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R Kelly was hiding in plain sight Why is the benefit of the doubt so often extended?

R Kelly appears in court in Chicago. Credit: Antonio Perez/ Getty

R Kelly appears in court in Chicago. Credit: Antonio Perez/ Getty


September 29, 2021   6 mins

When did we know about R Kelly — singer, producer and sexual abuser? Definitely before Monday, when he was found guilty of all counts at his racketeering and sex trafficking trial in New York. Thanks to the evidence heard in court, we’ve learned a great deal more detail about the acts Kelly inflicted on women, girls and at least one boy.

But while the verdict is significant — most of all for Kelly’s many victims — it doesn’t fundamentally alter what we know about him as a man. You could say that his reputation was fixed in 2019, when the documentary Surviving R Kelly revealed his extensive history of predation. But eleven years earlier, he had been tried on child pornography charges in Chicago. He was acquitted, but the trial established the existence of a video featuring a man who looked a lot like Kelly having sex with (and urinating on) a girl who looked a lot like a child.

That videotape was not new information in 2008, however. It had been reported on by the Chicago Sun Times in 2002. By 2003, it was sufficiently well publicised that the comedian Dave Chappelle could include a joke about it in his Comedy Central show — a perfectly executed parody of an R Kelly jam called “Piss on You” (sample lyric: “Your body / Is a Porta Potti.”)

So we, collectively, have known about R Kelly for just shy of two decades.

Even that’s not really accurate, though. The first time I heard of R Kelly, it was 1994 and the occasion was the release of his protĂ©gĂ© Aaliyah’s album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. Aaliyah made the record when she was fourteen. Kelly, who wrote and produced it, was 26 at the time. The title track means exactly what you think it does: the chorus goes, “Age ain’t nothing but a number / Throwing down ain’t nothing but a thing.” When Kelly gave her those words to sing, he was already having sex with her.

Back in the 1990s, there was a rumour that Kelly and Aaliyah were married. It was relayed not with shock and disgust, but generally with a salacious frisson. When Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001, music critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote this about her in the New York Times:

“She didn’t sing like a little girl — even then, she had a stronger voice and a more sophisticated approach than most pop singers — and she didn’t act like one, either: the child star was reported to be a child bride, secretly married to her mentor, the R & B crooner R Kelly.”

It’s an image of child sexuality as proof of precocity: the “all grown up” little girl, who couldn’t be a victim because she was just so mature for her age.

At Kelly’s New York trial, a very different picture emerged of this relationship. Yes, Kelly had married her when she was fifteen, and he had bribed a government employee to enable it. Their union came about not because she was a femme fatale trapped in a adolescent body, but because Kelly was worried she might be pregnant and wanted to be able to arrange an abortion without consulting her parents. Kelly had come up with the scam in consultation with his accountant and his manager: three adult men conspiring over the problem of a teenage girl’s uterus.

I remember reading about Aaliyah and Kelly at the time (I was thirteen) and feeling disquieted. But I felt very much on my own with whatever doubts I had, and in the years after I wondered whether I was, after all, the one in the wrong: prissy, censorious — even (in that classic phrase of noughties feminism) “denying Aaliyah her agency”. This was before #MeToo, before words like “grooming” were in the popular vocabulary. The framework for talking about this kind of relationship as abuse was only sketchily accessible.

And so Kelly went on making music, having hits, collaborating with artists who I not only loved, but who I obscurely associated with feminism — in 2003 he popped up on a Missy Elliott track, and in 2013 he appeared on Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want”. (After the release of Surviving R Kelly, Gaga apologised and pulled the track from streaming.)

His persona was so horny, it was tantamount to a joke. Everything he made was an orgy of priapic falsetto, full of promises to “hit it from the front and the back and the side and the side”. His 2005 hip-hop opera Trapped in the Closet is a full-on sex farce delivered with unbelievable earnestness. It all seemed to invite an automatically exonerating question: come on, would someone with a sexual secret put all this out in public? He even released a song called “I Admit It”, in which he admitted to nothing apart from being a victim of “fake people” and his own tendency to “trust too much”. In his trial, he pleaded not guilty.

