What does it take to kill a career?
For R. Kelly, 25 years of being suspected of sexually preying on underage girls has not been enough to do the job.
But Surviving R. Kelly, the damning, difficult-to-watch six-hour Lifetime docu-series co-executive produced by writer and filmmaker dream hampton that was seen by nearly 19 million viewers on all platforms last weekend, looks like it might be up to the task of — finally — putting a stake through the heart of Kelly’s career.
And if it does succeed in achieving the goal of the #MuteRKelly movement “to end the career of the R&B singer and sexual abuser, R. Kelly,” it will have done so a full quarter-century after suspicions were first raised about Kelly’s behavior with underage girls.
Way back in 1994, Kelly secretly married his protege Aaliyah when she was 15 — he met her when she was 12 — after writing and producing her album, whose title turned transgression into a tease: Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. (The marriage was annulled a year later.)
In 2002, just weeks after performing with a gospel choir at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he was charged with 21 counts of child pornography when a 26-minute videotape appeared to show Kelly having sex with — and urinating on — a girl alleged to be 14 at the time. (The trial was delayed until 2008, and Kelly was found not guilty of all charges.)
And as recently as 2017, BuzzFeed published a story — written by Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun-Times critic who originally exposed the Kelly “pee tape” — that detailed an R. Kelly “sex cult” in which the promise of stardom lured young women into the orbit of “the Pied Piper of R&B,” whom a former personal assistant called “a master at mind control … a puppet master.”
The task of slaying R. Kelly is difficult when it comes to an artist who’s been as resilient as he has been. He’s sold more than 45 million albums in the U.S., with hits like his 1996 Space Jam smash “I Believe I Can Fly” and enduring “Ignition (Remix)” from 2003’s Chocolate Factory, which was featured in Pitch Perfect 3 in 2017.
In its hopes to effectively cancel the Chicago singer born Robert Kelly once and for all, Surviving R. Kelly — which reruns at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, and which can be streamed on the Lifetime website or watched on demand — has its work cut out for it.
That’s apparent from a sobering statistic: In the days after the series arrived last weekend, Spotify reported that streams of Kelly’s music hadn’t declined but had instead increased by 16 percent. (Last year, the service removed Kelly’s songs from promoted playlists, but his music can still be heard on demand.)
That might simply be a particularly sordid manifestation of the old showbiz axiom “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Way more people are talking about R. Kelly now than there were a few months ago, so an uptick in streams was probably inevitable.
And there’s no question that the Lifetime show has shifted the conversation about Kelly and forced a wide range of enablers — from close associates to music industry functionaries to fans — to confront their complicity in his continued success despite the persistence of allegations against him.
As Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill put it in a #AskMeek Twitter question-and-answer session after watching: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what was going on … what I’m tryna figure out is why did they let it go on soooooo long!”
Kelly’s being condemned by a growing number of his peers, from John Legend, one of his few collaborators who appears in the Lifetime series, to Lady Gaga, who hampton has said declined to be interviewed for the docu-series but who has since spoken out.
There has been a growing outcry for broadcast chain IHeartMedia to officially banish Kelly from its playlists. Neither of the two IHeartRadio stations in Philadelphia that have regularly played Kelly — hip-hop WUSL-FM (98.9) and R&B WDAS-FM (105.3) have him currently in rotation.
The Lifetime series paints a portrait of a disturbed individual who was himself sexually molested as a boy. Each episode begins with a reminder that the singer “has denied all claims relating to sexual assault, domestic violence/abuse and sexual misconduct with minors.” (Last year, he released a 19-minute song called “I Admit,” which dances around the allegations he faces but which made no admission of wrongdoing.)
Kelly may soon find himself in new legal trouble. The Fulton County, Ga., district attorney is investigating goings-on at a house rented by Kelly where alleged victim Asante McGee says she saw women held against their will. “R. Kelly is a fun, laughing, loving guy,” McGee, one of more than 50 people interviewed in the Lifetime series, says, “but Robert is the devil.”
