For the past six weeks in a Brooklyn courtroom, witnesses have shared stories of rape, violence, entrapment, humiliation, and manipulation by the R&B singer R. Kelly. These tales would be called shocking if many of them had not already circulated in the public eye—in rumors, reports, and documentaries—at least since Robert Kelly married an underage Aaliyah in 1994. The last time he faced prosecution, in 2008 on child-pornography charges, a jury found him not guilty. He’s signed settlements over the years to keep some accusers quiet, and alleged victims who have spoken out have not, until now, seen any justice from the legal system.
Kelly, finally, has been found guilty—not of assault or rape, but of one count of racketeering and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, an anti-human-trafficking law. Federal prosecutors built a case against Kelly that emphasized the network of associates that helped him corral victims and move them across state lines for sex. Kelly’s team identified and approached young women in the crowds at his concerts and invited them backstage, according to prosecutors. They intimidated and paid off would-be whistleblowers. They acted as administrators in Kelly’s schemes, such as by monitoring and feeding one woman who testified that she was locked inside the singer’s studio for days.
Given Kelly’s history of avoiding conviction in the past, going after his enabling network was a canny legal decision that shows how tricky punishing sex crimes by powerful people can be. The federal racketeering law, which was originally aimed at Mafia-style organizations, allows lawyers to present evidence of crimes too old to prosecute because of the statute of limitations. By targeting the singer’s network, the government was able to stage a head-on attack against the long-alleged pattern of intimidation, bribery, and evidence destruction that may have made prosecuting him so difficult before. The case built on years of activism and journalism that helped raise awareness of allegations against Kelly, bring more alleged victims out of the shadows, and fight the racism and sexism that so often enable the abuse of Black girls and women.
Indeed, Kelly’s criminal network can be thought of as a microcosm of a larger gender-based hierarchy. All along, Kelly and his crew justified his misconduct by relying on the privilege afforded not just by his stardom but also by his maleness: the archetypes he fulfilled, the manly codes he supposedly lived by. One witness for the defense, the singer’s longtime friend Dhanai Ramanan, praised Kelly’s “chivalry” toward the women in his orbit. Another witness (a female accuser of Kelly’s) reported that Kelly once compared himself to the rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis, who married his 13-year-old cousin: Because both he and Lewis were musical geniuses, Kelly allegedly remarked, “We should be allowed to do whatever we want.”
The closing argument by Kelly’s lawyer Deveraux Cannick was particularly blunt in attempting to wave away Kelly’s wrongdoings by referencing cultural norms. “His label marketed him as a sex symbol, a playboy,” Cannick said. “So he started living that lifestyle.” He added: “Where’s the crime in that? Hugh Hefner, that was his life. Not a crime. Not a crime.” Cannick also complained that “it’s almost a crime to call a man a daddy” these days, and compared Kelly’s preference for that term to former Vice President Mike Pence’s use of “Mother” to speak about his wife. Though the jury wasn’t persuaded by this flimsy logic, the ease with which it was invoked in court speaks to its ordinariness.
Kelly’s desire to be seen and spoken to as a kingpin, of course, wasn’t just about filling a role society had prescribed—it was about exploiting others. You can see this fact play out even in the stories of the two male accusers who testified. They both say that Kelly had direct sexual encounters with them and that he made them have sex with women while he watched. One accuser, identified as Louis, said Kelly referred to him as “little brother” and wanted Louis to call him “Daddy.” Louis was both alleged victim and enabler—last year, he was arrested for attempting to bribe a would-be witness.
Women collaborated with Kelly as well. In her testimony, Kelly’s longtime assistant Diana Copeland denied any wrongdoing but did indicate that the women in Kelly’s thrall would ask her to “interact with the males,” because Kelly had discouraged them from speaking with other men. One accuser appeared on CBS in 2019 to defend Kelly by saying he was just a loving and caring boyfriend to her. In court, she indicated that Kelly had been manipulating her to lie.
The memory of that 2019 interview may be the enduring demonstration of toxic attitudes that Kelly embodied and capitalized on: Screaming his innocence past the interviewer, Gayle King, and into the cameras in the room, he gave a tirade punctuated with the exclamations guys and man, as if he were appealing to male sympathies, while his publicist tried to defuse the situation. Kelly’s sentencing is in May, and the consequences for his associates—some of whom testified in hopes of leniency by the government—remain to be seen. One system of abuse has been cracked open with this verdict, but it’s disturbing to wonder how many less famous ones still survive.