Those around Aaliyah seemed unperturbed by the fact of a teenage girl delivering a slick hymn to underage sex (her uncle, an entertainment lawyer, had introduced her to Kelly), although they’ve since described their horror at learning about the abuse. Her label was similarly sanguine. Jive even took a second bite at the teenage temptress package when they launched Britney Spears in 1998: at sixteen, dressed in school uniform and panting out provocative lyrics, she was the ultimate refinement of the pop nymphette. It had worked once, and it worked even better the second time.

No one seemed to consider — let alone care — what this role did to the girls playing it. Britney’s testimony at her conservatorship hearings this year sounded, sometimes, like a cry of pain from someone who had spent her entire adult life objectified. She talked about her body as a separate entity to herself: “my precious body, who has worked for my dad for the past fucking thirteen years [the span of the conservatorship], trying to be so good and pretty.”

But in the noughties, objectification was something that women were supposed to enthusiastically embrace. How could it be bad for you if you chose it? But how could you choose anything else? The alternative was to be frigid, no fun, unattractive.

We’ll never know what Aaliyah had to say about her experiences, of course, because she died 20 years ago. From the remove of 2021, though, her careful, constrained public presentation and her precise, reserved artistry can be read as the mark of someone negotiating public life while holding herself out of reach, out of harm. “Where most divas insist on being the center of the song, she knew how to disappear into the music,” Sanneh wrote of her. It sounds like the kind of thing a person carrying deep and private damage might do.

Maybe she’d never have said anything. Kelly’s first trial fell apart largely because the girl who was allegedly in the video refused to testify. “How do you victimize a person,” wondered his defense, “when she says, ‘It’s not me’?” One of the reasons the prosecution succeeded this time was that it built its case on multiple accounts: it mattered less if one witness became uncooperative or could be made to look bad under cross-examination, because the accounts altogether produced their own corroboration.

But it was also important that this case went after racketeering charges, fixing Kelly as the lynchpin of a criminal conspiracy rather than a solo malefactor. Important because it led to a decades-overdue conviction; important, too, because it tells the truth about how these crimes occur. For Kelly to do all he did, he needed collaborators. Sexual abuse, especially at the scale Kelly committed it, is never an individual crime.

Harvey Weinstein’s crimes — and the way he used his production studio Miramax to both access victims and enforce their silence — was an open secret. Jimmy Savile had the BBC and the NHS as the venues for his rapes: the institutions simply delivered the prey and looked the other way. Terry Richardson’s crime scenes were published as fashion editorials. At the time, it just looked “edgy”.

Impunity will run out when associating with a perpetrator becomes too much of a reputational cost (look how Jeffrey Epstein’s entourage cold-shouldered him at the end), but while it lasts, it’s unbreachable. Kelly knew he had it. “I’m a genius. We should be allowed to do what we want — look at what we give to the world,” he said, according to one of his accusers. But his rule doesn’t just apply to geniuses: in schools, in churches, in care homes, in families too, there’s nearly always some complicity. A blind eye turned, the benefit of the doubt extended.

You could say that the culture of irony which grew up in the Nineties and thrived in the Noughties was the perfect environment for abusers to hide in plain sight. But just because these corruptions happened in previous decades, that doesn’t mean they don’t still happen now. There’s always some class of people you’re not permitted to suspect: someone who’s too powerful or too respected or just by definition too self-evidently good for their motives to be questioned.

In Kelly’s case, the complicity involved, obviously, the members of his entourage who were named in court. But it also implicates other parties, indirectly. That means the record label that winked at the Aaliyah album, a media that smirked at his not-really-confessions, the listeners who let it all fly because they were having a good time. It means me shouldering my own small portion of guilt for the times I ground my hips to “Ignition (Remix)” on a sweaty dance floor. I always, always knew. Everyone did.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

“There’s always some class of people you’re not permitted to suspect”
Or indeed some class of victim you’re not permitted to show compassion towards.
How many hashtags have you and your fellow British feminists created for the 20,000 or so (source: Independent) traumatised, underage girls (or “white-trash-only-good-for-one-thing”, as they were known by their tormentors), who were preyed upon by the grooming gangs, Ms Ditum?
Answer: Zero.
How many hashtags were created during the wave of #MeToo revelations?
Answer: Thousands
Why the obscene discrepancy?

