The American Music Awards, broadcast live Nov. 24 from Los Angeles, was like a bad acid trip.
Between the baffling medley by rapper Nelly and the country music act Florida Georgia Line, Bill Maher introducing Rihanna, Miley Cyrus singin’ her achy breaky heart out in front of a blinking cat projection, and Pitbull emceeing, it seemed like popular music had reached its nadir.
But the night’s strangest sight occurred fairly early on in the proceedings when the camera panned over to the stars in the seats. There, pop diva Lady Gaga and America’s Sweetheart Taylor Swift were locked in a gesticulation-heavy chat. Seated between them, however, was a man dressed from head-to-toe in black leather. His face was obscured by gigantic shades, and he casually clenched a cigar. He was cracking a slight grin. It was R. Kelly.
Yes, Kelly has been everywhere of late. In April, he was the talk of Coachella after his cameo performance with Phoenix. Last month, he dry-humped Gaga on SNL while they sang their duet “Do What U Want,” and collaborated with Justin Bieber on the innuendo-heavy tune “PYD” (standing for “Put You Down”). He’s got a song in the hit film The Best Man Holiday, and his hip hopera Trapped in the Closet will soon be coming to Broadway. And just last week, Benedict Cumberbatch recited some racy lines from the 46-year-old R&B crooner’s upcoming album Black Panties on Jimmy Kimmel Live, which immediately went viral.
The media does love a good comeback story, but this PR onslaught should strike anyone with any sort of memory as more than a little absurd. This is R. Kelly we’re talking about here. Sure, he’s sold over 50 million albums and been nominated for 24 Grammy Awards (winning three). He posed in a cornfield with his arms spread like wings in the music video for “I Believe I Can Fly,” which served as the theme to the celebrated children’s film Space Jam. And his sex-heavy anthems—“Bump n’ Grind,” “Your Body’s Callin’,” and “Ignition (Remix),” to name a few—are addictive as hell. His latest album, Black Panties, even features songs with the titles “Legs Shakin’,” “Crazy Sex,” and “Marry the Pussy.”
“I wouldn't say I'm addicted," Kelly recently told The Guardian, about sex. “It's what the world do—they make love, they party, they have sex.”
But Kelly has a dark, dark past that’s long cast a pall over his artistic endeavors.
The stories began circulating in 1994. That year, it was revealed that Kelly, then 27, married his 15-year-old protégé Aaliyah in a secret ceremony, reported the Chicago Sun-Times. Aaliyah told the court she lied about her age on the marriage certificate, claiming she was 18, and the news broke shortly after the release of Aaliyah’s R. Kelly-produced debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, whose title track was, ironically, written by Kelly. The Sun-Times reported that members of Aaliyah’s family were “enraged” when they learned of the nuptials, and that both Aaliyah and her family persuaded a judge to annul the marriage shortly thereafter. A source also told the paper that Aaliyah ended all contact with Kelly after the annulment.
“When R. Kelly comes up, she doesn't even speak his name, and nobody's allowed to ask about it at all,” a spokeswoman for Aaliyah told the Sun-Times, in 2000.
In July 1996, Kelly and his entourage were accused of attacking four men in Louisiana during a basketball game at a health club. One of the men needed 110 facial stitches, reported MTV News, and Kelly reached a settlement with the victims soon after. Things got even worse that Christmas for Kelly when Tiffany Hawkins, a young woman from Kelly’s native Chicago, filed suit against Kelly claiming she “suffered personal injuries and severe emotional harm because she had sex with the singer and he encouraged her to participate in group sex with him and other underage girls,” reported the Sun-Times.
According to the lawsuit, Hawkins claimed she began having sex with Kelly in 1991, when she was 15 and he was 24, and the relationship ended when she turned 18. She sought $10 million in damages, and eventually settled for $250,000 in Jan. 1998, just days after giving a seven-hour deposition. She also signed a confidentiality agreement, according to the Sun-Times. But that wasn’t all.
“A second Chicago woman who was named in the lawsuit recently expanded on the charges… she was prepared to testify about what she called Kelly's ‘sickness’ — his desire for underage females,” reported the Sun-Times. “The woman said that she had sex with Kelly on several occasions in 1991 when she was 16 and the singer was 24, and that she once had sex with him while he simultaneously fondled the 15-year-old Hawkins.” She also claimed she met Kelly while singing in the school choir at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, Illinois—which was being run by music teacher Lena McLin, whom Kelly credits as his mentor.
Then, in Aug. 2001, a woman named Tracy Sampson filed a civil suit against Kelly, claiming that she slept with Kelly when she was 17, reported the Sun-Times.
“During my relationship with Robert Kelly, I lost my virginity to him,” Sampson said in her suit, according to the Sun-Times. “I was lied to by him. I was coerced into receiving oral sex from a girl I did not want to have sex with. I was often treated as his personal sex object and cast aside. He would tell me to come to his studio and have sex with him then tell me to go. He often tried to control every aspect of my life including who I would see and where I would go.” Kelly settled with Sampson for an undisclosed sum.
Things got even more graphic the following February when a video surfaced that allegedly showed Kelly engaged in sex with, and urinating on, an allegedly underage girl. The 26-minute, 36-second videotape was anonymously sent to then music critic Jim DeRogatis at the Sun-Times, and the news came just before Kelly was set to perform at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The tape was then somehow bootlegged and ended up online. It also became a popular bootleg that was sold on street corners, reported MTV News.
