IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why celebrities like R. Kelly dodge 'cancel culture' for decades

R. Kelly has been making winking references to his alleged crimes for his entire career.
Photo illustration: Profile of R. Kelly in an orange jumpsuit. two hands hold a cut out golden frame around him with stars and paper pieces that read,\"R.Kelly!\",\"Fan 4 Lyf!\" and \"King of RNB!\"
Cancelling R. Kelly has taken decades.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

In 2017, Atlanta residents Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Tisha Barnes started a campaign they called “#MuteRKelly.” Because multiple women had accused the R&B megastar of sexual misconduct and preying on underage girls, the two founders of the movement demanded that arenas stop booking Kelly for concerts and that radio stations and streaming services stop playing his songs. (Kelly, whose real name is Robert Kelly, denies any wrongdoing.)

Throughout his career, women were fairly regularly accusing Kelly of having sexually abused them.

They’ve had some significant wins; the campaign’s website lists concerts that have been canceled and radio stations that have removed Kelly’s songs from rotation. But according to a New York Times report, 5.2 million Spotify users listen to his music monthly, and it remains popular on YouTube.

Of those lodged against all the celebrities implicated in the #MeToo era, the allegations against Kelly are particularly egregious, and his alleged crime was preserved on tape. During a 2008 trial, prosecutors in Chicago presented what they said was video evidence of Kelly’s sexually abusing and urinating on a 14-year-old girl, but his hometown jury acquitted him.

Throughout his career, women were fairly regularly accusing Kelly of having sexually abused them; he denied all of the allegations. But celebrity is a powerful force — because as a society we are loath to let go of the music and musicians we associate with freshman-year parties and our forays into love and sex, it took a sustained effort to make Kelly the semi-pariah that he is.

The disgust for Kelly didn’t appear to reach critical mass until January 2019, when the writer and filmmaker Dream Hampton released “Surviving R. Kelly,” which gave women who said they’d been victimized by the star the opportunity to tell their stories.

For more than a quarter-century, Kelly has been denying any wrongdoing. But he has also spent that time making winking references to illicit desires.

Kelly is on trial in a courtroom in Brooklyn, New York, accused by federal prosecutors of being the leader of a criminal enterprise that kidnapped and sexually exploited women and girls and subjected them to forced labor. Separately, Kelly faces multiple charges of sexual assault and abuse in Illinois.

For more than a quarter-century, Kelly has been denying any wrongdoing. But he has also spent that time making winking references to illicit desires. It was 27 years ago, in the spring of 1994, when he introduced the world to teenage R&B phenom Aaliyah, writing and producing her debut album and appearing on the cover with her.

You remember what that album was called, right? “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” Later that year, Vibe magazine published an article alleging that Kelly, then 27, had secretly married Aaliyah, who was then 15 years old.

Years later, as more and more women filed lawsuits accusing him of sexually preying on them when they were underage and even as Chicago prosecutors were unsuccessfully trying to persuade a jury to convict him of creating pornography with a 14-year-old, Kelly marketed himself as the “Pied Piper of R&B.”

Despite the widely known allegation that he had married a child, despite a disturbingly popular bootleg of the videotape that prosecutors said showed Kelly abusing a child, despite his adopting a nickname alluding to a musician who lures children away from home and to their ruin, R. Kelly remained popular and kept getting booked.

Barnes, a co-creator of #MuteRKelly, told The New York Times that, his streaming popularity notwithstanding, Kelly is “on life-support as an artist.” She also said that “it took 30 years to bring him down to this level.”

People decrying what they call “cancel culture” would have you believe that “canceling” a celebrity is easy and instantaneous. Kelly’s longevity says otherwise.