R. Kelly is no stranger to unsettling allegations.
The R&B superstar born Robert Kelly has ushered in the new year dogged by a slew of damaging headlines — in this case, prompted by TV's Surviving R. Kelly. But the roots of the broad case laid out by the six-part Lifetime docuseries, filled as it is with claims of abuse and statutory rape, date back about a quarter-century at least.
Kelly has been the subject of investigations, indictments, lawsuits and disavowals — and through it all, he has asserted that he did not commit any wrongdoing.
What follows is an attempt to explain how 25 years of controversy led to this moment. Not every notable date is included in this timeline. In particular, the many lawsuits against Kelly — beginning in the mid-1990s and continuing through the present day — have been left out for the sake of clarity.
Jump to the story behind a specific date by clicking it in the list below, or simply scroll down to begin at the beginning.
The secret ceremony in Chicago comes less than a year after R. Kelly's debut solo album landed in the Billboard 200 — and less than six months after Kelly produced Aaliyah's debut album, Age Ain't Nothing but a Number.
That title would prove apt: As the magazine Vibe revealed just months later, the official Illinois wedding certificate falsified Aaliyah's age, listing Kelly's young protégée as 18. (Demetrius Smith, a former tour manager and personal assistant to R. Kelly, later told the Surviving R. Kelly team that he had documents forged for the two and that Aaliyah appeared to be scared at the ceremony.)
Within months, the marriage is annulled, but it remains a subject of frequent questions — both for Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash in 2001, and for Kelly, who has described their relationship as "deep friends" but avoided commenting further.
"Well, because of Aaliyah's passing, as I've always said, out of respect for her mother who's sick and her father who's passed, I will never have that conversation with anyone. Out of respect for Aaliyah, and her mother and father who has asked me not to personally," he told GQ in 2016. "But I can tell you I loved her, I can tell you she loved me, we was very close."
The singer is about to turn 33 when Sun-Times reporters Jim DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch publish a story alleging that Kelly was using his fame to meet girls as young as 15 years old and then coerce them into having sex with him. At least two of those girls say that they met him at Kenwood Academy, a public high school on Chicago's South Side that Kelly had attended before dropping out and where he is alleged to have returned again and again to pick up young women.
According to the Sun-Times, by this point, Chicago police have investigated Kelly twice on suspicion of having sex with an underage girl but dropped the investigations because the girl would not cooperate. The article also notes, "Kelly is hardly the first celebrity to be accused of taking advantage of underage girls. Gary Glitter, Rob Lowe, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roman Polanski, Rolling Stone Bill Wyman and even the legendary Errol Flynn all have been written about in this paper and others for allegedly having trysts with minors."
The Sun-Times report is published within weeks of Kelly — who has already sold more than 20 million albums — releasing his fifth album, TP-2.com, which goes to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
Draped in a star-spangled robe, surrounded by tens of thousands of screaming fans, R. Kelly appears to be hitting a high note in his career: performing as part of the opening ceremony for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The very same day, more than 1,000 miles away, things begin heading in a very different direction for the singer, as Chicago police reveal they have opened an investigation into an approximately 3-year-old videotape that purports to show him having sex and engaging in a variety of lewd acts with an underage girl. (Despite the alleged age of the girl in the video, Kelly would not be charged with statutory rape.)
Kelly quickly and vehemently denies that it is him in the video, which appears to show him with a girl who would have been in her early teens at the time of the filming. The video had been sent anonymously to the Chicago Sun-Times, which had published child sex allegations against the singer nearly two years earlier.
"It's crap, and that's how we're going to treat it," Kelly says in an interview held with a local TV station held before his Olympic performance.
Just four months after the police probe is revealed, R. Kelly finds himself in handcuffs outside his holiday home in Florida.
A grand jury in Cook County, Ill., has indicted Kelly on 21 counts of child pornography related to the videotape. The charges include seven counts each of directing the taping, producing the video and enticing the underage girl into performing illicit acts.
"Sexual predators are a scourge on society," Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine says in a statement released on June 5. "This indictment should send a clear message that illicit acts with minor children will not be tolerated in the community."
One day later, Kelly is formally charged in a Florida courtroom.
That state would also charge Kelly with an additional 12 counts of creating child pornography, alleging that during his arrest, police found a camera with new images showing sex with an underage girl. Those charges would be dropped after a judge found that the camera was improperly seized. Seven of the original 21 charges in Chicago would also eventually be dropped in 2004, after prosecutors acknowledged those counts pertained to a law that wasn't passed until after the alleged taping.
After posting bail in 2002, Kelly spends the next six years continuing to perform as his lawyers wrangle with prosecutors on his behalf. During this stretch, he continues headlining tour stops and recording new music — even snagging six Grammy nominations. More than half a decade passes before his trial begins.
"The case has dragged on for seemingly bizarre reasons," Time magazine reporter Steven Gray explained to NPR in 2008. "Just last December, R. Kelly failed to make a scheduled court appearance because his tour bus was stopped speeding by Utah authorities, and he couldn't make it to court the next day. One time, Judge Gaughan, the presiding judge, he fell off a ladder and hurt himself so he was out for a while. Another time, one of the prosecutors had a baby, so that also caused some postponement."
The trial begins in late spring. If convicted on all charges, Kelly faces the prospect of 15 years in prison.
Arguments in court take about three weeks. The defense asserts that it is neither Kelly nor the alleged victim who appear in the tape. Although multiple witnesses identify the young girl on the tape — including family members, friends and a basketball coach — neither the girl nor her parents testify.