“The girl in the video, now 17, was identified by her aunt, who said that her niece would have been 14 at the time the tape was made, based on her appearance,” reported the Sun-Times. “Kelly can also be heard on the tape referring to the girl by her first name.”
Kelly was eventually indicted in June 2002 in Chicago on 21 felony counts of child pornography (later reduced to 14 counts), reported MTV News. The singer faced up to 15 years in prison and a $100,000 fine if convicted, and would have to register as a sex offender.
“There's things that people have done in their lives that they regret, and I'm no different,” he told MTV News. “I'm a human being, and I want people to know that I'm no angel here, but I'm no monster either. I'm no guy that would do this.”
Police then conducted a search of Kelly’s home in Davenport, Florida. According to documents obtained by The Smoking Gun, police reached a room in the home that was believed to be “Mr. Kelly’s private room.” There was a sign that stated “Private, Do Not Enter” on the door. Inside, according to the report, police found “an unusual amount of commercially manufactured and distributed adult videos,” as well as “a black nylon duffle bag” containing “two adult movies and a video camera that was concealed inside of a white towel.” They also found “four video cameras in different locations in the bedroom,” as well as a Compaq laptop computer on the dresser, and “several unmarked videotapes.”
Police claim to have found several digital images on a camera wrapped in the towel inside the duffle bag that “showed a teenage girl younger than 18 engaged in sexual activity, including three poses with Kelly,” reported the Chicago Tribune.
Kelly was arrested in Jan. 2003 in Florida and charged with 12 counts of possession of child pornography. However, in March 2004, a judge ruled that the evidence obtained from Kelly’s Florida home was inadmissible because it was seized illegally. According to the Chicago Tribune, after the first search of the house, the detective on the case then requested a second warrant to conduct another search of the premises for child pornography. The judge found that this was done without probable cause, and the Florida charges against Kelly were eventually dropped.
Later that year, in Nov. 2004, Kelly sued Jay Z for $90 million, accusing the rap superstar of “sabotaging” the duo’s “Best of Both Worlds” tour—which ended abruptly, according to court documents obtained by The Smoking Gun. Jay Z then filed a countersuit, claiming Kelly was the one responsible for the canceled tour. According to the suit, which was obtained by The Smoking Gun, Kelly acted highly unprofessional on the tour, and “rehearsed a skit involving simulated text messaging with a female audience member. That skit concerned the audience member’s age, inappropriately prompting reminders of R. Kelly’s criminal matter involving an underage girl,” according to the suit.
At another stop on the tour, the suit claimed that midway through performing a concert, Kelly abruptly “left the stage” and “raced through the audience to the back of the venue,” where he “assaulted [lighting technician] Gary Wescott.” The suit continues: “Without explanation or apology, R. Kelly returned to the stage, bowed to the audience, changed his outfit, hopped onto a waiting ‘People Mover,’ and left the venue before the concert was completed. The entire incident appeared on video screens in the arena. R. Kelly then went to a local McDonald’s where he began serving food to patrons at the drive-thru. The concert’s grand finale could not be performed in his absence.”
The odd behavior continued on Oct. 29, 2004, at Madison Square Garden. According to the suit, Kelly said that during the concert, he “observed two men at separate times brandishing firearms… he threw his mike to the ground and exited the stage while crying hysterically.” Garden security conducted a search of the premises, however, and found no weapons in the arena. Kelly was then terminated from the tour, and Jay Z kicked off a “Jay Z and Friends” tour. The rapper took a dig at the R&B crooner during the rebranded tour’s first night at MSG, announcing, “Rest assured, everyone will have a good time tonight… because there are no guns in the building.” A judge threw out the Jay Z’s countersuit.
Due to various holdups in the case, Kelly’s trial on his Chicago charges from 2002 didn’t begin until May 20, 2008. And, on June 13, 2008, Kelly was acquitted on all 14 child pornography charges. According to TIME, the prosecution’s failure to call the victim—who was then 23—or her parents to the stand, influenced the verdict, since the quality of the sex video was dodgy.
“A middle-aged black man dressed in a striped blue polo shirt said he had been convinced by the evidence that it was indeed R. Kelly who appeared in the 27-minute sex video,” reported TIME, who interviewed the juror outside the courthouse. “In fact, the man said, he was prepared to cast a guilty vote. But he reversed course, he said, because ‘I wasn't sure it was [the female]— based on what I had before me.’”
Back in 2000, the Sun-Times spoke to a Los Angeles woman who claimed Kelly began seducing her when she was a 17-year-old high school senior after they met on the video shoot for his song “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” in 1999. She claimed they spoke long distance, engaging in phone sex, and that the singer said he thought they were soul mates. When she turned 18, the woman alleged Kelly sent her a plane ticket to Chicago, and they had sex. But she said she had no idea Kelly was married, which deeply upset her.
“I do believe he does have a problem,” the woman told the Sun-Times. “I look back at it now and I think I was stupid; why the hell did I even go out there at all? There are some couples that there is a big age difference [and it's OK], but in this situation, I think that he really does have some kind of sexual problem. When I was flying out there he was like, ‘You need to act older. There's 15 year old girls who act like they're 21 years old.’”