After decades of accusations that he sexually abused young Black women and girls, R&B singer and songwriter R. Kelly has finally been sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. The sentence comes after Kelly was convicted nine months ago on one count of racketeering and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which makes it a crime to transport people across state lines "for any immoral purpose." Kelly used his fame and wealth to lure underage girls into his orbit, isolate them from their families and control and abuse them. During his sentencing hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Donnelly summed up the argument that Black women activists have been making for more than a decade: “This case is not about sex. It’s about violence and cruelty and control,” Donnelly said. “You left in your wake a trail of broken lives.”
While it’s appropriate to commend federal prosecutors, Black women activists should be credited and thanked.
While it’s appropriate to commend federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York for bringing charges that resulted in a conviction, make no mistake: Black women activists should be credited and thanked for pressuring the music industry to stop protecting Kelly and for opening our eyes about his long, sordid history of abuse against Black girls. The 55-year-old Kelly, who didn’t speak during the sentencing hearing, could spend the remainder of his life behind bars — a reality that didn’t even seem imaginable 10 years ago.
Some of the girls that Kelly targeted are now able to witness his personal and professional demise. His sentence leaves him unable to inflict damage on new victims. Some of those survivors held hands and prayed during his sentencing, showing Kelly that while he harmed those girls, they’re now women whom he couldn’t break.
“I started this journey 30 years ago,” Jovante Cunningham, one of Kelly’s former backup singers, said after the hearing. “There wasn’t a day in my life up until this moment that I actually believed that the judicial system would come through for Black and brown girls. I stand here very proud of my judicial system, very proud of my fellow survivors and very pleased with the outcome.”
Kelly isn’t facing such a reckoning because people finally began caring about the harm Black girls experienced. It's because Black women — including Kelly’s former background singer Sparkle, journalist Jamilah Lemieux, writer Mikki Kendall, filmmaker dream hampton and activist Tarana Burke, to name a few — continued to sound the alarm, even when it was costly and dangerous to do so. I first became aware of Kelly’s history of ensnaring underage Black girls in his abusive trap about 10 years ago. When I wrote about it, tweeted about it and even spoke with my family about it, I was met with escalating hostility that eventually resulted in my being doxxed. Few wanted to admit that their favorite R&B singer was capable of being a predator. They chose instead to see him as just another powerful Black man being targeted because he’s rich and famous. Besides, they argued, why were those “fast” girls chasing after a grown man? Where were their parents?
Kelly escaped accountability for as long as he did because our culture adultifies Black girls, that is, it treats them as if they’re grown long before they are. At the same time, that culture insulates Black men from responsibility for their abuses. Similar arguments have been used when other Black men have been accused of harming women: Whether it's Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or Mike Tyson or Bill Cosby, Black women who come forward are treated as if their being vocal about their mistreatment is as much a sin as the abuse they endured. They’re treated as an equal partner in their own violation. Our cultural impulse to disbelieve Black women allowed Kelly to operate for more than 25 years with few repercussions.
Kelly escaped accountability for as long as he did because our culture adultifies Black girls, treats them as if they’re grown long before they are.
It's not as if Kelly’s defenders didn’t know of the repeated accusations against him. After all, his secret marriage to R&B prodigy Aaliyah, who was 15 when he was 27, was exposed in 1994. (There’s now an open federal investigation linked to that short-lived union.) Journalist Jim DeRogatis has been chronicling Kelly’s crimes since the early 2000s. He broke the news of the sex tape that prosecutors said showed the singer performing sex acts on a teenage girl and led to Kelly being charged in 2003 with 14 counts of child pornography. But the girl who prosecutors say was in the video refused to testify, and Kelly was found not guilty in 2008. Later in 2008, in an on-camera interview, journalist Touré asked Kelly, who was then 41, if he liked teenage girls. Kelly replied, “How old are we talking?”
Three years before his acquittal in that sex-tape case, a 2005 episode of Cartoon Network’s “The Boondocks” predicted he wouldn’t be convicted with an episode about R. Kelly standing trial for urinating on an underage girl. After a prosecutor presents a spirited case that proves Kelly’s guilt, his defense attorney simply turns on Kelly’s music and everyone begins dancing, forgetting that they’d just been shown evidence that he harmed a teenager.
Even after he was convicted in October on those nine counts that led to him being sentenced Wednesday, his streaming numbers jumped 500 percent.
That willingness to ignore predatory behavior continued for more than 20 years. He still released music and toured to sold-out crowds. He still penned songs for other artists. He still accrued wealth and influence. And activists continued to call attention to his pattern of dating and abusing underage Black girls.
In 2018, DeRogatis reported that Kelly was being accused of running a cult by the parents of a young woman living at his home. Three other women who’d been in Kelly’s inner circle told DeRogatis that there were six women living in properties rented by Kelly and that he was controlling “what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.”
That’s when Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Barnes created the #MuteRKelly movement to encourage a boycott of Kelly’s music. “I have been hearing about R. Kelly’s sexual abuse of young black women since I was in my teens,” Odeleye told The Grio. “Someone had to stand up for Black women, and if I wasn’t willing to do my part — no matter how small — then I couldn’t continue to complain. It’s time for us to end this man’s career.”
dream hampton’s docuseries, “Surviving R. Kelly,” turned the tide by making it impossible to turn away.
dream hampton’s docuseries, “Surviving R. Kelly,” turned the tide by making it impossible to turn away. Black women sharing, in their own words, what Kelly had done to them did something that nothing else could: It made people more empathetic to their plight. If it weren’t for their fortitude and their insistence that justice be done, Kelly would still be seeking new girls to harm.
His indiscretions against Black girls, many of whom are impoverished, weren’t unknown. We knew what he was doing; some people just didn’t care because of who his victims were. While it seems as if the entire world has turned on the singer now, there was a time when Black girls weren’t considered worthy of being defended. Yes, Kelly is now incarcerated, but it’s past time to ensure that all Black girls are protected. The Black women who made sure Kelly was held responsible are the lighthouses we need to show us the way.