Hollywood Must Stop Enabling R. Kelly and Treating His Abuse as a Punch Line

A new story alleges the R&B superstar is holding numerous women in a ‘cult.’ But reports of Kelly’s sexual predation are nothing new. It’s long past time for Hollywood to listen.

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Monday marks the 16th anniversary of Aaliyah’s greatest musical achievement: her 2001 self-titled album Aaliyah.

Unfortunately, the album isn’t available for purchase online or streaming—along with the bulk of her catalogue, save unfortunately titled debut album Age Ain’t Nothin But a Number.

The sad irony of listening to this album during an insomnious moment at 4 a.m. was not lost on me, as BuzzFeed reported that R&B maestro R. Kelly is allegedly holding women prisoner as part of a sex cult. After all, in 1994 R. Kelly wrote and produced Age Ain’t Nothin But a Number while also marrying a 15-year-old Aaliyah. It’s been 23 years since that illegal marriage, but for some reason R. Kelly still has a career, industry support, and the ability to prey on women.

Jim DeRogatis, who was the first to write about R. Kelly’s predatory relationships with underage girls, reports that the singer is holding young women prisoner in a “cult” at his homes in Georgia and Illinois. The parents have told the police that their daughters (all past the age of consent in their home states) have cut off all contact with them, and several former R. Kelly employees claim he abuses the women verbally and physically, while also controlling every aspect of their lives.

The news—while shocking—is not all that surprising given Kelly’s long history of alleged abuse. What’s also not surprising is that the music industry has remained by his side while he continues to prey on young black women. In addition to his illicit relationship with Aaliyah, there have been numerous civil suits he’s settled, as well as a criminal trial where he was acquitted on 14 counts of child pornography. All of this hasn’t been enough to stop him from headlining events like February’s Soulquarius, where Kelly shared top billing with Erykah Badu, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Brandy, Monica, Kelis, Mya, and 16-year-old Willow Smith, among others.

Most people return to his odd collaboration with Lady Gaga as one of the industry’s most damning examples of a fellow artist providing a platform for an abuser. Their 2013 song “Do What U Want”—with its suggestive refrain “Do what you want, what you want with my body”—reached no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, but its racy music video (directed by another problematic celebrity in photographer Terry Richardson) was pulled because, according to TMZ, “[Gaga] feared blow back since her co-star was once on trial for kiddie porn and her director is in a swirl of controversy over allegedly sexually assaulting or harassing his models.” Gaga and R. Kelly ultimately did turn in a messy performance at the 2013 American Music Awards, parodying Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s Oval Office encounter.

Gaga is an easy target because their song is the most memorable, but let’s also not forget that after “Do What U Want,” Kelly was featured on singles by Justin Bieber, Jennifer Hudson, Kid Ink, and fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper. His 2015 album The Buffet also featured guest appearances from Ty Dolla Sign, Lil Wayne, Jeremih, Jhené Aiko, and Tinashe.

One has to wonder if Kelly’s career might at the very least be in shambles if it were white girls he abused. Bill Cosby, in particular, has an array of white victims that took decades to take him down but his career is more or less over. Kelly has had the same accusations levied against him for decades and yet his career persists. People still sing “Ignition” at karaoke. Schools still have their choirs belt out “I Believe I Can Fly.” In an interview with The Village Voice, DeRogatis once said: “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.” Is it any wonder so many black women still work with Kelly? The same industry that couldn’t care less about them as victims also ignores them as artists.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Many of these aspiring female artists should stop working with Kelly and value their integrity over a paycheck. Many male producers and artists should stop co-signing him. Parents should not try and push their children into fame thinking they can “handle” Kelly if they’re in the room at all times, like one mother, who went by “J.,” said in the BuzzFeed report: “J. said she’d heard about past sexual misconduct accusations against Kelly, but wasn’t overly worried. She is a fiercely devoted stage mom—she and her husband of 22 years, Tim, a car dealer, had moved from Memphis to Atlanta to help their eldest child’s career—and was confident she could protect her daughter.”

Furthermore, when the only criticism from Hollywood is a parody song of Kelly (played by Dave Chappelle) gleefully singing about peeing on girls on Chappelle’s Show, or a foul joke about Kelly pissing on Blue Ivy in Difficult People, you realize that Kelly’s disturbing antics are never treated with the severity that they should, and that the industry has offered up his serial abuse of young girls as a punch line, and not something worthy of  condemnation.

In a public statement on Monday, Kelly’s lawyer Linda Mensch said: “Mr. Robert Kelly is both alarmed and disturbed by the recent revelations attributed to him. Mr. Kelly unequivocally denies such accusations and will work diligently and forcibly to pursue his accusers and clear his name.”

Those words sound like a threat—and one perhaps meant to alarm anyone who attempts to seek justice against Kelly. But as of a couple years ago, Kelly was still singing medleys of his songs on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, so this week, when white male late-night hosts take to their podiums to rant to the choir about how we elected a president who bragged about sexual assault, will they also take the time to address Kelly’s sexual predation? Or will they just make a few piss jokes?