"That's another thing that the defense is arguing that, 'Look, this is all about money and extortion. The family never went to the police, and there was an aunt who was a police officer. They went to a lawyer for money,' " WBEZ's Natalie Moore recounts after closing arguments.
The jury spends less than a day in deliberations before returning its verdict: not guilty. Kelly walks out of the Chicago courtroom a free man, sliding silently into his car as supporters cheer around him. (One of his later alleged victims, Jerhonda Pace, says she met the singer at that time, when she was in her mid-teens, having skipped school to support him at court.)
Written by Chicago reporter Jim DeRogatis — who has at this point been working on stories regarding R. Kelly-related allegations for the better part of two decades — the BuzzFeed investigation highlights the anguish of the parents of one young woman, "J." They allege that their daughter, age 19 when she met Kelly, has been drawn into a "cult" of women living with and totally controlled by the singer.
DeRogatis includes corroborative details from three women who knew Kelly well: Cheryl Mack, who worked for about a year and a half as a personal assistant for the singer beginning in 2013, as well as Kitti Jones and Asante McGee, two of Kelly's ex-girlfriends who both lived with Kelly in the alleged "cult."
These three women say that at the time the BuzzFeed article was published, six women lived with Kelly in Chicago and the suburbs of Atlanta, and that Kelly "controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records." Jones also says that Kelly beat her. (Both Jones and McGee later appear in the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries and elaborate upon their earlier allegations. Jones was 33 when she met Kelly; McGee was 35.)
Andrea Kelly, who met R. Kelly when she was 19, was married to him from 1996 to 2009. She appears on the daytime talk show The View to allege that he abused her physically on multiple occasions, including choking her. She filed for a restraining order in 2005 and alleges that he had hit her when she asked for a divorce. She also says that she considered suicide.
According to Andrea Kelly, she and the singer were already living apart by the time he stood trial in Chicago. She tells The View her impetus to come forward publicly was hearing another woman make allegations on another show — explaining that the woman seemed to be speaking about her ex-husband without using his name, as the accusations seemed to mirror her own history with Kelly: "Some of the specific things she described in detail, I had been through, I mean, verbatim." (Andrea Kelly also appears in Surviving R. Kelly.)
Building on the reporting done by DeRogatis and others, producers of the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries speak to more than 50 people — including two of Kelly's siblings, his ex-wife, former employees and mentees, journalists, psychologists and several of his accusers — in a survey of allegations against Kelly dating back to the early 1990s. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans writes, "All of the women who say in the docuseries that they were abused by Kelly have previously made public allegations against the singer, but Surviving R. Kelly's power comes in hearing their stories told on camera, and all together."
In early December, about a month before the series begins airing, a preview screening of the program and panel discussion featuring several of Kelly's accusers in Manhattan is evacuated after multiple anonymous threats are called in to the venue.
Chance the Rapper appears in the series' final episode and apologizes for having worked with R. Kelly on multiple occasions in recent years, despite the common knowledge of the accusations against the singer. After the series begins airing, Chance elaborates on Twitter: "The truth is any of us who ever ignored the R Kelly stories, or ever believed he was being setup/attacked by the system (as black men often are) were doing so at the detriment of black women and girls. I apologize to all of his survivors for working with him and for taking this long to speak out."
Public pressure continues to mount against Kelly, though he has kept an ardently loyal fan base in some quarters. He has upcoming performance dates scheduled; his music is still played on radio stations and appears on streaming services; and he maintains his recording deal with RCA Records, which is owned by Sony Music Entertainment.
On Jan. 8, Kim Foxx, the state's attorney of Cook County in Illinois, holds a press conference to ask possible victims of domestic violence or sexual assault by the singer to come forward so that her office can start an investigation. CBS2 in Chicago reports that Foxx says of the series, "I was sickened by the allegations. I was sickened as a survivor. I was sickened as a mother. I'm sickened as a prosecutor." (Additionally, there are unconfirmed reports that Fulton County in Georgia is opening its own investigation.)
On Jan. 9, activists gather outside Kelly's Chicago studio to protest and urge prosecutors to investigate the singer in the wake of Surviving R. Kelly.
Also this week, the Chicago Sun-Times reports that at least two women have contacted Foxx's office with complaints regarding Kelly since she made her appeal. Pop star Lady Gaga publicly apologizes via Twitter for having made a 2013 duet with R. Kelly, called "Do What U Want" (the chorus goes, "Do what you want with my body"). She writes, in part:
"I stand behind these women [in the docuseries] 1000% percent. ... As a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and video at a dark time in my life, my intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn't processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life. ... I think it's clear how explicitly twisted my thinking was at the time."
On Jan. 10, Kelly's estranged daughter, Buku Abi (whose given name is Joann Kelly) posts a lengthy note to her Instagram stories responding to the docuseries, in which she calls her father a "monster."
"Devastated is an understatement for all that I feel currently," she writes in part. "I pray for all the families & woman [sic] who have been affected by my father's actions. ... It has been years since my siblings and I have seen and or have spoken to him. ... My mother, siblings, and I would never condone, support or be apart [sic] of ANYTHING negative he has done and or continues to do in his life. Going through all I have gone through in my life, I would never want anyone to feel the pain I have felt. .. The same monster you all confronting [sic] me about is my father. I am well aware of who and what he is."
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