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Exactly. And the one MP who had the temerity, aka courage, to actually identify the ethnicity of the abusers, Ms Champion, was dismissed from the shadow cabinet by Corbyn (“not helpful”), and vilified as an Islamophobe and racist by her party.
I can’t remember the Left and their fellow activists in the media having had such scruples over the naming and shaming of those accused by the #MeToo movement.
The hypocrisy and double standards exhibited by the wokeist Left and British feminists are simply breathtaking, yet bizarrely they still claim the high moral ground..

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

…I suspect much the same dynamic was at play when R Kelly (cool black guy) got away with it very much more openly, than Weinstein (fat Jewish bloke) or Epstein (rich Jewish bloke)…ever tried to…I wonder what it might be?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Sarah Ditum did on fact write extensively on the Rotherham scandal. If you want to politicise the issue along ‘woke’ / ‘anti-woke’ lines, you could also point to the sudden interest in sexual abuse of women by right wing commentators on here, but only when the victims are white and the perpetrators are Asian. You don’t know that ‘feminists’ don’t care about the Rotherham cases, so it’s just a slur.

It is a shame so many commentators can’t stick to the subject at hand, if they aren’t interested don’t comment, and have to immediately go through a whole lot of ‘whataboutery’. Or, more simply, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

“Whataboutery?”
I suggest you actually read the article by Ms Ditum again, which, correct me if I’m wrong, discusses the capacity of sexual abusers to commit their abhorrent crimes in “plain sight”.
Thus, surely even you must concede that the rape, torture and, in some cases, murder of some 20,000 underage “white-trash-only-good-for-one-thing”, across our towns and cities over the past decade with the full knowledge of the social services, the police and the local community qualifies as such?
So I’m perplexed as to how anyone could accuse me of “not sticking to the subject at hand”, namely sexual abuse.
“You don’t know that ‘feminists’ don’t care about the Rotherham cases, so it’s just a slur.”
(To which one could add Newcastle, Telford, Huddersfield, Oxford, Doncaster, Rochdale, Manchester, Leigh, Derby, Banbury, Bristol, Leicester, Halifax, Peterborough, Norwich and Plymouth. Ermmm….Did Ms Ditum write about those cases too?).  
As a longtime reader of the left-wing “woke” Guardian and the Independent I can categorically state that the number of articles written by ‘feminists” in these newspapers on the scandal of the grooming gangs was but a fraction of the daily rants and op-eds discussing the revelations emerging from the #MeToo movement over the past 3 years.
And yes, this obscene discrepancy was also mirrored by the number of hashtags feminists created to express their solidarity with the grooming gangs survivors, ie. zero, zilch. A figure which stands in stark contrast to those created for #MeToo victims, ie. tens of thousands.
So where was the Women’s March in London for the survivors of Rotherham, Newcastle, Manchester etc..?
Another striking discrepancy you conveniently ignore. I can guess why.
“you could also point to the sudden interest in sexual abuse of women by right wing commentators on here, but only when the victims are white and the perpetrators are Asian.
So you are claiming that there was no “interest” in the right-wing press in the long and repugnant litany of abuse committed by Saville, Glitter or by carers at a multitude of children homes over the past two decades? Seriously?
The facts prove you wrong. But your evidence-free “slur” is the standard response by ‘feminists’, and insinuates that anyone to the right of centre, many of us parents, have no compassion for the victims of abuse?
Wow. I’ll just let that comment stand for what it is.
But it was arguments like this, ie. exposing the abuse would only lend succour to the (Islamophobic) right, which, of course, ensured that the suffering of thousands of vulnerable underage girls continued unabated for over a decade.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Tommy Robinson was right: plenty on the left would rather remain silent instead of calling out the industrial scale of the rapes committed by the Muslim communities in towns all over the country.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

“There’s always some class of people you’re not permitted to suspect: someone who’s too powerful or too respected or just by definition too self-evidently good for their motives to be questioned.”
Sounds suspiciously like how some people, or institutions, ‘perceive’ Islam and Muslims, they’re pious, God fearing, women respecting, law abiding, peace loving individuals after all ?

