R. Kelly’s Conviction is Not a Victory; It’s a Wake-Up Call
Trigger Warnings: Sexual Abuse; Underage Sexual Abuse; Sexual Assault; Domestic Violence
On September 14, 2022, a Chicago federal jury convicted recording artist Robert Kelly (R. Kelly) on three counts of child pornography and three counts of enticing a minor to engage in sexual activity. The 4-week trial covered decades of evidence of R. Kelly’s coercion of underage girls into sexual acts and the recording of said abuse. The child pornography charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, and the enticement charges have a maximum of ten. In total, Kelly faces 90 years behind bars.
The conviction marks the end of a heinous, decades-long timeline of R. Kelly’s abuse. Scrutiny against Kelly first began in 1994 following the annulment of his marriage to 15-year-old singer Aaliyah. Kelly was 27 at the time. Tabloids began picking up on sexual abuse allegations as early as 2000 when Tiffany Hawkins alleged she began having sex with Kelly in 1991 when she was 15. Over the next five years, R. Kelly faced an array of allegations, ranging from more narratives of underage abuse allegations to recordings of said sexual abuse and domestic violence. Despite extensive evidence against him, Kelly was acquitted of all charges in 2008. It wasn’t until June of 2022 that Kelly was sentenced to 30 years for allegations of racketeering and sex trafficking.
While this recent string of convictions marks the end of this timeline, it would be naive to consider them a victory. Nearly thirty years have passed since the first accusation against Kelly, and throughout that time, he has masked predatory actions under the guise of stardom, power, and affluence. It is difficult to comprehend the extent of these acts and how they were enabled for so long. But Kelly’s narrative does not stand alone– it rings eerily similar to stories of other sensationalized serial sexual abusers, such as Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. This conviction begs the question: How are the narratives of countless underaged women constantly overlooked, especially under the scrutinization of the public eye?
Men in positions of power rarely have their power questioned or restricted, even in the face of sexual abuse allegations. For example, a month following that first court case against Kelly, he received 3 Grammy awards.
Jeffrey Epstein was dubbed “brilliant” by Harvard professors in 2006, despite first being accused of sexual molestation by a 14-year-old girl in March of 2005. The university continued to accept donations from Epstein until 2008. Throughout Epstein’s decades-long timeline of abuse, other men in prominent positions of power– such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump– were friends with him. In 2002, Donald Trump described Jeffrey Epstein: “I've known Jeff for fifteen years…[he is a] terrific guy… It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Similarly, the first allegation of rape against Harvey Weinstein came in 1994; while it was not brought before a court until 2018, “dark rumors of sexual assault and harassment” followed Weinstein for “much of [his] career.” Despite this, his career flourished, and he even created his own company, which has released over 145 movies.
All three of these abusers– and many others like them– are enabled by those around them who neglect to take initial allegations against them seriously.
Despite the convictions of these men, support for them continued. The top comments in a video of R. Kelly’s latest single (released in 2019) shower him with praise. One user comments: “His current situation has nothing to do with his gift of talent - Let's not get the two confused!” Another sent: “Yes!!!! Good decision to drop the dark image and go back to the smooth, sexy gentleman image we ALL fell in love with.” At such a high level of stardom and public image, power seems to transcend all– the truth, what is right, and rational thought. These comments prove that it is not simply those in power who enable abusers– it’s the public, too.
Holding those in power accountable entails holding everyone accountable. It involves questioning those associated with abusers, investigating them thoroughly, and refusing their silence. It requires calling out those who support or enable abusers and not allowing their exploitation of success to cast a shadow over allegations. While it is a victory for R. Kelly to be put behind bars, this conviction comes nearly three decades too late. It is imperative to learn from R. Kelly’s victims– and victims of other men who abuse their power– to prevent this abuse at all costs.