At long last, has R. Kelly reached his “Cosby moment”?
It doesn’t matter if his hit “Step in the Name of Love” is your jam, or if the lyrics to his treacly “I Believe I Can Fly” serve as a daily affirmation, it’s way past time for fans to turn their backs on Kelly – as many people ultimately did with Bill Cosby.
An explosive BuzzFeed report this week claims Kelly, a singer-songwriter and producer, is holding several women in Georgia and Illinois in a “cult,” controlling where they go, whom they see, when they eat and sleep, and “how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.” To anyone familiar with Kelly, the only thing surprising here was the depth of detail by Jim DeRogatis, a longtime Chicago journalist who has covered the performer for decades, including stories about his disturbing sexual history. Through his attorney, Kelly “unequivocally denies” the accusations.
For most of his public life, Kelly has been dogged by accusations of sexual improprieties with underage girls. In 1994, he infamously married singer Aaliyah, when she was 15 and Kelly was 27; the marriage was quickly annulled. He has spent millions on out-of-court settlements with women who alleged Kelly had sex with them before they reached the age of consent. In 2001, DeRogatis received a videotape, which he gave to police, that allegedly showed Kelly having sex with a 14-year-old girl; Kelly was indicted, and in 2008, he was acquitted on multiple child pornography charges.
Through it all, Kelly’s career has never missed a slickly produced beat. He was featured in designer Alexander Wang’s spring 2017 digital campaign. Influential Apple Music executive Jimmy Iovine is lobbying for a sequel to Kelly’s absurd — and absurdly popular — multi-part opera of sorts, “Trapped in a Closet,” about a man hiding among hangers to avoid the wrath of a jealous husband.
It’s not just that Kelly gets the benefit of the doubt — it’s worse. The public knows all about him, and doesn’t care. More than once, Kelly has been called “a musical genius.” He is not — but even if he were, that shouldn’t inoculate him from the legal and public ramifications of sexually predatory behavior.
Since Cosby’s first sexual assault trial ended in a mistrial, last month, some might argue that even the once-beloved comedian hasn’t endured his own Cosby moment. While there’s some truth to that, Cosby, now 80, is so radioactive that no reputable person will have anything to do with him for the rest of his life — that is the Cosby moment.
Still, the major difference between Cosby and Kelly is that the former worked to project a wholesome image to shield his abhorrent behavior. Kelly, meanwhile, has made a fortune flaunting his proclivities and setting his lurid behavior to music. In the same year that he married Aaliyah, he produced her breakthrough debut, the creepily titled “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” In 2015, he teamed with Lady Gaga on “Do What U Want,” a song and video that seemed to condone rape. Kelly has enough money to silence his accusers, and refills his bank account with albums like “Black Panties.”
Inevitably, Kelly will have his defenders — famous men suspected of assaulting girls and women always do. That his alleged black female victims exist in the fraught crossroads of race and gender makes it easier for some to treat every Kelly accusation like a punch line.
In 2010, Billboard hailed Kelly as “the No. 1 R&B and hip-hop artist for the last quarter-century.” It’s still too early to gauge if these latest allegations will prove a tipping point for Kelly’s career, or whether his fans and the music industry will finally care as much about the deeply troubling history with girls and women that has coincided with, but never deterred, Kelly’s Grammy-winning success.