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Lewis
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Yes, my thought on reading that was that most people’s “class of people you’re not permitted to suspect” would not include loutish, foul-mouthed oiks like Kelly in the first place.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

But that it what we are supposed to idolise now. Diversity etc
.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

“Sounds suspiciously like how some people, or institutions, ‘perceive’ Islam and Muslims, they’re pious, God fearing, women respecting, law abiding, peace loving individuals after all?”

Law abiding you say…I guess apart from when they are engaging in the mass gang r3pe of children in towns across the UK, apart from when they are killing people on public transport in the UK, apart from when they are killing white boys in Scotland for being white, apart from when they kill news agents for being the wrong sort of Muslim, and of course, apart from when, as Muslims, they massacre little girls at a pop concert.

The Chinese know how to deal with Muslim terrorists and their supporters, pity HMG doesn’t possess the same fortitude to cut out the cancer of Islamic terrorism from the UK.

Islam is a disgusting, vile, totalitarian philosophy that is incompatible with a modern Liberal society.

You can either believe in protection for trans people etc or you can believe Islam has a place in the UK…there is no way to believe that both can coexist in the UK in the long term so long as the mass immigration of those who believe in sharia law continues.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

This case brings to light the pervasive double-think of the left. On the one hand they celebrate transgression as a good in and of itself.
So, for example, they require us to presume that children know themselves well enough to make life changing decisions to have gender re-assignment surgery at age 10.
They require us to celebrate children “twerking” and having graphic sex education.
They require us to accept peoples’ sexual preferences without judging them, because judging is allegedly tyrannical.
They require us to celebrate misogynistic grape music as a legitimate expression of black pain.
The same people, who claim in one breath that the establishment has no business telling people what to do and think in matters of their sexuality, and who celebrate transgressing all boundaries, then throw their hands up in horror that boundaries have been transgressed. Suddenly, when it suits them, children are just children who are too young to give their consent, and in need of protection from the same establishment they wish to dismantle.
The contradiction of this appears to generate no conflict in them whatsoever.

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

An honest article. There are very few people willing to stick their heads above the parapet, and speak the truth loudly when that will make the horribly unpopular. Jews and Christians read the old Testament prophets who were just such men, and benefit tremendously from the example. Not only must you know what the truth is, you must value the truth over all other considerations, and that is a real test of character.

Ben Givens
Ben Givens
2 years ago

Isn’t this just a case of what we ‘know’ versus what can be proven. Absolutely collusion and reticence to call out criminal behaviour is a massive factor in personalities like this getting away with it for years, however we can’t really act on what we know until evidence is forthcoming

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

Because as a consequence of the Culture Wars, Western societies have been divided into two categories, the oppressors and the oppressed.
Accordingly, the dominant indigenous (white) culture is now demonized as being founded upon racism and exploitative colonialism, whereas the cultures of the Other are valorized, and beyond reproach.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

To be fair, a similarly blind eye was turned to a member of a very famous British rock group marrying a girl the moment she turned sixteen, when it was an open secret that he had been ‘seeing her’ for three years before that.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Niobe Hunter

Of course. But my general point stands.
And can you imagine the furore had say Cliff Richards, who was constantly and unjustly hounded by our media – first and foremost the BBC, been black or Muslim?

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Anybody investigating Cat Stevens?

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Seems plenty of Muslims in Northern Towns think its fine to r4pe young women…the silence from the Left / Metooers / All Men Are R3pist Brigade about those Real R3pists has been astounding.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Exactly.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

Yes, it is phenomena such as these that are developing in me a growing interest in Girard’s concepts of mimesis.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago

Best be banning this then…

https://youtu.be/5T6Fnwbtzp8

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago

Wasn’t a Rolling Stoner ‘seeing’ a child and rushed to marry her the moment she hit 16?

Jane Purcell
Jane Purcell
2 years ago
Reply to  Allan Dawson

It was Mandy Smith. She was pimped out by her dreadful mother and was apparently having sex with 40s Bill Wyman age 14. I presume he thought she was an ‘old soul’. Wyman spoke to the police in 2013 during the Savile/Glitter scandals and was told there was no case to answer.