Did the music industry allow R. Kelly?


As Harvey Weinstein was to film, Robert ‘R.’ Kelly has been in the music industry. An energetic and debauched figure who enjoyed enormous commercial and artistic success at its peak, Kelly’s downfall, with his convictions on nine counts of sex trafficking and racketeering, is now total. It seems likely that he will be sentenced to life for his crimes, and few, other than his staunchest admirers, will mourn his entry into the criminal justice system.

Yet Kelly’s fate, while well deserved, is not the end of the story. Instead, questions need to be asked of those around him as he blatantly behaves behind the scenes. It turned out, for example, that he married singer Aaliyah in 1994 when she was 15, after forging papers to achieve his ends: a well-known secret in the music industry. Two years later, Atlantic and Jive – two of the major record companies at the time – promoted Kelly as one of their main R&B groups. Under Jive chairman Barry Weiss, any suggestion of blatant behavior was ignored as Kelly continued to get beatings.

In no time, the allegations about Kelly’s antics became commercially damaging, but not disastrous. Weiss made the misguided comment at New York Times in 2003, after Kelly was charged with child pornography, that “I can’t say it wasn’t a little scary” that her star’s reputation was declining. But Weiss has always defended him by saying, “For better or worse, he has to stay loyal to his audience. R. Kelly has to be R. Kelly.

It quickly turned out that R. Kelly being R. Kelly had led to the trafficking and sexual assault of women, but Weiss, who gushed that his star was “the prince of modern times, although there have a little bit of Marvin Gaye in him, and a little bit of Irving Berlin, “simply turned a blind eye to the increasingly sordid accusations. When asked if he believed the allegations Kelly was then facing were believable, Weiss simply replied, “I try not to think about that stuff.”

It will now be difficult for him to think of anything else. Although Kelly was acquitted of the charges he faced in 2008, it was widely known that he was guilty of Something horrible. The “Mute R. Kelly” social media campaign launched by Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye in 2017 was based on the numerous allegations of sexual abuse circulating against him. Yet Weiss maintained a remarkable degree of detachment. He told the Washington post in 2018 that he was unaware of the lawsuits filed against Kelly suggesting sexual assault.

As recently as 2020, Weiss gave an interview to Rolling stone in which he bragged about his success and thirst for music, and swore, “I’ll never stop crushing or pushing.” You cannot become complacent. Complacency now seems to be the least of his worries. He hasn’t made a public statement about the fall of his former protégé, but it will undoubtedly be another Pilate-esque exercise to wash his hands of blame.

Granted, Kelly can be a grotesque one-off. But just as Weinstein’s downfall led to the exposure and punishment of many, and the rise of the #MeToo movement, it’s likely Kelly’s shameful actions were reflected in the behavior of wealthy and empowered musicians with the silence of an industry which needs them – however criminal their actions may be – in order to survive. The verdict hinted, once again, that the time for silence is over. What remains to be seen is who is left, to quote one of Kelly’s hits, trapped in the closet, and being dragged, screaming, into the light to face overdue justice.

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