How the Media Could've Killed R. Kelly's Career Decades Ago
At the time of this writing, R&B singer R. Kelly is awaiting trial on 13 federal charges, including obstruction of justice, forced labor, and enticement of a minor. According to prosecutors, these all stem from his foundation of a nationwide conspiracy to groom, imprison, and sexually assault women and minors. This is going to be one of those articles, isn't it? We'll cue up the bunny GIFs.
This isn't the first time Kelly has been accused of heinous sex crimes. It isn't even the second, third, fourth, fifth, or sixth. We could list them all, but better journalists have already done that, and in finer detail than we could ever provide ... or stomach. But the vast majority of these allegations have in the past been settled out of court, and the only two times he's seen the inside of a courtroom ended with him walking free on account of various legal shenanigans. And then there's the media, which has largely spent the last 20 years treating any fresh accusations against Kelly as roadblocks for him to overcome or joke fodder, which seems eerily familiar.
Like this tilted take on the realities of the entertainment industry! ... Except, you know, with more (alleged) child rape.
There's no better example to illustrate the media's soft-handedness on Kelly than how they covered his 1994 marriage to singer Aaliyah ... who at the time was only 15 (Kelly was 27). They first met in 1993 while recording her debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number (good lord). Within a year, they were married in a secret ceremony attended only by a few members of Kelly's entourage. It wasn't until 1995 that someone got ahold of the marriage certificate, and found that the only reason the ceremony was allowed to go ahead was that Aaliyah forged her age.
Before the certificate surfaced, the rumor mill went into overdrive. And when the press latched onto it, they seemingly couldn't help but report the situation as if it were a whirlwind fairy tale romance or a kooky sitcom plot, not (more accurately) a child being exploited by a grown-ass adult. For instance, writing for Sister 2 Sister in 1994, Jamie Foster Brown described Kelly as saying that his relationship with Aaliyah was "just magic," and that she was "a very, very, very, very special person" about whom he "could say 'very' for three years ... and it still wouldn't be enough." Please note that Kelly didn't do this, presumably because Aaliyah would've been 18 by the time he finished, and therefore out of his preferred age bracket.
Brown didn't ever raise the question of why (dear god, why), but she pointed to the fact that at 15, people have "all those hormones and no brain attached to them." We don't how this gels with her follow-up point that the relationship is destined to last because "Aaliyah has a mature mind and is such a big kid," but it's admittedly hard to get into Brown's head, because we've never had to write apologies for a child predator.
Somehow, this isn't the worst way that someone approached this sordid affair. The prize for limbo-ing under that low bar goes to Neal Rubin, a columnist for The Detroit Free Press, who wrote:
He's R.Kelly, a 25-year-old R&B singer known for subtle tunes like 'Bump 'N Grind' and 'Sex Me.' She's his opening act, a vocalist whose first single is titled 'Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number.' Speaking of which, she's 15.
Do you get it? It's funny because it's a grown man marrying a teenager who released a record with a title that people who don't understand irony would call "ironic." WAKKA WAK- wait, it was R. Kelly who titled that record? What is it with these assholes signposting their crimes like the Riddler's perverted nephew?
Whoops, how did this unrelated and totally irrelevant video get in here? What a wacky mix-up.
Even the magazine that published the couple's marriage certificate managed to screw this up. They had definite proof that Kelly's relationship with Aaliyah was all kinds of wrong, yet the accompanying story by Vibe refused to describe it as such, on the grounds that Aaliyah might actually be 18, owing to how "evasive" she'd been while promoting her album. And believe us, Vibe knows a thing or two about being evasive when making a point. It goes on to say that if Aaliyah does turn out to be 15, the end result will be that "her pseudo-Lolita image becomes reality ... and R. Kelly's sex-man image gets that much murkier."
This is, unintentionally, the most damning part of the piece. How? Because Lolita isn't a vixen with a vagina so magic that grown men are unable to resist its charms; she's a young girl who gets groomed, abducted, and forced into sexual slavery by a pedophile. Good job, Vibe!
Aaliyah and Kelly annulled their unholy union in 1995, after (it's widely believed) her parents learned about it and forced her to cut off Kelly personally and professionally for the rest of time. In a piece for the Associated Press, Nekesa Mumbi Moody described Aaliyah and Kelly as "an artistic pairing allegedly turned romantic." Why did they annul their marriage? If you ask Moody, it's because the ceremony took place "without parents' consent." In the context of her working relationship with Kelly, Moody writes how Aaliyah wore "midriff-baring clothes" and sang "suggestive lyrics that raised eyebrows," while Kelly is described as "an R&B superstar, best known for hits such as 'I Believe I Can Fly.'"
The hits he's not known for, apparently? All those "suggestive" songs he wrote for Aaliyah.
Like, and we're spitballing here, that song he wrote about Aaliyah having sex with an older man.
Aaliyah's midriff also broke the brain of Jeff Harrell, a columnist for The Montclair Times, who wrote an obituary that talked about how her and Kelly's marriage was a predatory one ... on the part of Aaliyah:
Aaliyah's life was not filled with enough sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll to kill a rock god. Of course, if the bare midriffs in her videos and lyrics like 'going all the way with an older man' are any indication, there was sex. Aaliyah was a mere teenager when she reportedly married her producer, the Grammy winner and older man R.Kelly.
At the end of the day, it's hard to know exactly why the media refused to cover this story with the seriousness that it deserved. It's worth noting, however, that this story -- and the blackout that would provide cover for Kelly until relatively recently -- intersects with issues around both race and celebrity culture. It's a sad fact that when it comes to sex, black teenage girls are perceived as being less innocent and more knowledgeable than their white counterparts.
To the media, and by extension, the wider public, Aaliyah wasn't a teen who'd been groomed by an adult with control over every aspect of her life. She was a "pseudo-Lolita" living a life filled with "sex, drugs, and rock n' roll," and therefore was so undeserving of anything resembling leeway that one music journalist decided to suggest that she was lying about being young, rather than, you know, do some actual journalism and break a story.
Add in the fact that R. Kelly was the biggest celebrity of the '90s, alongside our culture's willingness to excuse musicians who sleep with children (if not love them for the fact), and she never really stood a chance, did she? Hell, earlier this year, arts writer Bill Wyman compiled a dozen examples of outlets like The New York Times heaping praise on Kelly throughout the '00s. One review described his 21 counts of producing child porn as " him more of what every star needs: attention and motivation" -- as if all those accusations were video game power-ups.
In January 2019, a six-part documentary series, Surviving R. Kelly, exhaustively detailed the allegations against the singer. Between this and the #MuteRKelly campaign started by activists Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, he was soon dropped from his record label, countless radio station playlists and streaming services, and eventually, freedom.
Journalism did that. The media did that. It's not that we've only just discovered the words to describe his alleged actions; it's that word of them became too big to hide behind fawning profiles in GQ and retrospectives in The New York Times about how Trapped In The Closet is a timeless masterpiece.
Robert's problem is young girls. I've known Robert for many years, and I've tried to get him to get help, but he just won't do it. So I'm telling you about it hoping that you or someone at your newspaper will write an article about it and then Robert will have no choice but to get help and stop hurting the people he's hurting.
That was a fax sent in 2000 from a member of Kelly's entourage to Jim DeRogatis, a journalist at The Chicago Sun-Times. By the end of the year, DeRogatis had published the first mainstream account of the accusations against Kelly. We might be being overly optimistic here, but it doesn't take much to imagine what would've happened 20 years ago if the country's biggest media outlets had looked at the situation unfurling directly in front of their eyes and thought something beyond "How romantic."
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