U.S. authorities are seeking witnesses and evidence in connection to longstanding sexual abuse allegations against R. Kelly, which were revived this month in the blistering new documentary series Surviving R. Kelly.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said she watched the program and found its content “deeply, deeply disturbing.” Late Tuesday afternoon in Chicago, the hometown of the Grammy-winning R&B singer, she appealed for individuals to come forward.
“I’m here today to encourage victims of sexual assault or domestic violence related to these allegations to please get in touch with our office,” Foxx said at a press conference.
“If we are going to take these allegations seriously … we need actual witnesses and victims to have the courage to tell their stories.”
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, an attorney for the family of Joycelyn Savage — one of the women featured in Surviving R. Kelly — said the Fulton County District Attorney has reached out to him as part of an investigation, though the office’s director of public affairs declined comment at this time.
The six-part Lifetime series, broadcast over three nights last week, takes an exhaustive look at Kelly’s life, from the performer’s admission of being sexually abused as a child through a multitude of sexual abuse allegations made against him, many involving women under the age of 18. The project includes dozens of interviews with accusers as well as with Kelly’s brothers, former staffers, former partners (such as his ex-wife Andrea Kelly), music industry figures (such as John Legend) and Tarana Burke, founder of the MeToo movement.
Kelly has consistently denied all allegations of abuse.
His Chicago attorney, Steven Greenberg, blasted Foxx for her comments and said the allegations made against Kelly in the documentary are false.
“To fill reality TV time, someone comes up with another round of stories,” Greenberg said in an interview with the Associated Press Tuesday evening.
“No one has found any sex slaves or underage girls, because there aren’t any.”
Countless young woman ‘devastated’
“Nobody in the history of popular music has left as many young women devastated in their wake as Robert Kelly,” said Jim DeRogatis, a longtime music critic, writer and professor who has covered the allegations against the singer for nearly two decades.
While working as a pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, DeRogatis began to investigate allegations of predatory behaviour with underage fans by the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R&B,” who is known as much for his raunchy tracks as for his soaring, gospel-inspired ballads.
Allegations of sexual misconduct have followed Kelly throughout his career. They include his annulled 1994 marriage to then-underage protégé Aaliyah, his long-delayed 2008 trial and acquittal on child pornography charges, numerous out-of-court settlements tied to non-disclosure agreements and an explosive 2017 report alleging Kelly confined multiple young women in various homes in the U.S.
While there is revived interest from authorities at the moment, DeRogatis has been down this road before, and says too many institutions — from media colleagues to judicial officials — have thus far failed the women involved. Currently at work on a book, DeRogatis says people continue to come forward to share their painful stories.
“Why are they talking to me?” he notes. “Law enforcement has failed. American justice has failed … Everybody has failed these young women.”
Artistic output amid the allegations
Despite the allegations made against him over the years, Kelly has built a successful musical career. He has become an R&B icon, has won multiple Grammy Awards and collaborated with other top artists, from Michael Jackson to Céline Dion to Jay-Z to Lady Gaga.
The fact that Kelly’s accusers are young, black women has made it easy for many to disregard his conduct, says Kenyette Tisha Barnes, co-founder of MuteRKelly, a campaign that is lobbying his fans, record label, concert promoters, streaming services and other music industry partners to cut ties with him.
“We live in a culture where to be black and female is kind of the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to activism and advocacy,” Barnes says.
“It’s difficult to reconcile our hero worship [of the performer] versus a population that we just historically never really advocated for.”
But since the broadcast of Surviving R. Kelly, the tide could be turning.
Less than a year ago, Spotify caused a kerfuffle by temporarily removing R. Kelly’s music from its curated playlists. (It rescinded the policy weeks later.) But this week, some radio stations have removed his music from their rotation. A growing chorus of celebrities — including Legend, Jada Pinkett Smith and Common — are speaking out against Kelly.
Others, like Chance the Rapper, are discussing their own culpability by having collaborated with Kelly.
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Barnes feels that as society grapples with how we deal with sexual assault, R. Kelly will be caught in this wave.
The Chicago chapter of MuteRKelly will gather for a rally early Wednesday evening to support survivors of sexual abuse.
“We can’t have our entertainers using their power and influence to groom vulnerable young women and the capital from indifferent fans to buy them out of accountability,” Barnes says.