More than 23 years after the first public allegation of sexual misconduct was levelled at Robert Kelly, it finally feels as if the R&B singer’s time may be up.
Earlier this month, Spotify and Apple Music removed him from their featured playlists (which generate plays and thus additional income for artists). It’s a minor change, but a significant one, as it’s the first time that the industry’s new gatekeepers have taken a moral stance on the alleged behaviour of artists who earn their crust on their platforms. And while it may not have had the desired effect initially – unsettlingly, his plays have actually increased since the move took hold – it’s an acknowledgement that, if proven, his behaviour is not acceptable.
The decision came after an open letter from Ava Duvernay’s Time’s Up Women of Colour committee on 1st May called for the star to be held accountable for his actions – the culmination of the #MuteRKelly campaign that began last summer after Buzzfeed published a shocking article which suggested Kelly is controlling the group of young women he lives with by limiting their contact with their families, taking away their phones and forcing them to abide by a strict set of rules.
Benjamin Zand’s latest BBC3 documentary on the singer seeks to educate the British public about how deep this particular #MeToo rabbit hole might go.
R Kelly: The Scandal Continues takes us directly inside the current cloud of allegations surrounding the singer, which were initially laid out by the Buzzfeed report, and features new interviews with family members of the women reportedly living under his control.
Kelly has weathered other storms. In 1996 Vibe magazine reported that he had married a family friend’s 15-year-old daughter by falsifying a marriage license – he was 27 at the time; she would go on to become the internationally renowned pop singer Aaliyah, who tragically died in a plane crash in 2001. In 1998, he settled a lawsuit out of court which alleged that he had had sex with a 15-year-old girl. The month after the settlement was finalised, he won three Grammys for his song I Believe I Can Fly. In 2008, he was acquitted on all counts after a jury decided that he could not be convicted for a widely-circulated video tape which appeared to show him engaging in sexual relations with an underage girl, because the girl had not testified and could not be definitively identified from the footage.
But, as Zand’s harrowing documentary makes clear, Kelly’s current situation is becoming increasingly precarious. An army of distraught parents are currently working to regain contact with their offspring, whom they claim have been “brainwashed” into ceasing all interaction with their families.
One such couple are Tim and Jonjelyn Savage, who believe that their daughter, Jocelyn, is being held against her will. They allow Zand to document an eventful 24 hours in their ongoing attempts to get in touch with Jocelyn, who they haven’t seen since 2016. After a disturbing conversation with Kelly’s manager James Mason, in which he appears to try to negotiate a situation in which Jocelyn would be allowed to attend a family event but would be forbidden from discussing the singer and her current living situation, they hear from another family that their daughter has fled Kelly’s home, before she does an abrupt about-face and returns to Kelly.
This seems to be representative of the pattern this investigation has taken over the years. Resolutions have been few and far between.
Zand’s documentary features an interview with a young woman called Faith Rogers, who alleges that Kelly knowingly infected her with an incurable STD. She is currently pursuing a suit against the singer, and while the maximum jail sentence it could bring about would be just one year, her lawyers believe it may provide a springboard for further in-depth investigation into his activities.
R Kelly’s back catalogue – which includes an album entitled Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number – is still reverberating around bars and nightclubs, but thanks to the efforts of Zand and his stateside counterparts, that may not be the case for much longer.
R Kelly: The Sex Scandal Continues is streaming now on BBC3