the advocacy group UltraViolet flew a banner over RCA’s offices in Culver City, Calif., calling on the label to cancel its contract with the star.
“It is long past time for RCA to dump R. Kelly and take a stand against abuse,” the group said in a statement.
But neither RCA nor Sony has commented on the documentary, nor on the calls to end their relationship with Kelly.
According to music industry lawyers and executives, the question of whether RCA will part ways with Kelly is less about if it has the right to cancel his contract than about if it wants to — and what it would cost the label.
Dropping a well-known artist is not a decision any record company takes lightly, these executives said. And however much the company’s reputation may suffer now from keeping Kelly on its roster, RCA’s executives may be weighing the risks of being accused of censorship, or of jettisoning its contractual obligations.
“The risks for RCA/Sony are glaringly obvious — subjecting themselves to public pressure, being viewed as condoning bad behavior, lacking sensitivity, and choosing money over integrity,” said Jeff Rabhan, the chairman of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.
But, Rabhan added: “Societal outrage is best demonstrated by simply not purchasing his music or tickets to his concerts. It would be ill-advised for RCA/Sony to make business decisions solely based upon a groundswell of current publicity and outrage surrounding the allegations.”
Several executives pointed to the industry furor last year after Spotify instituted a vaguely articulated “hateful conduct” policy that appeared to largely affect black artists, including Kelly. The policy — which removed some artists’ work from official Spotify playlists — was canceled three weeks after it was announced.
Then there is the question of Kelly’s many fans. By the end of Lifetime’s first broadcast of “Surviving R. Kelly,” daily streams of his songs in the United States more than doubled, according to Nielsen, from 1.9 million the day before the series began to 4.3 million on its last day.
Kelly’s most recent RCA album was “12 Nights of Christmas” in 2016. Although his contract with RCA is private, and may in some ways still be governed by the deal he signed in 1991 with the Jive label, which is now owned by Sony, industry lawyers said the power imbalance of most artist contracts likely gives RCA many ways to cancel the deal.
The label may be able to decline an option to extend Kelly’s most recent deal, and many contracts give the label a right to pay the artist a fee rather than release new material, known as “pay or play.”
“You can always drop an artist,” said Elliot Groffman, a music lawyer in New York. “The only issue is what obligations you have to that artist if you drop them.”
Although morals clauses are rare in record deals, several lawyers said, the severity of the accusations against Kelly, and the fact that prosecutors are looking into them, may let RCA argue that its association with Kelly has become damaging to the company, and give it a way out.
Kelly could always accuse RCA of breaching its contract through “bad faith” — intentionally failing to fulfill its obligations — but that is unlikely, said Laurie L. Soriano, a music lawyer in Los Angeles.
“I think no one would consider this a matter of bad faith,” Soriano said, “given the situation we are talking about.”