In pop music history, Kelly’s association with young girls hardly exists in a vacuum. The idea of sleeping with underage girls as acceptable bad-boy behavior was present through the rock era. “I can see that you’re 15 years old,” Mick Jagger sang on “Stray Cat Blues” in 1968. “But I don’t want your ID.” 1970s Los Angeles music scenester Lori Maddox has frequently told the story of losing her virginity to David Bowie when she was 14.
Going back even farther, as Surviving R. Kelly points out, Elvis Presley began romancing his future wife Priscilla when she was 14, though they weren’t married and supposedly didn’t have sex until she was 21.
Chuck Berry wrote “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and was arrested in 1959 and charged under the Mann Act for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines “for immoral purposes.” Jerry Lee Lewis famously married his 13-year-old cousin Myra in 1958.
Though their careers recovered, both Berry and Lewis paid a price. Berry spent nearly two years in jail; Lewis — who is nicknamed “The Killer” and who has had wives die under mysterious circumstances — never got back on the path to superstardom after the scandal.
What’s striking about Kelly’s trajectory by contrast is that the allegations of abuse didn’t make him any less popular. As culture critic Nelson George points out in Surviving, it was in the period between when Kelly was faced with child pornography charges in 2002 and the trial (in which he was found not guilty after neither the alleged victim nor her family members testified against him) that his career peaked.
No one was about to slam on the brakes on moral grounds when Kelly was such a formidable earner for his record label, Jive, with which he is still signed, and for concert promoters and radio programmers, as well as for himself. Some, like Aisha Harris writing in the New York Times, have theorized Kelly was also aided by protection within the black community by “a perception by some that the attacks on any black male celebrity, no matter how credible, are part of a larger racist conspiracy.”
The hits kept coming, from “The World’s Greatest” on the Ali soundtrack to “Step in the Name of Love,” a pop smash associated with the step-dancing trend that’s a case in point of the squeaky-clean mainstream hits Kelly continued to score even as he was under a cloud of suspicion.
And Kelly, whose vocal talents have always reminded old-school R&B fans of revered singers like Sam Cooke and Al Green, was canny about working both the sacred and secular sides of the fence.
He frequently recorded gospel anthems, like 2004′s “U Saved Me,” and as late as 2017 wrapped himself in the cloth by teaming with Bishop Marvin Sapp, who has a new song scheduled to come out with Kelly and who was lambasted on Twitter this week for planning to go ahead with its release.
But the real stroke of genius that kept his career going in the ’00s was Trapped in the Closet, the 22-chapter music and video soap opera that embraced camp and made light of his reputation for sexual perversion.
Trapped was celebrated by critics, popular with fans, and helped Kelly portray himself as a creative bad boy rather than a dangerous predator. And because the “pee tape” was so easily mocked — comic fodder for Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show and the animated series The Boondocks — Kelly was often viewed as somebody to laugh at, or with, rather than to be feared.
Of course, in order for that to happen, his alleged victims had to remain anonymous. It’s been correctly pointed out that the failure to make any allegations stick against Kelly speaks to the low regard in which young black girls are held in American society. As DeRogatis has said, quoting African American scholar Mark Anthony Neal, “One white girl from Winnetka [a Chicago suburb] and the story would have been different.”
But R. Kelly is a celebrity, a charismatic superstar. To fully let go and truly cancel a treasured hero — and consider that he might in fact be a monster — is not easily done by fans of an artist whose music has sustained them. Lots of people got mad at Kanye West last year for saying slavery was “a choice” and for wearing his Make America Great Again hat. But he still has 29 million Twitter followers, many of whom are clamoring for him to release a new album.
And Kelly has long understood that being despised by many is not necessarily a hindrance to popular success. “I got a million [expletives] who hate me,” he’s caught on video saying at the start of Surviving R. Kelly. “And I got a million [expletives] who love me.”
Thanks to Surviving R. Kelly, though, that balance has been tipped. It appears that — at long last — Kelly is finally going to be felled and will become 2019’s first powerful predator to be taken down in the #MeToo era.
The series' great service is to strike back against Kelly’s fame and power by showing the faces of his alleged victims and bringing their stomach-turning stories of ruined lives to a mass audience. Once you hear these women speak and look them in the eye, you won’t be able to listen to his music again with a clear conscience.