After a six-week trial, R&B megastar R Kelly has been convicted of nine counts of racketeering and sex trafficking and now faces decades in jail. Over the course of the trial, several of Kelly’s victims recounted harrowing testimony of the abuse they suffered at the singer’s hands, starting when many of them were just teenagers.
Although a guilty verdict is the best possible outcome in this horrific situation, I can’t help but think about all the other adults who failed these Black girls along the way, and how long it took the justice system to deliver this reckoning. For over two decades, serious allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate contact with minors have followed the Grammy award-winning singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly. Why did no one do anything about it? The answer is simple and twofold: first, Kelly was a superstar; second, society simply doesn’t value Black girls’ lives.
When you look closely at the singer’s history, you’ll find a network of enablers who helped him operate without punishment, and secured the silence of his victims. All of those people played a role in leaving those girls at the mercy of a violent, predatory man who was known as early as 2000 – 21 years ago – to have “had a problem” with young girls.
From the former tour manager who admitted to paying the bribe that allowed Kelly to marry the late singer Aaliyah when she was just 15 years old and he was 27, to the assistants who “arranged flights, food and bathroom breaks for his traveling entourage of young women”, there were countless adults who either looked the other way, or willfully aided Kelly’s behavior, all because society sees Black girls as worthless.
Then there’s the adoring public, who for years refused to accept that the man who provided the soundtrack to some of our most treasured memories, was in fact a monster. For decades, Kelly hid his predatory behavior in plain sight. He referred to himself as the “Pied Piper of R&B” – a creepily obvious reference to the old German tale of a mysterious man who lured children away from their homes using music. He embedded his desires in hypersexualized song lyrics and performances – including naming an album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. In the 2019 bombshell Lifetime documentary Surviving R Kelly, former Chicago residents recalled seeing Kelly trawling a local high school, hunting for young girls. Despite all of this, he was able to amass millions of dollars, produce chart-topping hits and become one of the most well-known and revered figures in R&B history.
As for the legal system, not much luck there, either. In 2008 Kelly was acquitted of charges for child sexual abuse images, despite seemingly overwhelming video evidence. It wasn’t until a 2017 article by Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun Times music journalist who broke the first major story about Kelly back in 2000, that police interest in the singer was renewed. That article, combined with the heartbreaking 2019 documentary, helped bring Kelly’s activities back into the spotlight, leading to his arrest in the summer of that year.
Fast forward to the 2021 trial, and it’s easy to see the mechanisms that helped silence Kelly’s victims for so long continue to play out, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. His lawyer, Deveraux Cannick, called the victims liars, and referred to one woman as a “superhustler” and “superstalker” of Kelly. This kind of victim-blaming is sadly typical when it comes to Black female survivors of sexual abuse. One in four Black girls in the United States will be sexually abused before 18, and for every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 Black women do not. These numbers are the product of a system that has long told Black women that they either deserve the violence done to them or didn’t do enough to prevent it.
There’s no doubt that Kelly’s conviction is a huge win for his victims who have suffered in silence for far too long. But for me, this moment isn’t a victory for the system; it is an indictment of a system that took so long to make this happen.
Black girls deserved better, and still do. They are entitled to a society that sees them as worthy of protection.
Tayo Bero is a freelance journalist