Can the R Kelly verdict lead to a shift in the music industry?
Activist Oronike Odeleye was at her desk, knee-deep in another 12-hour day of working from home, when the news hit. A friend called. The R&B performer and producer R Kelly had been found guilty on all nine counts in his sex trafficking case, he said. Initially, Odeleye felt “a bit stunned, but also really relieved”, she says, thinking first of the survivors who had bravely shared their testimony.
Together with Kenyette Tisha Barnes, Odeleye had founded the #MuteRKelly movement in 2017. The goal: a financial boycott of Kelly, given the years of child sexual abuse and sexual misconduct allegations made against the star. At the time, she had hoped to soon “step in the name of justice at his trial”. On Monday 27 September, that day arrived. But as the week wore on, she wasn’t convinced the industry was ready to examine itself more closely.
“There is no morality in capitalism outside of profit,” she says, plainly. “I think that the machine of the industry has not changed. Its only morality is profit.” Odeleye also works in entertainment, as an arts consultant and director of the Black-owned festival One MusicFest. From that vantage point, she reflects on how a financial bottom line drives the business.
Kelly’s guilty verdict has been marked as an overdue symbol of reckoning for Black women and girl survivors. We’re yet to see what this trial means for the music industry, though – how likely is this outcome to inspire a watershed moment of transformation?
Kelly’s case laid bare a complex web of associates and enablers who facilitated his crimes. As it stands, there’s a long way to go to protect fans, musicians and other workers in music from harassment and assault.
The industry may struggle to shed a legacy of shielding those considered worthy – the talent, and arguably some executives – over those seen as dispensable. It would be naive to rely on the justice system’s handling of sex trafficking in one trial as a blueprint for all future accountability. But it may be time for the music business to fully process how fame let Kelly get away with his abuse for so long.
Kelly seemed invincible before his 2019 arrest. Signed to Jive Records, he started his career in 1992, on an album with group Public Announcement. A year later, his solo debut 12 Play would propel the track Bump n’ Grind to the top of the Billboard Hot R&B singles chart. Over decades, his discography spanned aspirational, graduation-montage gospel-soul, sexually explicit R&B and the multi-chapter, years-long chaos of the Trapped in the Closet “opera”. But he was always considered a huge success, only failing to crack the Billboard 200 album chart top 10 with albums released from 2015 onwards.
As testimony throughout the six-week trial detailed, this star power granted Kelly god-like status among his fans as well as a hallowed place in Black music culture of the 1990s and 2000s. He came up at a time when young female fans were still easily dismissed, assumed to be sexual objects or musical lightweights more invested in how performers looked than how they sounded. That “groupie culture”, inherited from 1970s and 1980s rock, set the tone.
Odeleye remembers how, at the start of the #MuteRKelly campaign, she and Barnes were mostly pelted with online hate and harassment – the language they used to talk about the abuse wasn’t yet mainstream. They pressed on, engaging those who would listen. “We had a lot of conversations about what sexuality means, what grooming is and how it works, the kind of manipulation that abusers use – you talk about it in a more holistic way than, ‘some gold diggers and a Black man they’re trying to take down’, you know?”
Kelly and his enablers recruited young women and children at his concerts or at schools. This behaviour was overlooked, seen simply as a superstar blessing his fans with his presence (and phone number). Groupie culture forms a foundation on which fan-celebrity interactions can cross back and forth over the line of consent, within an acceptable catch-all. Its heavily gendered norms shape fans and those in the industry alike.
To truly enact change, those with power need to push back against these norms, according to Naomi Pohl, deputy general secretary of the UK-based Musicians’ Union. “I do think the music industry has been slow to recognise that we have a problem,” she says, recalling the 2018 launch of the union’s Safe Space Scheme for harassment and abuse testimony. She remembers that after the Harvey Weinstein revelations in late 2017, “the music industry as a whole reacted more by saying, ‘well yeah, sexual harassment happens in all sorts of workplaces.” Akin to a reluctant shrug, an acceptance, rather than a commitment to change the culture.
Kelly’s hits also gave him a Telfon-like coating – no allegation seemed to stick to him, starting with a civil case brought in 1996 by Tiffany Hawkins who said a 24-year-old Kelly had sex with her while she was 15, under the pretext of advancing her singing career. Her lawsuit named Jive Records and was eventually settled out of court. Lawyers representing Jive successfully argued the label wasn’t liable.
This first case exemplified how the apparatus around Kelly worked to insulate him from being seriously questioned. Barry Weiss, Jive chief executive from 1991 to 2011, told the Washington Post that Kelly’s off-stage behaviour was none of the label’s business. “I was a record company putting out R Kelly’s records,” he said, in 2018. “That was all I knew. I wasn’t involved in his criminal cases. We were a record company, for God’s sakes.”
Later, when Kelly was acquitted of child abuse images charges in 2008, he seemed untouchable. After that verdict, he continued to release music and tour. He also, according to trial testimony, finessed his system for enlisting and controlling the targets of his abuse. Only the domino effect of Jim DeRogatis’s 2017 reporting for BuzzFeed, the #MuteRKelly movement and January 2019’s Surviving R Kelly documentary finally triggered a criminal investigation and Sony/RCA reportedly “cutting ties” with Kelly.
Before then, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Jennifer Hudson, Phoenix and Chance the Rapper were all among artists who collaborated with Kelly post-acquittal, as he entered icon status (Gaga, Phoenix and Chance the Rapper apologised in 2019 for doing so). For what it’s worth, some had spoken out. Rapper Vic Mensa called Kelly a “scumbag” in 2017, and Common, Omarion and Ne-Yo publicly condemned him in the wake of the Surviving R Kelly docuseries (John Legend appeared in the series itself).
It’s too early to say how much this first verdict will affect the music industry (Kelly faces other charges in Minnesota and Illinois). Music’s transcendence draws many in, but the structures of its industry leave room for trauma. Pohl outlines this dynamic: “Very much like Harvey Weinstein, it’s a situation where someone holds a lot of power, and then other people entering the industry are more vulnerable because they’re desperate to get a foothold in it. They’re desperate for the fame and fortune that’s promised. And unfortunately, those power imbalances can be abused – that’s exactly what happened in the R Kelly case.” Sony are yet to publicly respond to the legacy allegations and conviction.
Until misogynoir, ingrained sexism and yawning gaps in power are addressed, change will happen slowly. It may have been easy enough for Kelly’s entourage to look the other way – or, in the case of his former tour manager, bribe an official for the fake ID to allow 27-year-old Kelly to marry a 15-year-old Aaliyah. It may be harder to reshape parts of an interconnected machine that’s run in a particular way for decades.
“If you’re an artist signed to a record label,” Pohl says, “your contract will probably deal with what royalties you get, what you agree you’re going to deliver. Is there anything in there about artist welfare, about abuse and harassment? Probably not. Do the workplace policies and procedures cover artists and people who are freelance? Probably not.” That, at least, sounds like a starting point.