Renée Graham

Time’s up for R. Kelly — but why only now?

Demonstrators gathered near the studio of singer R. Kelly to call for a boycott of his music after allegations of sexual abuse against young girls were raised on the highly-rated Lifetime mini-series "Surviving R. Kelly."
Demonstrators gathered near the studio of singer R. Kelly to call for a boycott of his music after allegations of sexual abuse against young girls were raised on the highly-rated Lifetime mini-series "Surviving R. Kelly."(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

After “Surviving R. Kelly” aired this month, prosecutors in two states launched investigations into sexual assault allegations against the R&B singer. His accusers, some of whom say they were underage when they met Kelly, spoke of sexual, physical, and mental abuse they claim he inflicted on them in Illinois and Georgia.

This also happened: Streams of Kelly’s music, still inexplicably available on Spotify after the streaming service briefly removed it last year, increased 16 percent. The most deplorable supporters this side of a Trump rally continue to defend him. And, as of this writing, he remained on the roster of his longtime label, RCA.


It’s not just talent or luck that has sustained Kelly’s nearly 30-year career. It’s complicity — from fans, the media, the music industry, and too many people who disregard the safety of black girls and women.

For now, at least, some are distancing themselves from Kelly. Chance the Rapper, who appeared in the six-part documentary, called his 2015 collaboration with Kelly “a mistake.” Under pressure, Lady Gaga finally apologized for working with Kelly in 2013. She’s removing their duet from streaming services, and is “sorry, both for my poor judgment when I was young, and not speaking out sooner.”

Gaga was no naïf. She was 27 and already one of the biggest stars in the world.

She worked with Kelly because scoring another hit was worth more than standing with his accusers, though Gaga herself is a sexual assault survivor. She overlooked years of disturbing accusations — including Kelly’s brief 1994 marriage to Aaliyah. He was 27; Aaliyah was 15.

That alone should have been a career killer. Instead it became a go-to punchline delivered at the expense of Kelly’s victims, all of them girls and women of color. At the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, Chris Rock joked that Kelly should be seated far away from the Olsen twins, then teenagers. Of course, Kelly’s real-life accusers don’t look like Mary-Kate and Ashley, so their plight has been largely ignored.


Kelly has always denied any wrongdoing.

For nearly 20 years, no one has done more to expose Kelly’s alleged misconduct than Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis. In 2000, he co-wrote the first story about Kelly’s pursuit of underage girls, and later received the anonymous tape of a man sexually assaulting a teenage girl; it would lead to child pornography charges on which Kelly was acquitted in 2008.

More recently, DeRogatis has reported on accusations that Kelly is holding young women against their will, some for years, as sex slaves in his homes. Renewed attention on that 2017 story is helping to fuel the new investigations. (DeRogatis did not appear in the documentary.)

Asked by Think Progress why it’s taken so long for the public to take Kelly’s accusers seriously, DeRogatis said, “I think the black world is divided, the white world doesn’t care, pop culture doesn’t know what to make of it.”

I want to believe that time’s finally up for Kelly.

Reaction to the Lifetime series, which aired over three nights, has been swift. Calls to rape crisis hotlines surged. Protests have been staged in Chicago, Kelly’s hometown. Alleged victims are contacting authorities. Founded in 2017 by Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Barnes and backed by the #TimesUp movement, #MuteRKelly has collected tens of thousands of signatures demanding the singer be dumped by his record label and all music platforms. Two Dallas radio stations recently dropped Kelly’s music. “I just feel like, in good conscience, we just can’t continue to support this guy,” said KRNB’s Claudia Jordan, a morning show host.


Why did this take so long? Any sentient pop culture fan in last quarter-century has heard these stories about Kelly. Yet his record sales, bizarre videos, and concerts have always garnered more attention than 25 years of monstrous accusations.

As recently as 2016, an Atlanta reporter talked to Kelly about his upcoming Christmas album, tour, even his favorite holiday songs. The allegations were reduced to this line: Kelly has “also endured his share of scandal.”

That’s the banality of complicity.

Instead of treating an insidious pattern of sexual predation as an afterthought or a joke, we should be demanding punishment for perpetrators. Bill Cosby is now in prison. Harvey Weinstein is facing multiple felony counts. Kevin Spacey was recently arraigned in Nantucket after being charged with sexually assaulting an 18-year-old man in 2016. Everyone knew about the Kelly allegations long before sexual misconduct by so many famous men made headlines, before #MeToo became a worldwide movement. His accusers still await justice.

On Jan. 8, Kelly turned 52. I hope he spends his next birthday — and every single one after that — behind bars.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.