Despite decades of sexual assault and abuse allegations — and proof of his inappropriate behavior in some cases — top musicians have continued to work with R. Kelly. But after a six-part documentary aired on Lifetime, tolerance for his behavior has finally reached a breaking point.
The documentary, called “Surviving R. Kelly,” outlines years of accusations of sexual abuse and coercion against the R&B singer, including alleged sex tapes with underage girls. Since the documentary first aired, on Jan. 3, several of his previous collaborators have spoken out against — and even refused to work with — R. Kelly, who married the late singer Aaliyah when she was just 15 and he was 27. Most recently, his own estranged daughter called him a “monster” in an Instagram post.
We broke down what you need to know about Kelly’s comeuppance, his past, and what’s still unfolding.
What has R. Kelly done?
Kelly has a long history of alleged predatory and abusive behavior toward women. To start, he falsified a marriage document when he married Aaliyah in 1994, saying she was 18. That same year, Kelly produced Aaliyah's debut album, titled "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number." Months later, the marriage was annulled. Kelly faced no charges over the incident.
Kelly’s affinity for underage girls apparently spanned many years. Back in 1996, the Chicago Sun-Times published an investigation in which an aspiring singer said Kelly “engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct” with her when she was 15 and he was 24.
Jim DeRogatis, a former Sun-Times reporter who’s covered Kelly’s behavior since the 1990s, received two sex tapes from anonymous sources in 2001, one of which allegedly depicted sex between Kelly and a 14-year-old girl, where he infamously peed on her. The journalist turned the tapes over to police. As a result, Kelly was indicted on child pornography charges, although he was later found not guilty, in 2008.
Kelly also faced a series of lawsuits in 2001 and 2002 from women who claimed sexual misconduct from the singer. Two women sued Kelly for having sex with them while they were underage, one of whom said she was coerced into an abortion. Another claimed that he filmed them during sex without her consent.
“I was coerced into receiving oral sex from a girl I did not want to have sex with,” one of the women claimed in a 2001 lawsuit. “I was often treated as his personal sex object and cast aside. He would tell me to come to his studio and have sex with him, then tell me to go. He often tried to control every aspect of my life, including who I would see and where I would go.”
Kelly settled all three lawsuits outside of court.
As early as 2015, Kelly allegedly began wooing young women and separating them from their parents, according to a BuzzFeed News report written by DeRogatis, the same journalist who broke the story on Kelly in the Sun-Times in 1996. Kelly calls the women his “babies,” and they’re allegedly required to call him “daddy.” The report also claimed that Kelly filmed his sexual encounters with the women, who were sometimes physically punished if they disobeyed him.
“You have to ask for food. You have to ask to go use the bathroom,” Cheryl Mack, who worked as Kelly’s personal assistant, told DeRogatis. Kelly “is a master at mind control …. He is a puppet master.”
That’s not even an exhaustive list of Kelly’s alleged misbehavior, and the way “Surviving R. Kelly” lays out the singer’s past in excruciating detail has renewed the backlash against him.
Who has turned against R. Kelly?
Dream Hampton, executive producer of the documentary series, said she had trouble getting celebrities to participate in the project — including past R. Kelly collaborators Jay Z and Celine Dion as well as ardent supporter Erykah Badu. One of the few celebrities to participate, John Legend, said his decision was a simple one.
“I believe these women and don't give a fuck about protecting a serial child rapist,” he tweeted.
Since the documentary aired on Lifetime, many other celebrities and musicians have come forward to speak out and even cut ties with Kelly.
Most prominently, Lady Gaga faced public pressure to apologize for collaborating with Kelly in 2013 on the song “Do What U Want” and performing the number live with him — twice. Gaga said she’d be removing the song from streaming platforms and wouldn’t be working with Kelly again.
“As a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and the video at a dark time in my life, my intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn't processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life,” Gaga wrote on Twitter. “The song is called "Do Want U Want (With My Body)," I think it's clear how explicitly twisted my thinking was at the time.”
Chance the Rapper also apologized via Twitter this week for working with Kelly in 2015 on the song “Somewhere in Paradise.”
On Thursday, the band Phoenix claimed they didn’t know about Kelly’s alleged misconduct and apologized for working with Kelly in 2013 at Coachella.
“We are deeply horrified by the stories of abuse surrounding R. Kelly,” the band said in a tweet. “We regret that we were not both more informed and more discerning when we worked with him previously. We fully support all victims of sexual abuse, and it's our hope that there will be a path to justice.”
R&B singer Omarion announced on Twitter that he would be retiring his numerous collaborations with R. Kelly.
Even Kelly’s estranged daughter felt compelled to publicly speak out against him..
"The same monster you all confronting me about is my father," Joann Kelly, who goes by the name Buku Abi, said in a long statement on Instagram stories. "I am well aware of who and what he is. I grew up in that house."
R. Kelly has collaborated with dozens more prominent celebrities, many of whom have yet to speak out. But even those who never worked with him have started to call out his egregious behavior, including Diddy, Nas, and Kanye West.
Why is this just happening now?
Since the airing of “Surviving R. Kelly,” police have launched multiple investigations into Kelly’s alleged misconduct, according to reports. TMZ reported that Fulton County District Attorney's Office in Georgia, where Kelly’s alleged “cult” is based, opened a probe into the R&B singer as a result of the documentary series. Police have also allegedly paid a visit to Kelly’s Chicago recording studio.
But public opinion started shifting against the singer as early as 2013. Late that year, DeRogatis published a timeline of Kelly’s life. The journalist called him a “monster” and condemned Pitchfork for inviting him to headline the festival. Years later in 2018, Pitchfork apologized after the BuzzFeed News exposé on Kelly’s alleged sex cult.
The only studio album — aside from a Christmas album — that Kelly released after 2013 ended up being his worst-performing record of all time.
Cover image: File Photo by: zz/RE/Westcom/STAR MAX/IPx 1999 12/8/99 R. Kelly at the 1999 Billboard Music Awards. (Los Angeles, CA)